Grace Under Pressure

(Title shamelessly stolen from this terrifically underrated song by Elbow)

 

Today was the men’s tennis final at the French Open. It may not seem especially noteworthy — I mean, they hold one tournament a year, right?? — but here’s the rub: Novak Djokovic, a top-three-ranked player since he was like four years old, has never won at Roland Garros. And if you know anything about tennis, you’ll know Novak Djokovic is No Djok! Get it? Like…phonetics?? Ehhhh.

Instead of Novak winning, Rafa Nadal won his like 999th title (OK, 9th, whatever) — pretty insane. Nadal is basically God’s answer to Roger Federer — if you’ll recall, Roger couldn’t and still can’t win anything where his opponent hits strong and sharp backhands, and Rafa was basically molded from…well, clay to do just that. He’s the perfect clay court player. His nine titles are absurd. He technically started playing professionally in 2002, at the ludicrous age of 15. Rafa was turning pro at 15! Know what I was doing at 15? Turning Japanese. (Get it? I was like, just learning how to masturbate and lamenting how girls were weird and unapproachable.)

The point is: in 2005, Nadal won the French Open, beginning an absurd level of domination we rarely get to see. In 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and now 2014, he also won the French Open. They should basically call the damn trophy the Nadal Cup at this point. I didn’t even bother writing 2010-2014 because I felt like the shorthand would take away from his legitimacy. This is a hilariously retarded run of dominance.

But here’s the thing that really expresses my point: Rafa didn’t win his first US Open until 2010, a mere eight years after he turned pro. And I bet that was emotional for him. One of the key foundations of sportswriting is projecting your feelings onto athletes, especially those that can’t speak your language. By that measure, Andy Murray is the most sympathetic athlete we’ve seen in a long, long time — since we can speak his language, and that language is sadness.

Andy Murray is, by current standards, the eighth-best male tennis player in the world. He has an insane command of the ball, reaching a WTP ranking as high as #2 in 2009. His game has no real weaknesses, and he’s almost literally the ideal tennis player. Which makes this part especially sad:

He’s never won at Wimbledon, his home tournament.

Wait, check that — he totally has. He did in 2013. It was amazing! One of the best moments in the history of tennis, really.

See, Murray is Scottish. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom. Wimbledon is held in London. Via some weirdly annoying transitive property, the pressure of a “hometown” boy not winning the title was transferred to Murray long before he actually won one.

You know what the best part is? He ain’t even care! Seriously, he loved (and probably still loves) the crowd, not putting pressure on himself to do well for their sake but for his own. He’s always found a way to rise above the pressure — especially since his competition for British Tennis Superiority usually ran through Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. Not an especially pleasant group to contend with.

But a funny thing happened in 2012: Murray went on a TEAR. An absolute tear. To say he was beating his opponents belies how insane his tournament was — Murray was simply playing a different game than Karlovic, Ferrer and Tsonga, none of whom were slouches. You can argue he was lucky to face such a group of outcasts on his way to the finals…that’s fine, if you are OK with not knowing how to argue. This was a crazy run.

I prefer to think he was unlucky, though. Unlucky that his opponent in the finals was Federer, the most seasoned veteran possible.

Herein lies the rub, though, and really the point of this whole post: we’ve all seen sore losers in our lives. The professional sports world is sadly rife with them. But Murray, with all of the pressure in the world being projected on him to end the UK’s Wimbledon drought, posted this line:

6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 4-6

 

He won the first set! The crowd was CLEARLY on his side — fuck Federer and his insane dominance of the world, fuck Nadal, fuck Djokovic, fuck everyone. It wasn’t a question of rooting interest, it was one of talent and ability and resilience and the ability to come out ahead on one particular day.

Federer did just that. Murray, with the luxury of being the most rooted-for person outside of Switzerland, still just didn’t have enough on this day to outlast the legendary Roger. It was brutal, much like any hometown hero losing tends to be.

But he lost. And what was his response? This:

 

 

This, folks, is the response of a man who knows his place in the world. He’d come so close to Wimbledon glory so many times that it wasn’t even worth talking about, and he almost immediately grasped the significance of the moment. He was charming, charismatic, deferential and humble — he gave as much credit as possible to Federer for taking the moment that was given to him without ducking away from the idea that this was ANDY’S time to win, that it was ANDY MURRAY who would return Wimbledon glory to the UK. He acknowledges that pressure right away, commenting through tears that he’s “getting closer” — the eventual breakdown showcasing just how much this title would have meant to him.

At least, that WAS the narrative. Until 2013, when Andy Murray bore his entire tennis-playing soul and finally won at Wimbledon, beating Novak Djokovic in straight sets. Rarely has the tennis world — let alone the sports world — been so clearly in favor of one man’s quest to win at anything.

That’s why I bring it up today. Djokovic lost, yet again, in the French Open finals. It’s the one he can’t get — he’s lost twice in the finals to Rafa, that insane Spanish beast, unbeatable on clay — but it’s the one he probably wants most. Battling a stomach flu or whatever, he clearly didn’t look himself today…but that didn’t stop Rafa from mentioning how close Djokovic was to a French Open title. Even in the heat of the moment, Nadal had a sense of the past and future about him — and it’s hard to imagine he’s wrong.

Sports are awesome, sometimes, because they reflect the purest versions of ourselves. Tennis feels no different, and there’s no doubt I’m rooting for Djokovic in the French Open from now until he retires.

 

–jsg

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Grace Under Pressure

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