Tennis at the 02

Above a very blurry image of Raphael Nadal warming up before his match at the O2 arena

One of the things that surprises most people about me is my obsession with watching tennis. I’m as far from a typical fan as you can get. I’ve never played, I’m unfit, I have no interest in any other sports. But there is something about tennis that fascinates me enough to contemplate using up precious holiday to enjoy the Wimbledon fortnight in full.

I love in tennis because:

  • two people enter only one person leaves. Unlike team sports the focus is on the individual to perform or not. There’s no coaching, nothing to hide behind, just you vs the other person who blinks first
  • the trappings. From the contrast between the cool old England lawns of Wimbledon to the hyped up, entertainment focused US Open tennis is played all over the world in dramatically differing settings.
  • the commentary. Putting aside the excellent Sue Barker where else could you hear the surreal rambling humour of Boris Becker, the hysterical yet incisive analysis of John McEnroe facing off against a series of slightly bemused Brits like Andrew Castle and our very own Henman. Listening to experts talk about something they love it one of life’s rare pleasures. My favourite moment, when even they are reduced to incoherent whoops. Sometimes a shot really is that good.
  • the fans. Whether it’s the union jack clad ladies, vocal aussies, to the wag in the crowd who shouts out ‘come on Tim’ even though Henman is long-retired, I love them all
  • everybody has their favourites. Like a soap opera whether you’re a fan of a cool swiss, the amiable belgium, the fiery scot there’s somebody to suit anybody.
  • Anything can happen. Roger Federer  begun the year in tears after being throughly thrashed at the Australian Open by Nadal. His dream of breaking records seeming further away that ever. But ended the year not only regaining his Wimbledon title (poor Roddick) but also winning Roland Garros, and completing a career slam, one of the few titles that eluded him.

So I was really excited when I heard the climax of the tour: the ATP World Tennis finals showcasing the best eight players was coming to the O2 arena. My parents and I booked tickets and earlier this week got to see this match Nadal vs Davydenko in one of the night sessions.

The tournament
I drove up straight after work and parked straight outside. I haven’t been inside the O2 since it was the millenium dome. And everything from the large banners of the posters, flashing lights, to the plush practise courts seemed geared up to max up the pressure. The O2 arena is massive. Our seats were up in the nose bleeders, the players tiny figures below. Unlike the sedate genteel atmosphere of Wimbledon this was all flash and pizzazz. I loved the music played during the changeover, the video replays on the big screen, the darkness of the crowd during play, and the roar after every shot. Even the distracting flashing signs which signalled aces or break points were interesting.

However it was clear that the event had some logistical problems (even before Del Potro/Murray scoring fiasco). The first match (a doubles match) started at eight but when it finished at around 8.45 instead of bringing the earlier match forward there was a forty-five minute break until the players emerged on court. None of us were allowed to leave the interior of the arena. When the match finally started at 9.30pm, my parents were already nervously looking at their watches (they had to catch the last train home). During the second set tie break when it looked like it might go to a third set even I was wondering whether I would be able to stay instead of cheering the players on. Most people took the tube and would have faced the uncomfortable choice of leaving before the match finishes or staying and facing an expensive taxi ride home. Next year they should definately start the day matches at 1pm which will give them time to start the evening matches earlier. And spectators more time in the evening session.

The match
The tournament is round robin format. The two players in each group with the higher percentage of (games won-games lost) advance to the next stage. Nadal had lost his first match and had to beat Davydenko to have any chance of advancing.

Before the match I knew that Nadal’s season had been blighted by injury and he was looking to end the season on a positive note. It was clear this was not the Nadal of old. He had shrunk in stature. He was easily frustrated and curiously passive. His shots lacked depth giving Davydenko time to create angles. It was Davydenko not Nadal who dominated from the back of the court. This has never been Nadal’s surface. It suits his game the least and at this time in the season after the rigours of the hard courts he rarely has much success.

None of this is to take away from Davydenko who played very well, rarely allowing Nadal a chance back into the match. I knew little about Davydenko before the match but it was clear he was in form and I wasn’t surprised when he went on to win the tournament.

It wasn’t a classic match by any means. But I enjoyed the second set a lot more than the first. And the chance to see Nadal play in person.

What losing teaches us
The interesting thing was when Nadal first appeared on the scene I wasn’t a fan. I assumed his personality must match his style: another brash boorish sportsman. But then I saw him play. And long before that sublime match at Wimbledon 2008: the best match of all time, I was a supporter.

I like Federer, but I never backed him. His tennis is almost inhuman in it’s perfection but he makes it look easy. With Nadal each stroke reveals the effort, the years of training, the will to succeed. He fights for every point. I’ve always liked the underdog (as much as somebody who is number two in the world can be an underdog;)). And watching him the other day reminded me of why I loved him. Even when he was match down you can see the effort being exerted, he always tried to create opportunities, never giving up. Watching Nadal reminded me of importance of effort even when you lose. Especially when you lose. Because its our losses, it’s the times we find it hard that teach us more than unrelenting victory ever does.

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