The most engrossing, agonising, scintillating tennis match that I have ever watched has just been suspended a second time because of rain. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are sitting very unhappily – and I would imagine awkwardly – together in the Wimbledon dressing room with their match stranded at two sets all and two games all. How do I feel? As if I am suffering from a terrible form of coitus interruptus.
Before the match started and even in its early stages I had thought that I wanted Nadal to win. I favoured Nadal because if the Spaniard were to win it would be a great novelty. Federer’s inevitability would have been disrupted and it would have happened at the hands of the most unlikely of players: a Spanish clay-court specialist with a pretty tame serve and counterproductively top-spun groundstrokes; a bruiser, a workhorse, a hustler. A Nadal win would be an upset to the cosmic equilibrium, a great irony perpetrated against the established order and the predictable outcome.
But I realised during that agonising fourth set tie-break when Federer saved two match points that as much as I enjoyed toying with the idea of a Nadal victory, I wanted Federer to win. Like everyone watching outside of Nadal’s immediate family, I wanted a fifth-set because I didn’t want the tennis to end. But that wasn’t what made me shout at my computer screen quite so maniacally: it was the thought that Federer would lose.
So what? you might say. Well, I think my reasons for wanting Federer to win are illuminating and I think that they illustrate wider phenomena. My strongest motive for wanting Federer to win is conservative: Federer always wins. This is his sixth successive Wimbledon final and he has won the previous five. The previous two have been against Nadal: Nadal always loses. I want Federer to win because I don’t want the familiar to be taken from me. There is a chain of continuity running back through Federer’s victories, an illusion that time has stopped. His defeat would stand not just for change, but for decay, breakdown, decline. If he were to lose it would feel as if an epoch was ending. When one sportsman displaces another from the hegemonic position, we mark the attrition of our lives. The illusion that all things remain the same can no longer be maintained.
But it isn’t just Federer precedes Nadal; I don’t just want him to win because the familiarity of that outcome reassures me. It’s a style thing too. Federer and Nadal are representative of things: the tennis that each of them plays is emblematic. In thinking before today’s fourth-set epiphany that I wanted Nadal to win I was indulging the envious, spiteful part of myself. Part of me wanted to see the inevitable overcome, the invincible vanquished, the perfect tainted. There is something of the Platonic form about the way that Federer plays tennis and part of me on seeing something like that wants to smash it up, to smear it with shit.
Nadal on the other hand is dogged and muscular and unshakeoffable. He is unerring and tireless: a sort of Duracell tennis player, a racquet-wielding Boxer from Animal Farm. Nadal plays tennis like an underdog – with limitless enthusiasm and application. Partly that’s what I was responding to in supporting him until the fourth-set tie-break: I wanted to see the gods thwarted and elegance made to look ridiculous by the perspiration of the little guy with the big arms.
Placed under extreme pressure in the tie-break I realised what my views genuinely are. I cannot bear to see Federer lose. I want effortless assurance and matchless genius. Federer the patrician, the gentleman who plays tennis almost as if he were an amateur; Federer with his cool reserve, his northern temperament, is my model of a player. Nadal, workmanlike, southern, hurried – who plays tennis as if it were a craft, a disennobling profession – I would rather see lose.
So there you have it: I am a conservative, a lover of platonic perfection, a slavish follower of genius, a snob and a chauvinist. It is quite a wrapsheet for a man who just happens to have plumped for one sportsman over another. And no matter how bad that all makes me sound, I don’t think that I’m alone in trying to convince myself that I prefer Nadal, but really being unable to face with composure the prospect of Federer losing.
That’s it for now. They’re coming back on court…