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In the Year of the Djokovic

September 12, 2011


Tennis is such a weird sport, not because of what takes place during a match, but because of what takes place at center court after the match. No other sport makes the loser share the stage with the new champion. I mean, there's golf, but in golf, your opponent is as much the course as it is the other players, and it's not like the Olympics where everyone stands on pedestals and can hide, inactively, behind the notes of a national anthem. No, in tennis, not only do you stand close enough to hear your oppressor kissing the metal trophy that you wish you'd won, but you have to give a speech, like some sort of puppet President explaining to the local populace that the foreign tanks in their front yards are nothing to fear, that absolutely nothing about the new regime is any different than the old regime. It's awkward. It's strange. And, perhaps, it's why tennis players are some of the most fascinating athletes in sports--they have to actually accept defeat, to an extent, or risk alienating millions.

A year after defeating Novak Djokovic in the 2011 U.S. Open Final, Raphael Nadal had to, for the second time in a Grand Slam this year, stand next to tennis' new golden sun and behave graciously in defeat. The Bad Boys didn't have to attend the Chicago Bulls' trophy presentations, and in the nineties, the Cowboys and 49ers didn't take turns making speeches for one another when they failed to clinch a Super Bowl birth. In other sports, you may have to shake hands, hug it out, or send an innocuous text message, but you don't have to sit on the first row, fighting back tears, maintaining a calm exterior, and refraining from profanities. No, you go to your locker room and beat the shit out of a trash can and drop bows on the paper towel dispenser, and not only do you do that--but there are probably others there doing all of that at the same time also. You commiserate in the shared agony of the group, but a tennis player has no companions that aren't also his/her opponents. And for that, I feel sorry for them.

As much as I admire their innate ability to surround themselves with hot wives, sisters, and girlfriends, I feel sorry for them when they have to face not only the awkwardness of a trophy presentation but the media after every single loss, alone. A lot of people pity Chris Webber because after calling a timeout when his team had none (and traveling) he had to face the media, but hasn't that been Andy Roddick's entire tennis career--a constant nonstop explanation as why he's just not good enough to be great. Yes, Webber may have let a team down, but he also has a team's collective identity to hide behind. Where does an Andy Roddick go to hide?

And then maybe there's something to those awkward center court meetings that makes victory that impossible act of stepping through a mirror into an alternate reality; after all, it was on the same court a year ago that Djokovic gave the runner-up's congratulatory remarks and thank you's, while Nadal took a bite out of the trophy. Perhaps in the switching of places there is a simple understanding to be found in the idea that one's ranking within the pack is determined by hustle, miles per hour, and one's birthdate in relation to their fellow competitors. In other words, what tennis player ever won a tournament because his/her ascent did not intersect perfectly with another's descent?

All of Raphael Nadal's efforts tonight were in vain, but the weird thing about it was: he didn't even look old in defeat. He just looked like a guy who came in second. Djokovic was so good that he did all of gravity's work on his own.


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