"No one will forget what you did here today."
- Boxing trainer Eddie Hutch to his objecting fighter, Joe Frazier, before throwing in the towel in the Thrilla in Manilla
As Roger Federer was fighting back from down two sets to force a fifth against Rafael Nadal in Sunday's epic Wimbledon final, a quote from Joey Chestnut was becoming increasingly poignant to me.
On July 4th Chestnut successfully defended his hot-dog eating championship by defeating the legendary Kobayashi in a sudden death dog-off.
Afterwards, Chestnut described the deciding factor in his victory.
"He wanted it," Chestnut said, "but I needed it."
Now, obviously the hot-dog eating contest is an inane competition and trust me, I regret even mentioning it in a serious sports article. But it's a great quote. Just pretend it was Tiger Woods who said it after a winning defense of the US Open, instead of some guy who gulped down 59 hot-dogs in 10 minutes and then another five in overtime.
Federer, who before winning his first six matches of the tournament without dropping a set was being written off as past his prime by some, lost the first two sets to the younger, more athletic Nadal and could've just draped his duffle bag full of tennis balls over his shoulder and gone home. Afterall, he already had five Wimbledon titles (in a row, no less).
And as he willed himself to a deciding fifth set by winning the previous two on tiebreakers, Federer reminded me of that quote. Maybe Nadal wanted to win, but like Jordan and Ali in the final stages of their dominance, Federer needed to win. That's what seperates the greatest champions from all of the rest, what drives them to sustain their excellence, to hold onto it for as long as they possibly can: They have to win. It's a way of life. And that's why Roger was going to win Sunday.
Of course, he didn't win.
So it's pretty much moot. I guess in the end, Nadal really was the one that needed it. With the victory he is now the No. 1 ranked player in the world, and he will not look back. (Monday Morning Update: I was unknowingly given some wrong information, and then unknowlingly passed that wrong information along to you. To be accurate, Nadal is not the new No. 1 ranked player - he's still No. 2, with Federer maintaining the No. 1 spot. Doesn't change or mean much - Nadal is the best player now, regardless of what the computers say. We all know this. But obviously, that doesn't change the fact that I screwed up. My bad. Don't hold it against me.) Beating Federer on grass was his final hurdle. The game of tennis will belong to him for the next four years. Congratulations, Rafael, on your first Wimbledon title. 7/6/2008, the beginning of the Nadal Rule.
But from where I stand the day still belongs to Federer. His heroic performance today reminded me of a Bill Simmons column from seven years ago, a running diary of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series between the three-time defending champion Yankees and upstart Diamondbacks in Arizona. You all remember the ending to that one: Luis Gonzalez blooping a single over second base off of Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth and, we realize years later, effectively ending the Yankees dynasty. Simmons is the most famous Boston fan on the Web, but even he had to give it up to the Yankees for the heart and resiliency they showed in defending their crown. He wrote:
"You find out everything you need to know about a champion during the season when they finally get dethroned: True champions go down kicking and screaming, and you practically have to drive the stake into their collective heart, Dracula-style, to put them away. Nobody will forget how the Yankees played over these past few weeks, or the way the crowd at Yankee Stadium lifted them to those three wins that sandwiched Halloween night. They were a true champion. We'll forget about the D-backs some day, but we won't forget these Yankees. And that's coming from a Red Sox fan."
That excerpt right there captures what Federer accomplished Sunday, even in defeat. I don't think he'll ever be the world's best tennis player again after losing today. He didn't just lose a Grand Slam tournament, he lost his crown. Wimbledon's 2008 final wasn't just another especially prestigious championship match, it was a passing of the torch and a coronation. But 25 years from now, when I think back on it, I'll remember the way Federer lost more than I will the way Nadal won. I'll remember the way he went down kicking and screaming, the way Nadal had to drive a stake into his heart to put him away. Roger Federer was a true champion, and I'm never gonna forget what he did in England today.