“Greatest final ever.”
I don’t think I have ever heard that description used for matches that have happened in my lifetime. Some have been memorable, like Hingis combusting at Roland Garros against Graf, or suffering heat-induced hysteria against J-Cap Down Under; or Sampras barfing on the court (and winning!) against Corretja at the U.S. Open. But not until Nadal vs. Federer have I experienced such a significant and well-played match in 12 years of following tennis.
[I didn’t get to see the last two sets live. I was driving to Vegas to see Bette Midler play at Caesar’s Palace!]
And the stars aligned last Sunday, giving our under-appreciated sport (at least in the U.S.) a chance to show the world why we obsess.
So — why this match?
1) Roger’s run had to end. The World No. 1 was vulnerable more than ever, following his shaky 2007 (multiple losses to David Nalbandian and Guillermo Canas) with an unbelievable 2008 that saw him lose to Nole in Australia and go without a title until Estoril. The media sensed blood and fed the insecurity. Federer pushed back, reminding the press that “his time” comes on the faster surfaces at Wimbledon and throughout the North American hardcourts. It somehow didn’t click in my mind that he was speaking the truth.
2) The French Open final. We didn’t think that Nadal would win his fourth French Open title so quickly — and with a bagel in the third set! If anything, it indicated that Roger’s level of play lagged against Rafa’s.
2) God bless the rain. At least on the west coast, the bad weather played a part in Rafa-mania. If it wasn’t for this, the match would have been over by 9am. on a Sunday. when we’re all still asleep. The fact the eight-hour coverage stretched into the late morning (and the afternoon for the East Coast) guaranteed that more people would be watching. And it worked.
3) The media-friendly Rafael Nadal. We here at TSF aren’t really into the Mallorcan. Too muscle-y, too much hair, an unconventional fashion sense. People go gaga over him, though, and he knows how to work it: he’s blogged for the ATP website multiple times and even reprised his role as columnist for The Times at Wimbledon. A tennis player writing about Wimbledon — shouldn’t that have been Roger’s deal?
Here are the media stats for the match and its aftermath: Sports Illustrated put Rafa and Roger on the cover this week (Jon Wertheim described the match as “a four-hour, 48-minute infomercial for everything right and virtuous about tennis”). NBC’s numbers were up 44% from last year, and this match was the highest featuring non-Americans since the 91 final between Stich and Becker. The official tournament website drew 11.7 unique visitors over the fortnight, which is 3 million more people than in 2007. They viewed nearly 300 million pages in 46 million visits spending an average of 70 minutes per visit. Tennis.com had 1.5 million unique visits during the tournament, a 57% increase in daily uniques over last year. On the day of the final, they had 105% audience increase from last year.
This is a very important time in tennis. We have the world’s attention. TMZ.com is blogging about Nadal. We’re on the cover of SI. Before this week we only made the news for match-fixing or getting booted from the tour for alleged cocaine use. Our mainstream ambassadors were either retired greats (Borg, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi) or ones who I begrudgingly embraced (the title-less Anna Kournikova). Now we have a compelling sport with a player who wins Grand Slams (on multiple surfaces), can make the women and men swoon, and has excellent media appeal.
But while we are all about toasting Nadal, let’s not forget to thank Roger Federer for getting us there.
He brought press to tennis with his amazing talent and his glamorous life. In New York, he created a synergy with the fashion industry by getting Anna Wintour to ditch a fashion show for the U.S. Open. He sat front row at the Valentino show, and has Gavin and Gwen sit in his box on a regular basis.
Roger also brought buzz through his relationship with Tiger Woods. We watched from afar as they transformed their insular careers into a fraternity of athletic elite. What do you think they texted each other?
The focus shifted from celebrating a potential GOAT to turning him into the scapegoat for our sport. As the win-loss percentage hugged ever-so-close to the high 90s, we wanted to see more scalps. We cheered him on to greatness but secretly expected him to fall. The story is more compelling that way.
I really hope that this does good things for our sport. Tape up those knees, Rafa. And ease up on that tourney schedule of yours. We want you to have the long career that you deserve.
And Roger, we haven’t forgotten about you yet. You’ll break Sampras’ record and have your place in the Hall of Fame. You’ll rack up a few more titles and stay around for a few more years. Think of it this way: it must have been lonely at the top. Now, you have company.
(additional info from Liza Horan/tenniswire.org)