A Tale Of Two Cities – Add A Sporting Dimension

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’

A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

Charles Dickens set this illustrious work in the era of the French Revolution, telling the story of Paris and London.  The novel has fewer characters than a typical Dickens novel and was published in weekly installments. 

Although anathema to traditionalists, it is true that the schism between these two metropolises, the renewed weekly anticipation, excitement and drama, and the limited number of protagonists, are elements that remain in sporting reality today for many tennis fans.

Paris: the city of clay; the city of Roland Garros; the city in which Rafael Nadal’s feat of clay turned to dust, out of which a triumphant Roger Federer rose, capturing his 14th Major title, a Career Grand Slam.

London: the city of grass; the city of Wimbledon; the city in which Federer’s five year Centre Court dream ended last July, in a still darkness that was punctuated only by the glow of scoreboards that clarified the numerical story of a great battle.

Two cities, two characters.  The dichotomy of the two protagonists: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—inclusive of their heritage, styles and fates—fascinates even the most neutral of viewers, listeners, and readers.  The discourse continues unrelentingly, the weekly outcome of their contests difficult to reveal. 

The best of times: We were rewarded with the ‘Greatest Match Of All Time’ at Wimbledon.  A seven hour marathon, punctuated by two nerve-tingling rain delays, resulted in a five hour, five set thriller between Federer, the ailing five-time consecutive Wimbledon champion and Nadal, the rising grass matador and French Open annihilator. 

A practically anachronistic defeat, given Federer’s supreme reign on grass that had lasted since 2002.  Hope balanced by despair, belief overriding incredulity.  The match will forever be remembered as an event that surpassed all expectations. 

The worst of times: Roger Federer’s definitive defeat in the French Open 2008 final—an almost embarrassing show for the then World No.1 and 12-Major champion.  The bizarre one-sided scoreline, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, only underlined the annihilation that was suffered, contrasted the unyielding ascendancy of the clay-court king, under grey Paris skies.  Clay wisdom and clay foolishness.  Promise and desperation.  Wounds that seared deep into the soul were formed. 

In these cities’ recent tennis showcases, Wimbledon 2008 and Roland Garros 2009, the stories of these capitals and the traditions of the characters, have been turned upside down, removing all predicted convention and outcome from the tennis world. 

In the aftermath of Roland Garros 2009, where Nadal was ousted in the fourth round and Federer was triumphant under the most extreme pressure, the traditional tale has twisted once more.

The belief of Nadal, juxtaposed with the incredulity of Federer, has flipped.  Federer’s despair has transformed into hope and wisdom that he can prevail against Nadal, he can prevail in testing circumstances. 

Nadal’s belief has been replaced by despair over his knee injuries.  His hope for a second Wimbledon title is ebbing gently away as new contenders emerge. 

Now the momentum is in Federer’s favour. 

As in Dickens, the superlative degree of comparison between these two cities, these two protagonists, cannot be more distinct. 

London and Paris.  Only separated by a sliver of water, yet fundamentally diverse.  English versus French, practicality versus beauty, irregularity versus symmetry.  Grass versus clay, Wimbledon versus Roland Garros, Centre Court versus Philippe Chatrier.

Federer and Nadal, one of the most discussed sporting rivalries of recent times.  The most artistic versus the most warrior-some. The ethereal versus the earthly, lithe versus pumped, fluency versus staccato.

The texture of the relationship between these two players is consistently adapted, then synchronised, then separated again, to provide yet more compelling drama to the overriding story of these two tennis cities. 

Now Wimbledon 2009 awaits.  Which dramatic characteristics will manifest?

Do we wait in anticipation, expectant of another moment of history?  Will hegemony be exchanged once more?  Do we have everything new before us, or nothing at all?  Who will be ‘Light’, and who will be ‘Darkness’?

Yet in the midst of these direct contrasts remains a clear imbalance.  Gain and loss are not symmetrical; the reactions to these emotions are not equal and opposite.  Victory does not feel as fulfilling as loss feels ruinous.  In SW19, 127 players will feel loss; only one player will experience victory, relief, jubilation.  This year, that person is truly unknown.  

Is there yet another twist in the tale?

(Published on Bleacher Report; June 15th, 2009)

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