The 2012 London Olympics
Gold/Silver: Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1
Bronze: Victoria Azarenka defeated Maria Kirilenko 6-3, 6-4
Bronze: Juan Martin del Potro defeated Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-4
Gold/Silver: Andy Murray defeated Roger Federer 6-2, 6-1, 6-4
Referring to wartime pennants and prizes, Joseph Heller wrote, ‘Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else.’
The sentence structure is challenging, but the sentiment is clear, and true, so far as it goes. Pennants and forehands—even the most Olympian and ferocitas of forehands—mean little in the grand scheme of things. Grand schemes, if such schemes exist, would surely include saving starving children, curing cancer, and preventing of a bunch of people from getting shot in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin this afternoon.
In financial terms, the attention we pay sports is nothing short of grotesque. The US Olympic Committee spent upwards of $232 million on our efforts to medal in Beijing. London’s opening ceremonies—one cacophonous evening of festivities—cost £27 million, which actually pales in comparison the $160 million China spent inside the Bird’s Nest on one (much more orderly) evening in 2008. We style our athletes as demigods and conflate the notion of doing something best with being best. It is necessary to hold these truths in mind when we consider achievement in sport, but it is not sufficient, because it is also true that sports, and the relatable quest to do (and be) best, provide us with an excellent tool to mine our emotional lives. In other words, sports give us access to a wealth of human experience. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx wrote the oft-quoted phrase, ‘religion is the opium of the people.’ He also wrote that it is ‘the heart of a heartless world.’
A Golden Slam—and a scrunchie.
Devout tennis fans marveled at the display of athletic grandeur put on by the 30 year-old Serena Williams as she tore the field to shreds on her way to the gold medal in singles. With the gold in hand, Serena becomes the second woman, and fourth player in history, to win all four majors and top Olympic honors. Steffi Graph, Andre Agassi, and Rafael Nadal are the others. The women’s gold medal match was played yesterday, so I’m late to the superlative party, and it is not easy to find an original way to describe just how thoroughly Williams dominated the Olympic draw. Artemis, Athena, Hera… take your pick. It has been pointed out that Serena lost as many games throughout the tournament as Roger Federer lost in the third set of his win over the Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro. This comparison is both tidy and impressive, but it does not pay Serena’s game the full measure of praise it deserves—that third set was really, really long.
Over the course of the Games, in twelve sets of tennis, Williams lost an average of 0.7 games a set. Maria Sharapova is the current world number three, and Serena allowed her only a solitary game in the process of relegating the Russian to the silver medal. Today she also earned her third gold medal in Olympic doubles with her sister Venus, and she did it all while wearing a metallic-hued scrunchie that looks like it came straight out of my junior high wardrobe. That’s guts. There are those who reduce Williams’ success to the supremacy of brute force, but I would argue that power is the essence, not of Serena’s tennis, but of Sharapova’s. Maria bashes with the next-best, but Serena, with a near-sublime service motion and Gatlin-like quickness in her first step, is able to use her power with the utmost creativity and efficiency.
As easy as it is to admire her game, it is often difficult to relate to Serena personally. Here is a woman who, after her semifinal victory over the number-one ranked Azarenka, told the on-court interviewer that she spends a lot of time thinking about her ‘Nike clothes,’ and her ‘Wilson raqcuet.’ Really? Well, maybe. She does seem to like outfits.
But if the truth of her human heart is difficult to read, not so her tennis. This week, Serena Williams presented fans with an economy of points endowed with an intensity of meaning. I would not be surprised to see Serena’s name back on top of the rankings this year, nor would I be surprised to hear tell of a new line of glittery scrunchies on HSN.
Joy, cast in bronze.
As happy as Victoria Azarenka was to secure her bronze medal over Maria Kirelenko, it did not come with the same depth of narrative as Juan Martin del Potro’s weekend redemption tale. Azarenka lost to Williams with a performance that was better than her performance in Madrid but worse than at Wimbledon, and then secured the bronze by beating a player ranked 13 places below her. Juan Martin del Potro, on the other hand, had to come back from having his soul mashed into the rye-grass on Friday and beat Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
Truth be told, I am a little bit sad for Novak. Playing for his country is obviously important to the Serbian, and were last year this year, he would surely have brought home a shiny, invaluable disc of semi-valuable alloy material. But an essential aspect of sport—one that helps us channel all that richness of human emotion—is that it is damned unfair.
Roger Federer fans were made to contemplate its damnedableness for three straight sets, as they watched a man, arguably the most preternaturally talented tennis player to ever construct a point, fail to convert a single one of nine break-type points, and generally have a no-good, terrible, very bad day. Rafael Nadal fans have been basking in the unfairness of it all since knees were invented; and Tommy Haas fans have been ruminating since Philipp Kohlschreiber insisted on playing all the way to through final of the Bet-at-Home Cup, rendering himself too injured to play in the Olympic games, and doing it too late to give Haas his spot on the German squad. However, Haas fans will be pleased to know that the 34 year-old made it to the final of the Legg Mason 250 (where he lost 7-6, 3-6, 1-6 to Aleksandr Dolgopolov), and has already booked his ticket to Rio. He will be 38 when those games roll around, the perfect age for a comeback.
So anyway, today was hard on Novak, but it was wonderful to see that Juan Martin del Potro was not so hard on himself. Over the last year, he has seemed to take his losses somewhat more to heart than has been healthy for his record, particularly his losses to Roger Federer. Over a span of four and a half hours on Friday, Juan Martin racked up his sixth and most heartrending loss to Federer in 2012. Immediately afterward, and for a long time after that, he wept.
There was some question as to whether or not del Potro would be physically and emotionally able to compete with the formerly indomitable former number one. It is true that Djokovic has not been his 2011-best since early 2012, and he is wearing more tape on various bits, but he is still the number two player in the world.
Del Potro arrived at the bronze medal match with the same game that brought him so close to beating the number one player two days prior. He hit extremely hard, and incredibly close to the lines. Wise to the ferocity of the del Potro forehand—one might even suspect Novak of having watched one of the 56 games that Juan Martin played against the Swiss—Djokovic found the backhand-wing more often than Federer had. But Juan Martin proved also capable of light-sabering his backhands into various corners of the court, not to mention his serves, and even the occasional volley. For his part, Djokovic found himself more given to errors, average returns, and extended conversations with the fates than we have come to expect (and we have come to expect a lot of discussion with the powers that be). If the first set felt suspenseful, the second felt almost as inevitable as del Potro’s happy tears of victory.
After his match on Court 1, he pronounced himself ‘the most happy of the world,’ which is saying something, considering the man who prevailed on Centre.
The Significance of a Medal.
There is surprisingly little to say about the three straightforward sets that comprised Andy Murray’s coronation as a golden god of British sport. Roger Federer played like a very tired, or a very tentative man, or possibly like both put together and then multiplied by many small-margined forehand errors. Andy Murray played like the opposite of that. He played like a man possessed by the moment and yet in full possession of himself. Murray also employed del Potro’s aggressive postmodern strategy of hitting extremely hard and incredibly close to the lines, surprisingly, and happily, on his forehand as well as his backhand side. I remember one point particularly, when he was somehow jumping backward to retrieve a shot off the baseline, and at the very last moment, while airborne, he managed to hurl his bodyweight forward sending a wild winner back at an opponent who must have felt as startled as I looked.
From del Potro’s revival after a loss that had him in tears until the small hours of the morning, to Serena’s recovery of fine fettle after injury and scandal, to Petrova and Kirilenko’s bronze in doubles after Maria had already lost out on her chance at a singles medal, the weekend had a Chumbawumba feel to it (to use the technical term). They got knocked down, but they got up again, never gonna keep them down. Andy Murray could barely speak through his tears after losing Britain’s first chance at the Wimbledon title since ancient times, and now look at him: He’s golden, and striped, and almost smiling.
It a shame that unless he joins Tommy in Rio, Roger Federer will not get another shot at Olympic singles gold, because the medal feels like it belongs in his goaty dossier, and it would look dapper with his fancy duds. (Not only are the Swiss team jackets elegant in their simplicity, they have good typography, unlike a certain Olympic Games we know.) But sports, as I have already established, are nothing if not fair. Today was Andy’s day, which made it the day of 99% of all the people waving up and down on Centre Court and the Murray ‘modest-but-proud’ Mound.
And now, without further delay, we have arrived at the part of my write-up that harkens back to the famous-person quote at the beginning, so that I can then quote another famous person at the end. Andy Murray is a Scotsman playing for Britain on a tennis court in England, so I figure it is okay to sum up the essence of his gold medal victory by quoting an American who lived across a pond,
‘To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.’
This passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden can be found in Chapter 2, ‘Where I lived, and What I Lived for.’ I have inserted it for the sole purpose of elevating a tennis match beyond its natural importance, the same way Thoreau made a puddle into a pond, which was subsequently made into a shrine and trampled by tourists. But still, there is truth in the sentiment.
Tennis is a sport that lives in the details, and today, Andy Murray was an artist. He gave the people of Britain a quality day, and that is significant.