Gardner Variety: a love for the game
Love means nothing in tennis.
That’s the literal interpretation, anyway, but metaphorically, it’s nonsense.
The sport is filled with class acts. The game’s current greats — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — personify sportsmanship.
With these guys, it’s never about taking the court with the intention of destroying or humiliating an opponent. It’s about meeting a rival in the heat of battle with a mutual respect for one another. It’s about leaving everything out on the court. Every last ounce of energy. Every last drop of sweat.
It’s all for the love of the game.
Take Djokovic, the tour’s larger-than-life personality, for example. He played Czechoslovakian stalwart Radek Stepanek in a second-round match on the hallowed green lawns of the All England Club several years ago, but I still remember the match clearly.
The world-number-one won in four sets, which honestly isn’t all that surprising, but the match didn’t come without its share of thrills and, in my opinion, one of the great Wimbledon moments in recent memory.
Let me break it down for you.
Djokovic was leading Stepanek two sets to one, tied at five-all in the fourth set. Huge moment. A single point either way could turn the tide of the match.
The Djoker stepped it up, serving with a game point, when Stepanek hit a shot near the baseline that was initially called out. The chair umpire correctly overruled the call. Chalk was seen flying as the ball clipped the line.
Instead of simply replaying the point — as the rules state, because the call could have affected his play on the ball — Djokovic calmly walked to the chair umpire and admitted he wouldn’t have been able to return it either way.
He essentially handed the point over to Stepanek, allowing the tenacious Czech to draw even at deuce during one of the most crucial moments of the match.
Stepanek, clearly surprised by this display of sportsmanship, roused a packed Centre Court into raucous applause before carrying on with the match. It was a beautiful moment.
Maybe it’s just me, but this sport is filled with beautiful moments.
We’re currently living through the careers three of the single greatest players to have ever picked up a racket in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Federer leads the men’s tour all-time with a seemingly insurmountable 20 grand slam titles. Nadal, the undeniable king of clay, is second all-time with 18. Djokovic is right on their tails with 16.
Before any of these men played the game, Pete Sampras held the all-time record with 14 slams, which seemed staggering at the time. These guys are redefining the game.
And who can forget Nadal and Djokovic’s classic final at the 2012 Australian Open, where the two men battled on court for a record 5 hours and 53 minutes?
I remember one point in particular around the five-hour mark when the two engaged in a 40-plus ball rally that literally left Djokovic lying on his back gasping for breath. At that point, he was grasping for anything, really.
I’ll never forget watching him will himself to his feet, pushing through such visible and audible pain.
Djokovic went on to win that match. He beat my favorite player in Nadal, but I didn’t care. How could I? I’d never seen such an incredible display of will and athleticism in my life.
It was pure love for the game.
I keep coming back to back this idea of love and tennis. Maybe I’m trying to put that old idiom to rest, but love, quite literally, means nothing in tennis.
For me, it means everything.