A Championship Flair for the Dramatic

Will SheltonSenior Analyst IJuly 6, 2008

I’m an avid fan of football, basketball and baseball.  I’ve devoted time and energy to the fates of my favorite teams in years that have produced highly dramatic moments, often with the added adrenaline spike of championships on the line.

As a child, I watched John Smoltz and Jack Morris duel deep into the night in Game 7 of the World Series, until finally our Brave hearts were broken in extra innings.  In college, I saw the Titans erase a 16-0 deficit and then watched Steve McNair lead a desperate charge downfield in the final seconds, only to come up one yard short in Super Bowl XXXIV.  And my heart has both leapt and been broken more times on fall Saturdays by the Tennessee Vols than I could possibly remember.  And in a few weeks, I’ll give it away all over again.

Though the majority of my time with sports is spent with the big three, I also make a point to watch the major events and championships of some other sports that fall in the lower tiers of popularity.  Each year, I try and catch Daytona, Indianapolis, the Kentucky Derby and the like.  Even if I’m not a fan of NASCAR or horse racing, at least once a year on their brightest stages, it makes for good television that most sports fans can truly appreciate.  I really don’t like soccer, but even there I’ll tune in for the World Cup when it rolls around.

I expect to be entertained and enjoy something unique when I take time out to watch a sport I normally wouldn’t, but I’m never expecting that level of enjoyment to come close to approaching what I get from football, basketball or baseball.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve found myself glued to the television on three different occasions with sports I almost never watch, fully immersed in their championship drama. 

Along the way, I’ve discovered three scenarios that I think rank among the most tense and dramatic in all of sports, so much so that even if you’ve never played nor watched that particular sport before, it demands you stop what you’re doing and pay attention. 

I believe the most dramatic and tense scenario in all of sports is an overtime game in college football where the team with the first possession kicks a field goal.  Because that means on any of the following plays for the other team, the game can instantly be over – but unlike most sports, it’s sudden death for both teams:  that second team could score a touchdown at any moment, producing instant victory.  But if they throw an interception or fumble the ball away, it’s instant victory for the other team.  Or they could simply kick a field goal and we play on. 

That level of “potential instantaneous double sudden death” – thanks very much – is hard to find anywhere else. 

It’s the home team being down a run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and runners on second and third:  on the next pitch, either team could win the game.

You just don’t run into that stuff every day.  Especially with titles on the line, in a sports world that’s given us World Series and NBA Finals that’ve been generally one-sided for the last few years.

And I especially didn’t expect to run into it in the three places I’ve pleasantly found it in the last month:


June 2 - Stanley Cup Finals Game 5

Being from Knoxville, I’ve never been a huge hockey fan.  I played it on my Sega Genesis like a lot of kids, and to this day if the Predators ever made a run in the playoffs, I’d be on board because it is fun to watch.  But between fleeting dreams and lockouts, it’s not something I devote any time or energy to.

However the Stanley Cup Finals are on that Daytona list of things to try and catch, and the matchup was especially intriguing this year for even less than casual fans like me.

Pulling for the Penguins because the Red Wings I remember had a bunch of Russians on their team and I’m proud to be an American – makes total sense, right? – I was only half watching after they went up 2-0 in Game 5.  Which means I was still only half watching when Detroit rallied to take a 3-2 lead with ten minutes to play.

Now, it’s already tense down the stretch with the Cup on the line and the Detroit crowd going crazy.  It gets even better when the Pens pull their goalie.  Still, it seemed improbable…but with 34.3 seconds to play, Pittsburgh somehow found a way, and off we go to overtime.

And a Stanley Cup Final overtime where the home team can win the cup and you’re cheering for the road team is incredibly intense.

More so than soccer under the same “golden goal” format, the speed of hockey and the way things can change very quickly amps up the drama significantly.  In this game, when you factor in overtime power plays that kept coming up short and excellent goaltending, the tension kept building.

And so I’m right there with them, deep into the night, knowing that even if I have to get up at 7:00, I can’t miss the end.  One overtime.  Two.  Three.  Power plays turning up nothing.  I’m not invested in Pittsburgh and this was the first significant amount of time I’d spent with the NHL all season.  But I couldn’t walk away.  I didn’t want to.

Finally, in the third overtime, the Penguins got their goal and prolonged the series another night.  Game 5 made me more invested in Game 6, which the Red Wings ultimately won.  But still, I remember thinking it at the time and I’m still agreeing with it now:  overtime playoff hockey in an elimination game?  That’s good stuff.


June 16 – US Open 18 Hole Playoff

As a hack golfer who’s trying to get it back down in the 90s after not playing in years, I’ve always watched the major tournaments on Sunday afternoon, which has been especially handy since Tiger Woods came along about the same time I first picked up a club.  And sure, there was plenty of Tiger drama in the first 72 holes of this thing, and plenty of other words have been written about his knee.

Golf tournaments that come down to the Sunday 18th hole are always intense, but unless you’ve got players tied coming to the tee box, some of the edge is taken off.  When you’ve got a guy who’s up at least one, he’s going to play it safe and it’s all on the other guy to make birdie.  Even when they’re tied, there’s this sense of shot by shot equality…

Unless your tournament ends on a par 5.

When you put eagle in play, the drama increases significantly.  I’d never even thought about this, but now I’m a firm believer that all major championships that aren’t played at Augusta or St. Andrews should end on a par 5.

With the great story of Tiger Woods vs. Rocco Mediate unfolding in that playoff at Torrey Pines, you had drama aplenty, culminating with Mediate actually leading by one stroke coming to 18. 

But because it was Tiger and because it was a par 5, Mediate’s lead wasn’t safe.  At all.  If Tiger made eagle, Rocco would’ve needed birdie just to tie.  Even though it didn’t play out that way, the potential was there.  Tournaments that end on par 5s mean no one shot lead is truly safe, and puts pressure on both players.  We need more of this.

July 6 – Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

Wimbledon’s on my list, and I’d played this game last year, watching Nadal rally to win the fourth set only to be broken in the fifth.  That was a great tennis match; probably the best one I’d ever seen live.

Today was better.

When I got home from church, a rain delay had slowed everything down and the match was in the fourth set.  And when it went to the tiebreaker, and Nadal was up 5-2 and serving, you felt like you were on the edge of seeing the mighty Federer finally go down.

Instead, Federer responded at every turn.  He launched aces when the situation seemed darkest.  He turned away two championship points in the fourth set before ultimately winning the tiebreaker 10-8.  And I don’t know much about tennis, but I could tell from listening to John McEnroe, who let out several “Oh!”s during some of the more spectacular moments…this was something special.

Another rain delay squeezed every last ounce of daylight from this match, the longest in Wimbledon championship history.  Nadal would put Federer on the ropes, Federer would respond with an ace.  Neither man could break the other.  And as the points went on and on in that fifth set, I found myself absolutely glued to the event that I couldn’t have cared less about 24 hours earlier.

While an NHL sudden death overtime or an icy putt on 18 might be more dramatic than anything tennis (which requires you to win by two, thus eliminating any level of “double sudden death”), the matchup and the legacies of both men provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity:  if Nadal could win, this could be the day a true rivalry was born.

It’s true, Nadal regularly beats Federer on clay.  And vice versa on grass.  But a rivalry isn’t really a rivalry until the other guy wins, and wins in this case on the other’s surface. 

Up to today, the Federer/Nadal argument was simply a matter of which surface they were playing on, and until one man won on the other’s turf/clay, it couldn’t really be anything else to the majority of American sports fans.

What’s more, Federer is the more renowned of the two, the perceived contemporary of Tiger Woods.

The difference between today and June 16 is this:  Rocco Mediate would’ve been a good story if he’d made one more putt.  But that’s all.  If Nadal could beat Federer, he could become the true rival; not just the one weekend wonder, but a true foil for tennis’ mighty champion.  This story could have legs.  And long ones at that.

I like Tiger, in part because you can’t help but cheer for greatness on that level.  But sure, I wanted Rocco to win, because for once I just wanted to see it.  I wanted to see someone beat him.

I like Federer for all the same reasons.  But me – and all of tennis – were pulling for Nadal today. 

If Federer wins, he’s still the man and in the minds of those who only pay attention to the majors, which is most of America, Nadal is just “that guy who wins on clay”. 

But if Nadal wins on Federer’s turf…you can market that.  You can sell that.  You can give me a reason to watch the US Open in hopes of seeing the next step in the evolution of a true rivalry.

So on they went.  Nadal lost another championship point in the fifth set.  But he never cracked.  It just kept going, like an iron man match where neither guy will take the first fall.

Until finally, at the last possible moment of daylight, Federer was broken.  And then Nadal finished him off.  And his celebration – deservingly so – was a tennis moment for the ages. 

And I – who couldn’t tell you about any other tennis moments – was right here, caught up in all of it.

I heard a lot of “the changing of the guard”, and again I’m no tennis expert, but I’d much prefer “the birth of a rivalry”, though the good folks at NBC would want you to believe that it was already one.  But again – until today, Nadal in the eyes of the majority was just the guy who can win on clay. 

Now, he’s the rival…and together, they’re the guys who can make tennis worth watching again.  I just spent hours in front of the television with these two guys, and enjoyed the drama and competitiveness just as much as I would any other sport.

There are others out there – I know a UEFA game went to penalty kicks, but I definitely don’t know enough soccer to write about it, because someone would have to start by telling me what UEFA is and why 2008 is the first time I’m hearing about it or seeing it on ESPN.

But either way, these last few weeks have shown that even for guys and gals who only watch the big three…if you love sports, you can find five-star championship drama in all kinds of places.  Whether it’s a golden goal, an endless fifth set, or the bottom of the ninth…the drama and adrenaline we truly love about sports can transcend all of them, and can be found in places you might not have thought to look.

So while I’m counting the Saturdays between now and kickoff…I’ll be waiting for the uneven bars in Beijing.


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