I watched Roger Federer play tennis in the Wimbledon Final, and I’m genuinely embarrassed to say that it was the first time I watched him play for any significant amount of time. Shame on me. But it’s my loss, of course. Federer locked horns with his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, and for four sets the no. 2-ranked Nadal gave Federer everything he could handle.
It was wonderful, gripping action on Wimbledon’s grass. And shame on me again, for only getting around to writing about it now. But it should never be old news when Federer and Nadal get it on.
Both men returned volleys that nobody had any business sniffing, let alone getting a racket on them. And let alone depositing them for winners — which both Federer and Nadal did with fascinating regularity.
It wasn’t until the fifth set — Federer usually doesn’t do five-setters — that Nadal wore down, mainly due to a knee injury. And despite making far more unforced errors than his opponent, Federer collapsed onto the court a victor, winner of his fifth straight Wimbledon title. The emotions of the match got the best of him, and he sobbed openly, weeping in gratitude to the tennis gods that he was able to survive Nadal, who still holds an 8-5 advantage over Federer in head-to-head matchups.
Oh, and one more thing: John McEnroe is OK in my book. Mac is an excellent TV analyst — subtle yet efficient in his breakdowns. I got almost as much of a kick listening to him tell me what just happened, and why, and what might happen next, as I did watching the two on-court combatants.
But there was no replacement for what I witnessed Sunday. I tuned in by accident, looking for “Meet the Press.” Then I got sucked in by the quality of tennis I was seeing. And I didn’t need Johnny Mac to know that what was happening was special — top drawer stuff.
Folks raved about the prospects of Federer-Nadal matches in the near future. It had them recalling the theater that was Bjorn Borg (who Federer tied with his 5th straight Wimbledon) against Jimmy Connors (or McEnroe himself), and Pete Sampras against Andre Agassi.
Which got me to thinking: is Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal the best one-on-one rivalry going on in sports today? Is it among the best ever?
Don’t let the smiles fool you (Federer, left; Nadal, right)
Those questions I’ll let YOU answer. Meanwhile, here are some other personal rivalries that should be considered (in no particular order):
Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell. The mano-a-mano matches between these two great NBA centers are legendary. Russell generally gets the nod over The Stilt because of his lopsided advantage in championships. But Chamberlain, don’t forget, led his Sixers in 1967, breaking the Celtics’ streak at nine in a row. And, most likely, only a Chamberlain-led team would have been able to extricate the NBA from Boston’s stranglehold.
Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson. Laugh if you must, but if Woods has any rival, it certainly must be the lefty Mickelson, who’s been the only other winner on the tour with any sort of consistency. But maybe a better rivalry is…
Tiger Woods-Tiger Woods. Now that “real” life is squarely in the picture (read: wife and baby), maybe Woods’s toughest challenger is Woods himself. Stay tuned.
Ted Williams-Joe DiMaggio. These two had too much admiration for each other to call themselves rivals, but all indicators are that they were. First, there was the Yankees-Red Sox thing, for starters. Then there was their dueling season of 1941, when Williams hit .406 and DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak — and snagged the AL MVP Award over Williams, which rankled Teddy Ballgame a bit. One was righthanded, the other lefty swinging. It was said that if they had swapped home ballparks, both their numbers would have been off the charts — if Joe D. could have hit in Fenway Park with the oh-so-close Green Monster, and Williams had the short right field porch of Yankee Stadium as his home field.
LeBron James-Dwyane Wade. It’s not a stretch to say that these two will be swapping appearances in the NBA Finals for as long as they both play in the Eastern Conference.
Johan Santana-Justin Verlander (or Jeremy Bonderman). Sit back and enjoy these pitchers carving up the American League for years to come — and in the same division, to boot.
Johnny Unitas-Bart Starr. This wasn’t much of a match statistically-speaking (Unitas was by far the better passer), but in terms of dominating the NFL in the 1960s as team leaders, these two were untouched. Starr’s Packers won five championships, Unitas’s Colts one, in the decade. But the Colts were always contenders.
Gil Thorp-Tank McNamara. Two comic greats: the square-jawed, straight-laced Thorp, and the bumbling, played-for-laughs McNamara. Usually you either like one or the other.
Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson. Some rivalries are actually feuds.