A couple of nights ago I watched the beginning of a match on the Tennis Channel featuring Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. It was a current match, not something from back in the day when they were serious rivals. I considered watching the whole thing but I got promptly turned off by John’s shtick when he jumped over the net to half-heartedly protest a call. I just wasn’t in the mood for his antics that night. And actually it was kind of sad to watch the way, at his age, he had to studiedly gauge the height and distance of the net, his feet speeding up just so, as he was about to jump over. I held my breath for a moment, fearful that he would fall. There was nothing fluid about his movements. There was nothing spontaneous in his behavior. I swear I could almost hear echoes of Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon", groaning to himself: “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
Borg looked on patiently as John continued with his sad little act. I switched the channel. And I found myself reflecting on the lifespan of sport rivalries. There was a time -- between 1978 and 1981 to be exact -- when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe defined what a true sporting rivalry looked like. They met 14 times during this period winning seven matches each. McEnroe came close to denying Borg a fifth Wimbledon trophy, after winning a fourth set 20 minute tie-break, and saving five match points. But Borg prevailed in the fifth set with a score of 8-6. It was a very close match. It was the stuff of legend. Months later, McEnroe would get his revenge when he bested Borg in five sets at the US Open. Their rivalry became the prototype against which all subsequent match-ups have been measured.
I understand that the sport of tennis needs exciting rivalries but I have always felt that this should be marketed much more to the casual fan than to the diehard followers of the sport. There are some fans who only watch tennis a handful of times a year - usually at Wimbledon and at the US Open. The rest of the year they could give a crap. My daughter is one of those fans. But because she loves me, she has endured much more. And I did give her some bragging rights after I persuaded her to go to the US open with me last year. It’s for fans like her that rivalries ought to be marketed. They get to pick a side - Nadal, because he’s cute and sexy - and that’s it as far as their tennis interest goes.
But I do not mean to minimize or dismiss the importance of the casual fan. It is clear that tennis as a sport cannot survive based on the passion of a few thousand diehards. We need the indifferent masses to care enough to support ESPN during Slam season. And this is probably best done through clever marketing of sweet rivalries.
And I am not at all intending to suggest that I have never bought into any of these rivalries either. I adored Andre Agassi. I hurt deep inside whenever he lost yet again to Sampras the Android with no personality. I cringed whenever I saw Sampras’ heavy tongue hanging out one side of his mouth as he tried to cool his Mediterranean blood. I turned up my nose whenever Sampras would wipe the sweat off his forehead with one finger. Sure his serve was the American Beauty to which all others should aspire, but did he have to be such a bore? And did he have to spank my darling Agassi on such a regular basis?
Rivalries can be hard when you support the losing side. Rivalries are sweet when your boy is having a good day and faces down the dreaded demon on the other side of the court and wins. Will I ever recover from that 2002 US Open finals that Andre should have won, could have won, had he not given in to that whole deer-in-the-headlights thing he did whenever Sampras was on the other side of the net? I don’t know who was pacing more, me at home or Steffi in the stands.
Which all brings me to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Nadal leads their overall head-to-head 12 to 6. Some have argued that this makes it a blowout, not a rivalry. I disagree. Federer and Nadal have met 14 times in the finals of tournaments. That's a rivalry. They have shared the #s 1 and 2 spots since July 2005. If Nadal is taken out before the final, there is a very good chance that Federer will win it, and vice versa.
But I concede that there is also a lopsided aspect to their rivalry. Initially, it was all Federer. And then it became all Nadal. Currently Nadal is the #1 player in the world, and Federer has been demoted to # 2. But theirs is a rivalry that is in many ways unlike any other.
Log on to any tennis discussion forum and you will note that most fans have clearly taken a side. The rivalry has been extended to comparisons of their girlfriends, with Nadal’s being judged as the younger and sexier while poor Mirka is noted to be growing more matronly by the day. Nadal’s confidence has skyrocketed where Federer’s has seemed to decline. I say “seemed” because I really don’t think it has. I think that it just seems that way when compared with that of his apparent nemesis.
Because listen to any interview of either man and you will never hear a disrespectful word uttered against the other. Their mutual regard seems heartfelt and true. Each one brings their A-game when facing the other. Their match-ups are electrifying regardless of the outcome. Two of their matches - the Hamburg and Wimbledon finals - were voted among the top three best matches of 2008 by viewers of the Tennis Channel.
But both Rafa and Fed have already been spanked in 2009. Nadal lost first in straight sets to Gael Monfils, a wild card entry into the Qatar Open. Gael’s hair seemed as excited as the rest of him by the result. And then Federer lost in three tight sets to Andy Murray. More and more Murray seems to be signaling that he may be the real # 3, not Djokovic who struggled throughout 2008 to penetrate the Rafa-Fed barrier.
Whither this rivalry in 2009? I think it all depends. It depends on how recovered Rafa’s knee really is following his struggles with tendinitis. It depends on how many other players have figured out how to master his lefty spin. It depends on how hungry Federer is to erase Sampras’ record. It depends on whether Federer has managed to add anything new to a repertoire that his opponents have by now thoroughly deconstructed. Look I’m not hedging here. I honestly don’t have a clue what’s going to happen in 2009. I suck at predictions so I’m not even going to try.
What I know for certain is that the Nadal - Federer rivalry is great for tennis. Instead of marketing silly ideas like attaching microphones to coaches so that audiences can listen in to them telling their players, “hit the ball deep into her backhand!”, I’d like to see the sport develop more interesting rivalries. Diehard fans are going to love and appreciate both Federer and Nadal. But for fair-weather fans like my daughter, the sport needs rivalries that they can sink their teeth into.
Which brings me to the second change I would like to see in tennis. For both singles and doubles, for both the men and the women, I would like to see the cultivation of more meaningful and interesting rivalries.
(Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer help launch the 2009 ATP World Tour with a unique game of tennis aboard a traditional Arabian Dhow in Doha Bay, Qatar. Photos courtesy EQ Images / ATP World Tour.)