Sports Arena

Grudges and Rivalries

The tennis season begins, and even far away from Melbourne, it teaches lessons in life.

By 1.30.12

Send to Kindle

What is the difference between a grudge and a rivalry? I happened to be sitting around a table one time and Mr. Lewis Lehrman, a successful businessman and a thoughtful and civic-minded New Yorker who in the view of many observers of our national economic life ought to be Secretary of the Treasury, was trying to keep the discussion civil. Mr. Lewis Lapham, then editor of Harper's, a venerable magazine dating from before the Civil War and whose best-known modern-era editor before Mr. Lapham was Willie Morris, was annoyed because he did not understand why two other guests, Mr. Norman Podhoretz and Professor Robert W. Tucker, were chiding him for being skeptical of their views on foreign policy. He was questioning what the big deal was to be stronger than the Soviets and what this had to do with the security of "the Gulf" and our energy supplies. It was becoming fashionable in those days to bandy around "the Gulf" as if everyone knew where it was and was as familiar to everybody as Flatbush or Bensonhurst. Mr. Podhoretz insisted being number one mattered. In every field, he meant -- science, art, medicine -- although the discussion had taken a dangerously military turn, as the question was what we ought to do if the Soviets put a grip on the Straits of Hormuz. (I did not question the assumption around the table, which was that we all were as familiar with the Straits of Hormuz as we were with the local harbor. Although I wanted to ask if anyone had every seen the Straits of Hormuz, I kept quiet.)

The idea was that if those boys got the Straits of Hormuz in the old half-nelson, we had to react. We had to do something. And it would not be patty cake. We had to show who was number one. This is where I noticed Mr. Lapham was fidgeting.

"What is this about being number one all the time," he asked. He was a magazine man, it was his nature to ask questions.

 "We have to be number one," Mr. Podhoretz said.

"Why?" Mr. Lapham said.

I glanced at Mr. Lehrman, but he was cool as a cucumber. However, Professor Tucker intervened a bit forcefully. He had started it by suggesting there was no reason why we should not use our power to get what we want in the Gulf. He was thinking of oil, but later generations of strategists -- some of whom possibly did not have him as a teacher -- have substituted democracy for oil.

Professor Tucker said, "Why? What do you mean, why? Don't you want to be number one?" It may be a trick of memory, but I think he winked at Mr. Podhoretz. Who was number one, Mr. Lapham or Mr. Podhoretz, magazine-wise? I bit my tongue when I thought I should say they could argue about number two or three, or three and four, if they wanted, because Esquire had published "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" by Gay Talese.

"Why, no, why should I," said Mr. Lapham with admirable modesty. "What would it mean, anyway? In what sense, number one?"

Boy, those New York intellectuals, they were brawlers. Mr. Lapham had a point, however. And even in realms where it is easier to measure number one or number two, such as sports, people keep arguing about who really is number one. There are people for example who think Green Bay, not New York, should be playing against New England. Some people you cannot make happy with real life.

My choice for president of the U.S. is someone with a sense of fair play on the tennis courts who does not feel he has to be number one, so long as he is doing his best to tend to the nation's business, although this may mean not tending to the nation's business, but you know what I mean. Then I might have a shot at the White House courts, which I am told are nicely maintained. But until then I'm good, as we say, with the ones where I play with my friends Kenzall and Val near the Aquatic Gardens. They are nice and quiet and underused so you never wait, though we are still waiting to hear from Mayor Gray about when he is going to put up some lights and fix the clubhouse. He does not answer his mail. He is worried about being indicted, so he has an excuse. Val and I think indictment shmindictment, the hell with criminalizing politics, we'll just run Kenzall against him. Or Marion. That will fix him.

However, speaking of tennis, Roger Federer has a long-standing rivalry with Rafael Nadal, the Man of the Mancha, excuse me Majorca. Friends -- they hang out -- there is nonetheless something. It would seem to be a rivalry -- many years at the top of the Tour, they often competed with each other, with the Spaniard getting more wins than the Swiss when they met in tournament finals. In recent years, with the rise of Andy Murray, a Scot, and Novak Djokovic, a Serb, they have not always been the last two standing. In fact, sometimes neither one has been standing, although usually Nadal was.

This means that to be in the elite of today's game you must come from a country whose name starts with s. It also means that to win in today's game you must be in superb condition. Watching (thanks to television, which also gave us Dan Rather) Djokovic overwhelm David Ferrer (another Spaniard, another s) in the quarters of the Australian Open, you stopped counting the breathtaking defensive saves the man makes, followed by tactical finesse to get back on the attack after one or two exchanges, and then the attack, putting the ball where the other guy ain't, and end of point. He plays a game of movement and surprise that if it so exhausting to watch, think of what it must be like to compete against. It is in the 90s in Australia these days, which is not hot hot, as Whoopi Goldberg might say, it is quite warm. They wear caps, visors, clothes made of featherweight materials. The spectators do without coats and ties.

David Ferrer, who is highly ranked, gave Djokovic a fight for two sets, just as Tomas Berdych -- who is Czech, that is a country with a c -- gave Nadal a run for his money for two sets, too. But two sets was all. In the third, Djokovic and Nadal, in their respective matches, went to levels where their opponents could not follow. Very different in their playing styles, the Serb playing with tactical finesse that the Majorcan tends to eschew in favor of relentless baseline defensive play followed by deep hard winners at the opportune moment. They go after almost anything. They will reach it. They will hit it back where no shot is supposed to go.

Ferrer and Berdych just could not keep up with this. Against each other, they both did keep up -- for six hours of testing each other's will and skill.  Roger Federer, in his prime -- but, precisely, many observers think the man still is in his prime, the last two years of sub-prime notwithstanding -- moved with no less energy, but because he moved with so much more grace ("classic form" is the tennis term), and because he had such an unsurpassed ability to control the point (forcing your opponent to respond to your shots and choosing the moment to "put it away"), he sometimes makes observers forget what a fantastic athlete he is, too. In the semifinal match with Nadal, the critical question was whether Federer would maintain control of the point over three sets. You need three out of five. Federer had not dropped a set through the tournament. This itself was evidence of his control, his foresight (saves energy, limits risk of injury, maintains mental focus), the return to prime. Note that "sub-prime," in his case, means not being number one and not winning a Slam (major) in 2011.

Federer and Nadal were head to head rivals in the '00s, but with the emergence of Djokovic and Murray into the top four, there has been the faintest hint of a grudge on Nadal's part. A rivalry is where you say, I want the same thing you want and I am going to get it because I am better than you. A grudge is I want what you have and you are keeping me from getting it and not necessarily because you are better, although objectively someone is better (hence Professor Tucker, "Don't you want to be Number One, Lewis?" and Mr. Lapham refusing to be baited, holding no grudges, implying a rivalry with these-all -- he is from San Francisco, star reporter on the Herald before a long and distinguished career in magazine journalism -- is not of any interest. But Professor egged him on, you either do want it -- a rivalry -- or you are grudging Norman his fame, though in what circles? Did Lewis want fame in the same circles? No one asked.)

Basically, the grudging note crept in because Nadal did not possess his Number One status as long as Federer had possessed his, due to the field suddenly becoming more crowded. You should'a shared more when we was the two of us, but you hogged it, and now there be three, four. No one can prove this thought crossed his mind. It was certainly apparent in his countenance that it was Djokovic toward whom he felt animosity when the Serb beat him (and decisively) at Wimbledon last year, but was that the animosity of rivalry or the beginning of a grudge?

Did Nadal then re-direct his feeling toward Federer because, somehow, it is sometimes easier to get mad at your pal than at a dangerous upstart you do not know as well nor how far he may go? As the Australian Open got under way, Rafa told a Spanish sportswriter that it was not white of Roger (this is a free translation) to let other players, like the interviewee, carry the bags of the players' grievances vis-à-vis the professional associations and tournaments, thus appearing to be malcontents, while he stood back and acted the magnanimous sportsman. This fit of petulance, out of school complaining, is not attractive. Stiff upper lip and all that, and no dirty laundry in public. Observe that there is nothing contemporary about this, even if our contemporary culture makes a virtue of épater le bourgeois, though there is a smelly hint that for a long time now nothing has been more bourgeois than to want to épater le bourgeois.

If Nadal grudged Federer for having been dominant more decisively and enduringly than he got a chance to be before being upstaged by another rising player, it emerged in the suggestion that Federer was letting others do the grunt work on players' issues while keeping the princely role to himself. But nothing came of this. Both men insisted nothing had changed in their mutual admiration society and they proceeded to sweep everything before them before facing each other in the semis, which Nadal won decisively in four sets.

This came as a surprise due to the quality of Federer's game until then. He seemed to be more in control of his game -- and his opponents' -- than any one else. To be sure, the other Four Tops were doing very well. For a moment between rounds there was talk of the Australian teenage sensation Bernard Tomic challenging Roger Federer; no doubt he was playing great tennis and showing a form that suggests he already understands raw power will not be enough as he scales the heights of the sport. But Federer dispatched him in three easy sets, then repeated in the quarter against Juan del Potro, who as a young sensation beat him in the 2009 U.S. Open final. Yet when the time came to face Nadal, he just could not set the momentum, determine the agenda, control the point.

The same thing was apparent in Andy Murray's tournament. He seemed unstoppable -- until Novak Djokovic stopped him in the semis. The rest is history -- Nole and Rafa played the longest match in the history of the Australian Open, nearly 6 hours of nail-biting saves of point which -- I confess -- I watched on a television screen in the Charlotte, N.C. airport, while waiting for a transfer to a destination which is of no consequence at the moment. It evoked all the great finals of yore -- Federer-Roddick at Wimbledon 2009, for example. What bothers me, though, is that this dramatic match, in which Nadal was leading in the fifth set at 4-2 on serve, did not resolve the issue that transcends rivalries and allows us to say who really should be number one. The historical reality is that Djokovic usually beats Murray and Nadal usually beats Djokovic, and Murray is sort of a wild card in final four set ups. What if Federer had played Djokovic in the semis? And Murray-Nadal? Then it would have been different.

But with would have been's you can build castles in Spain.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.