The year was 2001 (much more than a space odyssey) – the setting was centre court at Wimbledon – the round of 16 for the men included a 19-year-old newcomer named Roger Federer playing the 29-year-old four time defending Wimbledon champion, an American named Pete Sampras. Since I have been in tennis withdrawal for the past two months without my favorite clay court season in the spring, I tuned in to the Tennis Channel this afternoon and stumbled on to one of their Tennis Classics which happened to be this passing of the guard match on the green grass of the hallowed grounds of the All England Club in London. Federer, whose career over the past twenty years has earned him the title Greatest of All Time by some, beat Sampras in five sets that afternoon but lost in the quarter finals that year. The match deserved inclusion in the Tennis Channel Classics – wow.
Whether the surface is a hard concrete one, one made of red clay or manicured green grass, the goal is the same: to win. To beat someone. To play better, smarter and mentally tougher than the opponent. To be more physical and aggressive. To charge the net when an opening appears. To cover the baseline when the shots go deep against you. The court is a battlefield where the scales of justice are often tipped by net cords and fractions of inches along white lines. The game is tennis.
For men who play singles, the winner is usually required to win two of three sets. In Grand Slam (French Open, Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open) events, however, the rules change to the best three of five sets to determine the champion. If each man wins two sets, a fifth set is played. The fifth set is often the scene of one man’s surrender and loss to another man’s courage and inner strength. The first four sets are evenly played, but the last one is too much for the body, mind, will or all of the above for one of the guys and the desire to win or to not lose drives his opponent to victory.
I love fifth sets. I particularly like them when they are close and long, and I’m not even paying for my seat in front of the television set. Nope, I’m watching for free, but I have the Deluxe Box seats and have seen my share of Grand Slams in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York City. From my ABCs of Agassi to Becker to Connors to my current personal favorites of Federer and Nadal I admire the passion and persistence of the five-set winners.
There is a moment of high drama called Match Point when the difference between winning and losing in the fifth set can be measured by split-second choices and breaks in concentration. Match points can be saved which means the game can go on for hours, but in the end a match point is lost; the winner often falls to the ground on center court with a victorious smile, joyous tears and wave to the crowd.
As I watched the five-set match today at Wimbledon, the thought occurred to me that match points in tennis have an advantage over those we have in real life. The fourth round opponents I saw today knew the importance of the fifth set and its match point in that moment, but the rest of us may never know when we miss the chance to win – or lose what we value most.
Roger Federer through the years
We live in dangerous days facing an opponent in Covid-19 that doesn’t play by the rules as we know them. Please stay safe, stay sane and stay tuned.