Sports Arena

London Town Tennis

Sportsmanship and fair play prove to be real masters.

By 12.2.10

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Had you asked, I would have said Rafael Nadal was the likely winner of last week's tennis tournament at London. I was mistaken. However, Mr. Tyrrell said he was mistaken on the matter of airport strip searches.

Roger Federer's last match of the season proved to be the fitting end to an absolutely masterful -- 'tis the word -- end to the Masters World Tour Final, the tournament which the professional association, the ATP, markets as something akin to the playoffs in other sports. The man from Basel dominated everybody, and even after Rafael Nadal won the second set of their final, no one doubted the outcome. Though to be sure, the whole enigma of Mr. Federer's game this year has been his tendency to lose control at the last moment -- to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, which is sort of like shooting yourself in the foot. Like a Republican -- whoops, sorry, no politics.

London's astonishing (as a tennis venue) O2, is located on the site of the Millennium Dome and serves, somewhat like the Bercy center in Paris (where the players were coming from) as an all-purpose sports arena and music hall. It reminds me of Peter Hitchens' melancholic theme of the land of hope and glory being on the skids. The sound system is designed for rockers, the lights can blind you if you are not careful; the spectators evidently believe they are watching football.

Well, whachagondo, play matches at Albert Hall? Let us be charitable: it works. I nurture somber thoughts about the uses of big time professional sports to keep people distracted, but if it pleases them, what business is it of mine? Why complain? Why be a spoilsport?

It is likely Mr. Federer let Mr. Nadal pull away in the second set because he saw that the man from Majorca was worn out by his magnificent match against Andy Murray in the previous day's semis. The Masters series are played in three sets, but this one went longer than most five-setters in one of the best matches of the year on the Tour. There was a fantastic come-from-behind by Mr. Nadal in the third, a feat he repeated in the tiebreaker. Even the spectators, largely on Mr. Murray's side, gasped and cheered. (Admirable English fair play; yes, there is hope for England.) Mr. Murray gasped and cheered. Oh, Rafa scaled another mountain that day, boomed shots back against one of the game's strongest servers, passed him at the net, never quit even as he lost on points.

The natural tendency is to return a serve cross court, because it's all you can do to hit it back. But here he was, smashing it down the line to force Mr. Murray to race sideways and then getting an inside-out forehand on the return of the return to keep up the pressure. And it really was not a case of Mr. Murray snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: he played as well or better than he ever has against Mr. Nadal. In the last tie break, arguably, he shot himself in the foot, tripping while going after a point (which he lost). Close observers said he seemed to be in some pain during the next two, which he dropped, and with them the match. But, Scot -- and Briton -- that he is, he never complained, only complimented Mr. Nadal afterwards and, in the classic manner of sportsmen, thanked him for giving him the chance to play such fine tennis.

Keeping this in mind -- he himself had no trouble with Novak Djokovic in his semi -- Mr. Federer must have noticed that his Main Competition would falter, for once. Generally, Mr. Nadal does not falter -- rather, he gets second winds. But even when you are 24, a tough game is a tough game, and the Masters is a tough grind, with no rest for the weary. Recuperative powers, scientific nutrition, whirlpool after work, chiro-therapists and yogis on call, the whole caboodle of contemporary sports armature cannot overcome the body's inevitable limitations, and the fact is that Mr. Federer was more rested and less strained, had deeper reserves than Mr. Nadal, as they began the third set. And this time, unlike time after time during this season, including a particularly galling fifth set snatch of defeat from the jaws of victory in the U.S. Open (to Mr. Djokovic, who happens to be one of the best natured and funniest players on the Tour and who will lead Serbia in next week's Davis Cup final in Belgrade), he made no mistakes. Swiss precision. Patek-Philippe and fondue. 6-1 and match.

I am well aware that I said mean things in this space about the whole ATP scoring and tournament system, their incomprehensible rankings and the damage they are doing to this sport. And I do not even refer to the crass hucksterism, which is in the grand tradition of free enterprise capitalism. Although of course so is Pashtun drug trafficking, but let us leave international relations out of this, there must be a reason why we are dealing -- if you follow -- with those Afghan rug salesmen and when we snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the Great Game, we'll have the last laugh.

However, I said these mean things but if Mr. Tyrrell can change his views on the TSA and airport security, then surely I can change mine of the Ass'n of Tennis Professionals and their particular racket. I have never beat Mr. Tyrrell at tennis, not so much as one set have I taken from him. He was a star athlete at Indiana.

To tell you the truth, I disagree with him, as I do with Mr. Sean Hannity and certain others on the conservative side, on this airport security fiascoimbroglio. I happen to think we should be much tougher. Passengers should be required to line up not one minute later than six hours before their flights and they should be prepared for some serious investigations into their luggage, their clothes, their personalities, and their political views. But we should also go to the source. If airplane and other downtown bombers come from Somalia, well -- goodbye Somalia. Goodbye Nadal. Swiss rules, baby. Have you ever been strip-searched in Basel? It happened to me, folks. Next time I am transiting through Milan.

But not to mix things up, Rafa Nadal is one of the glories of contemporary tennis and he had a glorious season. He tends to the noisy side during points, but he is a class act as a sportsman, always courteous and generous with his opponents, old school, caballero. He disdained the excuse of fatigue in London, complimenting the victor ("He played better.") Maybe the ATP ranking system is not the Rube Goldberg scheme it appears to the naked eye -- the naked eye, whose limitations are why we just have to learn how to get the terrorists with their pants down, with or without the aid of sophisticated equipment. However, as some kind of season-ending playoff, the Masters Final (which will be held in London again next year and the year after and which habitually has been won by Mr. Federer), worked out, to my pleasant surprise. Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Federer were indeed the year's best and they were the last four standing. Roddick, Soderling, Berlych and Ferrer were eliminated in the first round, and it seems improbable any of the other champions, not invited to this playoff, would have done better.

And so what? Does this make Roger Federer tennis world champion? On the other hand, the way things are in high-level sports these days, do you really think the San Francisco Giants are the world champions? Well, there's your answer.

So Roger's tops, again. London's always worth the trip, and it is easy to get to the O2 by tube. See you in Belgrade, baby, and let's hope they restored the electricity. I should add that although it is true I have never taken a set from Mr. Tyrrell, we never played, neither. Sports writing is always a stretch, but hey, there's limits. 

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About the Author

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