Believe it or not, the Super Bowl wasn’t the only major sporting event that took place yesterday. Earlier, the men’s final of the Australian Open in tennis was on ESPN2 at the wee hours of the morning. Even though tennis is a game I love, I don’t love it enough to get up at three in the morning to watch it live, so instead, I waited until 9am to see the tape-delayed match on the Tennis Channel. It used to be easier doing this, by the way, watching a sporting event after it has already happened. Before the Internet, it was fairly simple to keep away from knowing the outcome: stay away from the news on TV. But now? With my home page being My Yahoo!, which culls the latest bits from Reuters and the New York Times, there are news landmines everywhere. And it’s just not possible for me to leave the laptop off if I’m going to be watching TV — who doesn’t multitask nowadays?

Anyway, I managed to stay in the dark, and I watched a match that turned out to be more emotional than anyone thought it would be. Just some quick background info, in case you don’t pay attention to the professional game of tennis: Roger Federer was the #1 ranked player for about five years, but he was relegated to #2 last year by Rafael Nadal. There are four major tournaments, and they are the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. In this sport, it’s all about winning these Grand Slams; even though the players accrue points and money in other tournaments, they don’t mean much.

In the end, Nadal ended up winning in five sets. Just a day ago, he’d gone another five sets in his semi-final match to get here while Federer won in three straight sets (and had an extra day of rest), so if anyone should’ve been feeling it, it should’ve been Nadal, but as you can see from the photo below, it was Federer who broke down in tears.

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Oliver Weiken/European Pressphoto Agency

It was difficult to watch, not only because it was heartbreaking (Federer is trying for career record in winning these Slams, and he’s only two away), but because it was such a raw display of emotion. And then I thought about how lucky it was that we have sports, because it is one of the few places where it’s okay for men to cry. Yes, now in the 21st century, men are more spiritually evolved than they’ve ever been, but still, no man I know is comfortable with letting it all go, especially in public. But in partaking, watching, or reading about sports? Think of the number of men who must’ve bawled when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. Their proud tears could probably fill a lake.

As strange as this may sound, what made me sad more than anything was watching the Rolex commercial that very well might have played a hundred times during the match. In it, you see the grace of Federer in slow motion with the majestic music pumping in the background. Rolex has signed him to a multiyear deal, but at some point, all of these commercials will be featuring someone else younger and fitter and better. These athletes devote their entire lives to a game, but they reach the peak when most other careers are just beginning. How would you like to be told you’re a has-been on your thirtieth birthday?

The late David Foster Wallace wrote about the beauty of Roger Federer’s game, so if you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat. It was written three years ago, and it goes without saying that a lot has changed since then for both the writer and the subject. Time, as usual, passes with inexorable indifference.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

One response to “There May Not Be Crying in Baseball, but There Is in Tennis”

  1. Sung J. Woo says:

    Comment by Brad Listi |Edit This
    2009-02-02 15:27:59

    Federer-Nadal is the greatest rivalry in the history of men’s tennis. It’s a shame the time zones didn’t synch up better. Would’ve loved to have seen it. Every time those guys play each other in a Slam, it’s a classic match.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-02-02 16:29:52

    This one wasn’t Wimbledon 2008, but it was close, at least for four sets. In the fifth, Fed just sort of fell apart. Nadal also shed a couple of tears in his previous match (the best one in the tournament, against Fernando Verdasco, which turned out to be the longest one in Australian Open history); he couldn’t quite ride the emotional tide as the game got close to the end.

    I really feel for these tennis players, because unlike team sports, there’s nowhere for you to hide. Aging pitchers can become relievers; aging hitters can DH. Aging football players can be on the field for five minutes; aging basketball players can sit on the bench. But for those who hold the racquet, it’s just you and your opponent.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by pb |Edit This
    2009-02-02 17:40:24

    I could barely watch. Fed fell apart so badly in that last set. He was crying before he lost. Wiping his eyes. I love Nadal so much, (he’s my fave, but I am no hater), but it broke my heart to see Fed so mentally lose it. I don’t think it is over yet. When there is no expectation for him, perhaps he can play more freely. That said, Nadal owns his ass. Tennis is wierd that way- Santoro has a winning record against Safin! It is so so personal. And so wierd dynamics come into play, much moreso than in team sports. Nice post.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-02-02 21:00:00

    During the years when the Federer Express was unstoppable, I was getting bored. As lovely as his tennis is, seeing him win every single match with such ease made the game sort of ridiculous. When Nadal came along, I was glad he finally had a rival, but at this point, the scale has definitely tipped. I’m a big fan of Nadal, but what I love about any sports is its innate unpredictability. Once you lose the element of surprise, sports loses my interest. So I certainly don’t want to see the Era of Nadal for the next 2-3 years.

    What I want to see in 2009 is Nadal winning the French, Fed winning Wimbledon, and Nadal winning here at home. That way, both of them stay hungry (Roger still needs to win one more, and Nadal wants the calendar slam). I also wouldn’t mind seeing Verdasco win the French, Murray win Wimbledon, and Roddick win the U.S. Open, but the chances of that happening is somewhere between zero and -50%, I’d say.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
    2009-02-03 15:38:09

    Sung,
    My Dad used to cry when he told me family stories. My Mom never cried. Guess who I loved.
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-02-03 18:22:27

    It’s funny — I used to hardly ever cry, but as I get older, I find myself on the brink of tears…like all the time. I wonder why that is? It’s like I’ve become Robert De Niro in Analyze This. For example, I got teary-eyed watching Kung Fu Panda (that moment where the evil tiger is about to kick the master, but for a second the master sees the little baby tiger instead). And I just about lost it while watching Ratatouille, when the food critic eats the mouse’s dish and suddenly flashes back to his youth, watching his mother cook.

    Jesus, just writing about those two scenes is threatening to start up the water works…

    Reply here

    Comment by Colin |Edit This
    2009-02-06 04:56:12

    I, too, find myself crying at TV/movies when real life leaves me dry as a stone… When Commander Data loses his “daughter?” Watching the American Girl movie with my girlfriend’s 5-year-old daughter? Forget about it!

    For all the drama with tennis, however, I always feel guilty watching it–those two guys (or gals) are so busy out there, so I should really be doing something too. Football and baseball, there’s lots of standing around going on, so lounging on the couch seems spiritually in keeping with what “they’re” doing.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-02-06 06:30:51

    “The Offspring” — I love that episode. The tears also flowed freely when I watched Star Trek II, that speech that Kirk gives after Spock dies and they’re about to torpedo him off the Enterprise!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by John |Edit This
    2009-02-06 17:24:00

    I miss Pete Sampras. That is all.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-02-07 08:59:56

    I miss him as well. And I miss his Eastern grip and his serve-and-volley game, both of which we’ll probably never see again in professional tennis.

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