Columns, Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: One last slam

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Tennis is the sort of sport, like soccer, that hasn’t quite managed to intoxicate Americans the way, say, football or basketball have. It is, after all, a European import, lacking any of the violent drama or masculine desperation that characterize much of American sports. Indeed, tennis matches feel less like conflicts and more like performances of ballet — graceful, elegant and, without fail, superlatively decent.

Last Sunday morning, while most Americans were still asleep, that show of decency and austere pursuit of excellence was on full display during the finals of the Australian Open. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — the unforgettable elder statesmen of tennis — had both staged improbable comebacks, overcoming injuries and a slate of healthier opponents to reach the final round. Federer had not won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2012 and was fresh off a six-month break from the tour; Nadal had ended his 2016 season early, thanks to a disappointing recovery (though he managed to make a comeback for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro). That these two rivals would face-off once again, perhaps for the last time, in the finals of a Grand Slam tournament was a much-needed miracle.

Federer and Nadal are no strangers to each other. Their careers are intimately entwined; before the final, they had played 34 times, with Nadal leading their head-to-head record 23-11. From 2006 to 2008, they enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the tour, playing in the finals of every French Open and Wimbledon. In January 2017, Federer and Nadal (both above the age of 30) played as if their age and physical decay were mere fictions — as if the clocks could be turned at will back to their glorious primes.

The match itself was deserving of the anticipation. Federer effortlessly dished out his famous forehands and Nadal exhibited his ferocious style of play. In the fifth set, Federer found himself down three games to none, and clawed his way back to win the match with a forehand winner. It was classic tennis — the kind that leaves you in sequence, crestfallen, energized, disappointed and, at the very end, in absolute awe.

But that isn’t why I found the Australian Open finals so invigorating. Good tennis — good athletics, really — can be found anywhere. The match didn’t just offer a magnificent piece of athletic achievement, it offered something far scarcer: decency. It was this decency, this profound acknowledgement of mutual dependence, that animated the play of archrivals Federer and Nadal and really got to me. In his acceptance of the winner’s trophy, Federer said, “Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws, but if there were, I would have been happy to share it with Rafa.”

My heart melted when I heard that. Whose wouldn’t?

In moments of crisis and hardship, it is tough to find reasons to believe that humans — endowed with an inexorable fascination with cruelty — are capable of redemption. Our societies are too divided to promote an inclusive vision. Our leaders are too good at marshaling our worst instincts. And, too often, our governments enable us to indulge those instincts, scot-free.

In this time of uncertainty and disaffection, the Australian Open provided a short relief: the resplendent resurgence of old champions, battered by their age and competition, yet thoroughly unwilling to yield to the forces that haunt them. There is, of course, a subtle lesson in all this. We may not be perfect; we will stumble and fall and suffer grave disappointments. But the measure of our decency stems not from where we are now, but how humbly we admit our shortcomings, and how scrappily we claw our way to where we wish to go. The match is a telling reminder that we can rise above our differences, rivalries and innate competitiveness with grace and compassion.

After winning his semifinal match, Federer told an interviewer that, when he was in Mallorca a couple of months ago for the opening of Nadal’s tennis school, “I was on one leg. (Nadal) had the wrist injury. And we were playing some mini-tennis with some juniors and we’re like, ‘This is the best we can do right now.’” 

Thank God that wasn’t true.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.