Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wimbledon 2008

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, thank you. You provided the answer to a question all sportswriters get from fans, to wit: if you don't root for a side, what DO you root for?

That's not a stupid question, and sportswriters who treat it like one are not being too bright themselves. Fans are smart enough to recognize that nobody could watch sports if it didn't provide an emotional subtext. So they root. They root for home teams, or home boys and girls, or, in a contest like today's, they'll pick a side for the hell of it. Sometimes, or so I've heard, money changes hands based on those opinions.

Sportswriters can't root for a winner or loser. It's the bargain we made with Mr. Applegate. You get the best seat (or one of 'em) in the house, you get closer to what's going on than anyone else and can learn a lot about it if you're so inclined, but in return, you eat the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of the Lack of Good and Evil. The teams are all the same guys in different colored underwear. There is nothing to choose between Nadal and Federer, two great champions, superb sportsmen, and incidentally, good friends. So were Wilt and Russell. On a certain level only rivals can truly communicate.

Glenn Ordway says sportswriters root for "storylines." That's just close enough to be a dangerous distortion. "Storylines" no longer means "Good stories that'll be fun to talk about in 20 years," but has devolved into a synonym for "meaningless controversies that rile up the easily excited." To illustrate the difference, I'll just say I found the 2007 Patriots season to be endlessly fascinating, and "Spygate" to be awesomely tedious.

Good writing is showing, not telling. Federer and Nadal showed you, dear reader, what this lapsed sportswriter roots for. Greatness. Competition. The agonizing suspense and emotional release of sports. I watch to see men and women of tremendous skill, will, and poise give their best and see how the scoreboard stacks up at the end. I come to see shows that illustrate the glory of a game, any game. Take a man from Mars and show him that match today, and there will be tennis courts all over the Red Planet by Saturday.

Same goes for team sports. I am happy for the Celtics that they won the NBA Title, and sad for basketball that the Lakers gave such a disgraceful account of themselves. Die with your boots on, boys. The 2004 Red Sox world championship was astounding. The 2007 edition, well, if you aren't a Sox fan, it lacked a certain something.

I am neither fish not fowl. I'm no longer a sportswriter, and likely never will be again. Hell, there may not be any in 10 years. Yet after three years of professional exile, I can't go back to being a fan. Tried, but it can't be done. I know too much for my own good.

Today, from the start of the fourth set on, I was in the catbird seat once again. Emotionally, I had the best spot in the house. And I didn't have to write, either. Holy cow, the East Coast guys and gals there are on deadline now!

Every one of them is under as much pressure as Nadal and Federer, at least in their own heads. They want to write a story as good as the event it describes. And it's impossible. I will bet, however, that one and likely more than one of them comes close. Seeing others do their best works that way. Wish I knew why.

Here's what I do know. Sports is for memories. Memory is the closest thing humans have to immortality. The Gentleman's Singles Finals of 2008 will be a vibrant memory for longer than I'll be alive. Way, way longer.


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