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Court Rivalries Make Tennis History at Wimbledon

July 7, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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At the Wimbledon championship, tennis rival took to the court, where Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer, who had won for the past five years, while Venus Williams defeated her sister, Serena. A sports reporter describes the event.
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was an epic battle, immediately dubbed one of the greatest matches in tennis history.

TELEVISION ANNOUNCER: That is amazing!

JEFFREY BROWN: And when it was over, the challenger, 22-year-old Rafael Nadal of Spain, had vanquished five-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer of Switzerland.

TELEVISION ANNOUNCER: It is official, a changing of the guard at Wimbledon.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two rivals dueled back and forth through five sets, complete with acts of God — there were two rain delays — and incredible acts of man — powerful serves, slashing shots, and stirring rallies.

Yesterday’s match followed an all-Williams women’s final Saturday, as Venus Williams experienced the thrill of victory at Wimbledon for the fifth time and the agony, or at least the ambivalence, of defeating her younger sister, Serena.

VENUS WILLIAMS, pro tennis player: She’s my little sister, and I love her so much. So that makes it tough, because I don’t want her to lose, but I still want to win.

JEFFREY BROWN: The sisters did team up to win the women’s doubles title.

Changing of the guard at Wimbledon?

JEFFREY BROWN: Jon Wertheim just got off the plane from London where he witnessed Wimbledon's wonderful weekend. He's a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and joins us now.

Well, Jon's, it's rare for anything in life to live up to expectations, but yesterday's match seems to have done that. How do you explain it?

JON WERTHEIM, Sports Illustrated: I think it surpassed expectations, which were quite high to begin with. No, I try to be pretty level-headed about these things, but I think I'm saying unequivocally this was the greatest match ever played.

It was just -- you had this collision of factors. You had wonderful, high-quality tennis. You had drama. You had this terrific context of this rivalry. And you put it all together, the match ended in near darkness, and it was just magical. This was sort of what tennis needed. And it was, again, I say this without reservation, the greatest match ever played.

JEFFREY BROWN: And rarely do you get that moment where you see so clearly the king getting knocked off, you know, and the commentators were talking about maybe, at least, a changing of the guard.

JON WERTHEIM: Yes, that was part of it, that you really had this rich subtext, almost classical, where you had Federer, the five-time champion and sort of this ambitious, this arriviste from Spain, who had come close in the past.

And Nadal, remember, had beaten Federer savagely at the French Open. And the thinking was, well, now Federer would exact his revenge. But when Nadal won not just in Paris, but four weeks later yesterday in London, beating the guy who's won this thing every year since 2002, it really -- you did have a sense there was this transfer of power.

Court surfaces, personas differ

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, explain -- Nadal wins in Paris. That's on clay. Now, for those who don't follow the game, explain the difference in surfaces and how that changes the game and the nature of the winner in this case?

JON WERTHEIM: Right, well, on clay, it's really almost two different sports, people say, that on clay it's much slower, the ball bounces higher, and traditionally players from Spain have done very well on clay. That's the surface they grow up on.

Grass is a slicker surface. The ball plays faster, doesn't bounce as high. And it's really -- this is the first time -- Nadal pulling this off was the first time since 1980 a player had won on both clay and grass in the same year, a male player.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that makes it so interesting is the difference in personalities. Tell us about that.

JON WERTHEIM: Well, it's this classic rivalry, where it plays out well on the court. I mean, they couldn't have more disparate games. But also it's this great contrast of personality, where you have Federer who sort of plays stylish, artistic tennis against Nadal, who's sort of violent and brutish.

There's a difference of age. Federer -- I don't know if people saw on TV. If they watched, they may have noticed he was wearing a belt, whereas Nadal was wearing these pirate pants. And that, really, I think, speaks to their values. Federer has this -- I don't want to say elitism, but this real elegance to him, and Nadal is sort of a grinder.

And you put all this together, left-handed, right-handed, one versus two, these different personalities, and it really just plays out so well. Men's tennis in particular has really lacked this rivalry, really since Borg-McEnroe. And to have it now, it's almost an embarrassment of riches what we have now, where you have two guys, and they've played 18 times now.

Remember, Nadal is only 22 years old, so they're meeting a lot. And it's just been wonderful drama.

JEFFREY BROWN: In spite of the difference in personalities, as best as one can tell from watching them play and then watching the interviews afterwards, I'm always struck -- and I was struck again yesterday -- by they seem at least to be extremely respectful, extremely gracious, extremely humble, even. Is that real?

JON WERTHEIM: No, I think absolutely. I think it's very genuine. And I think -- you know, they're both sports fans outside of tennis. Nadal's uncle was a famous professional soccer player. Federer is a big sports fan. And I think they have a sense that this is really a special rivalry.

And I think just being in there, just having these battles gives them this mutual respect. And, you know, they're meeting so often. And they've been bracketed together. I think they realize that they really have something special going.

Williams family epic in final

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, let's switch to the all-Williams final on Saturday. These two, the two sisters, have not really been ranked at the top of the game for a while, and yet somehow they rise to the top of the game at a moment like this. How do they do that?

JON WERTHEIM: They just have this magical ability to sort of turn it on and turn it off. And they don't play as many tournaments as some of the other players and that hurts their ranking. But I think what they find is that playing less makes them more fresh. You know, they're already -- it's hard to believe that, you know, Venus is 28 years old already and still going strong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-eight. She's an old lady, huh?

JON WERTHEIM: We remember when she -- no, but we remembered when she had beads in her hair and braces. And other players played have very intensely and then burned out. The Williams sisters have played a more sparse schedule, but here they're still going strong.

And they just have this incredible ability to come from nowhere and win these events. And that's what -- I mean, Venus hadn't won a tournament all year, and she comes to Wimbledon, and doesn't even drop a set.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happens when they play each other? There's always been that question of, you know, the ambivalence there, how hard are they playing. What did it feel like on Saturday?

JON WERTHEIM: Well, the quality of tennis was really quite high. I mean, it was a very entertaining match.

But you're right. There's always this -- it sort of wants for tension. Nobody is quite sure for whom to cheer. And they're so exceptionally close that, during the period at Wimbledon, they stayed in the same apartment together. They played doubles together.

It was almost -- in Sports Illustrated, I likened it to a sisters' getaway to Europe. And, hey, at the end, you guys have to play a grand slam final against each other.

So the tennis was quite high, but it's just -- because of the obvious emotions, it just didn't have the real tension that, say, Federer and Nadal did.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, Jon, you mentioned that tennis has needed something like this. It has had a hard time attracting particularly American audiences, so this was a good weekend for the game, I guess?

JON WERTHEIM: Yes, absolutely. I think the question now is whether this can be parlayed into continued success, you know, much like a player would. But, no, it was a great 48 hours for tennis, no question.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, thanks very much.

JON WERTHEIM: Thank you.