There’s the official, legal, annual, I don’t know what you call it calendar. The one that starts on January 1st. And then there’s my personal calendar. Call it the academic year calendar even though it’s years since I’ve been in school. That calendar starts on or about a week after Labor Day.
I prefer to live in a world that begins afresh in September, includes school vacations, and affords the summer off. Obviously, you can’t swing that as an adult unless you’re a teacher. But the conceit lends focus and a touch of grace to your life. I mean, who can go full out twelve months a year? I mean, why bother?
And for me the dividing line, the sign that a new psychological season is upon us, isn’t shortening days or falling leaves but the recently concluded Grand Slam tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, NY.
It’s the perfect vehicle to transition from summer to fall. The tournament begins with hundreds of players whacking balls amid an orgy of fast foot and t-shirt buying opportunities – your average summer resort; and it ends with the finals and but two people left fighting over the trophy, avatars of the focus and steely discipline that will be required in the coming months as you embark on your own effort to achieve professional dreams and personal glory, or just an uninterrupted paycheck.
While this commentary may sound as if it’s heading in the direction of a tribute to hard work or the colors of autumn it’s actually an argument that tennis is the greatest spectator sport, and perhaps the greatest sport, period, that humankind has ever devised. Even though I’ve lately heard it described as a “niche” sport.
Exhibit A is the finals at this year’s Open, the five-set roller coaster between Rafael Nadal and 23-year-old Russian newcomer Daniil Medvedev. It culminated in Nadal’s victory, leaving him only one Grand Slam victory behind Roger Federer, often referred to as the “Greatest of All Time”.
But might that judgment need to be reconsidered if Nadal surpasses Federer’s twenty career Grand Slams, as well he might since he’s five years younger?
For those who didn’t see the match or don’t follow tennis Nadal took the first two sets and it looked like he was going to roll over the Russian in three. But then Medvedev rallied and won the next two sets, leading to a decisive fifth set.
The women’s final occurred the previous afternoon with Bianca Andreescu, a 19-year-old Canadian decisively beating Serena Williams, sometimes considered the greatest athlete – forget tennis – of all time in two sets.
The tournament takes place the final week in August and the first week of September. But it’s actually a three-week tournament because there are several days of qualifying matches with 128 men and women battling it out -- just for a spot in the main draw.
So to find yourself in the final of the whole thing is no small accomplishment. The fact that every Grand Slam title in the last three years has been won by Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic speaks not just to their greatness as players but to something more.
What made this year’s men’s final so riveting is that intangible something was on vivid display. It what separates a champion, especially a repeat champion, from the average genius athlete.
After winning the second two sets the momentum was clearly on Medvedev’s side of the court. More than that, he was matching Nadal’s shot making and even his warrior spirit.
The match could have gone either way. But it usually doesn’t when Nadal, Federer or Djokovic are involved.
Simply stated, they refuse to loose.
Of course they can. Occasionally they do, in recent years usually to each other. But my argument for what makes tennis the greatest of all sports is that there’s no other sport where you can witness someone’s heart and soul in such stark relief.
You realize that in the end it doesn’t come down to money – even though this year’s male and female winners pocketed a $3.85 million check – or fame or product endorsements. It’s sheer grit. Obviously that’s on display in other sports, too. But most of them are team sports where an individual’s accomplishments aren’t independent of the contributions and accomplishments of his or her teammates. In football, the players’ faces are actually hidden behind helmets. You can’t see their expressions. For all you know they may be suffering or smiling.
Tennis is a single warrior sport and while it’s only a sport it also serves as metaphor for the triumph of the individual over the odds, odds that at moments seem insurmountable. When a great champion triumphs he or she seems something more than mortal. That’s part of why we watch. They may even motivate us to reach for the stars, too.
Most of us don’t possess that talent or determination. But all of us are confronted with challenges that test our spirits, that turn on us finding a gear that perhaps even we didn’t know we have.
Nadal didn’t know he was going to win. But he finally did, 6-4 in the fifth set, after four hours and fifty minutes.
And I’m ready to face the fall hoping that had work will yield somewhat similar results, if not necessarily a $3.85 million dollar paycheck.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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