Federer and Ali, and us
The fifth set of the Federer-Nadal match reminded me of another greatest sporting event I witnessed. The Muhammed Ali-George Foreman fight, which I saw live at Madison Square Garden.
You have to understand, people feared for Ali’s life before this fight. He was adored, admired, an extraordinary career to that time, but seemingly past his prime. Foreman had been crushing powerful opponents in single rounds, dispatching them quickly with punishing, relentless blows.
So when Ali survived the first round, there was a collective sigh of relief, he was still alive, let alone standing up. The fear for him was real, palpable, as intense as mass love can be.
When Federer would in recent years fall behind, lose just so-close, it was unbearable. I’d leave the room, the TV, go off to breathe and recover. He has established strong attachments, with his grace and elegance, his amazing shot making, his dignity. Ali could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; Rajah could take a backhand behind him and turn it into a passing shot that seemed to defy physics.
Around the fifth round, something began to become apparent that if our perceptions weren’t so clouded with fearful expectations we might have seen sooner. Foreman would lumber around the ring, throwing his killer punches, but they were falling short of their mark, not by accident but by the design of genius, an athlete who with intellect and the improvisational skill born of thousands of rounds, had figured out the puzzle of a seemingly unbeatable opponent. And with less than a minute to go in those middle rounds, Ali would bounce in and score hits.
Death and redemption. Survive and somehow thrive. These great themes emerge. Like the ’86 Mets in the sixth game of the World Series. It seemed over for Roger immediately in the last set, quickly dropping a game, extending Nadal’s seemingly unbreakable presence from the fourth set, down in the last count of the last round.
But if we could see past our fears, we would have noticed how hard it was becoming for Nadal to hold his serve, how clarified Federer’s game had become. Nor more unforced errors, no more forehand betrayals. Nadal was punching hard, Federer was doing his rope-a-dope.
We didn’t know that was what it was going to be called, when we first saw it unfold, something new in the game. But Ali knew, somehow, and by the time we realized the pattern, it was the eighth round, with a minute to go, and the dynamic shifted again, and this time, built on all the previous times, Foreman the invincible unbeatable went down.
Nobody is a fiercer competitor than Nadal, as we had seen in his five set triumph over Dimitrov, time and again punching his way to winning. We admire it, the brute force of his game, but we don’t love it the way we do the grace and elegance, the capacity to surprise, of the Alis, the Federers.
And so Roger came back, and Nadal’s hat had run out of rabbits to hold his serve, and Roger broke him and broke him again, he didn’t have any more answers when Roger came off the ropes and knocked him down. It was exhilarating, surprising, the joy of coming back from the brink far greater and sweeter, if more nerve-wracking! than if the outcome was more easily attained.
Nadal and Foreman, Federer and Ali. Giants pummeling each other, and sometimes carrying the rest of us to their heights.
After the fight, all of New York for hours had people shouting in the streets, Ali! Ali!, a collective cry of triumph and thanks, reflecting amazement and appreciation, that we had seen such a man in action.
After Federer’s victory, it was 8am and we took a nap. Circumstances lacked the communal sense the Ali moment had produced. But it was full and warm and joyous just the same.