It was late in the fifth set of Rafael Nadal's five-set victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final on Sunday a match that took over seven hours to complete, included two rain delays, featured multiple changes of momentum, and is already being discussed as potentially the greatest tennis match ever played when the middle-aged couple sitting next to me turned to each other between points and suddenly held hands in that heightened way that you see in movies of plane crashes. "I love you," the man said with an intensity he seemed not to have expressed for some time.
It was a small, nearly anonymous moment between two people in a stadium crowded with more than 13,000. But it proves that the pressure-cooker of epic sporting struggles when time seems to slow down, and everything takes on a sharper resolution is as intense as any life-or-death situation. You need to tell someone how you really feel.
Sitting in Row M, Seat 129, I took copious notes on this match and, if you want, I can ramble on with statistics. I can tell you about the contrast in styles of the contestants, about how Nadal is the tennis equivalent of a bruiser (case in point: he served 25% of the time to Federer's body), while Federer is a dancer (he chose that aggressive target only 4% of the time), and how Nadal managed to neutralize the greatest attacking forehand in tennis with the game's greatest backhand passing shot (Federer won only 60% of points when approaching net, which should almost always be a winning gambit on grass), and how Federer's remaining greatness still lies in his preference for elegance and accuracy over force. (Federer had 25 aces, much more than Nadal, but his fastest speed was 129 mph the same speed as the fastest serve in Saturday's women's final.)
But after such a contest, statistics don't seem to capture what it was like to actually be there, in that near-hysterical crowd, scribbling in a notebook I know I will one day pass on to my son or daughter, with a ticket, to prove that "I was there." So let me share with you the notes that had nothing to do with tactics or score, but rather attempted to capture the seemingly mundane moments in the four-hour and 48 minutes of play that will stay with me long after I forget how Federer won the crucial match point in the 4th set (a backhand pass), or even what shot Nadal hit to win the match (a serve). Here is the view from Row M.
First set: The crowd is still filtering in, murmuring. The umpire, as if inviting inventiveness and creativity, begins proceedings by saying to Federer and Nadal: "Ready, play."
First set: At one point, Federer hits a seemingly unreturnable approach shot but is passed by Nadal on the return. Back at the baseline, the defending champion turns to the ball girl but she stands arms out, empty-handed; Federer seems to acknowledge that he, too, is out of ideas.
Second Set: From across the court, I can see into the TV commentator's booth. John McEnroe whose five-set epic against Bjorn Borg in 1980 was, until this match, considered the gold standard in Wimbledon final history is gesticulating wildly, re-enacting Nadal's backhand with such eagerness you worry he might fall from his booth onto his cherished court below.
Second Set: Federer, known for his equanimity on court, shouts several times in frustration, but his outbursts go almost unnoticed because he always times them for the moments the crowd erupts in awe, surprise or cheers.
Third Set: After a long run to the net to retrieve a Nadal drop-shot, Federer loses the point and pauses, leaning on the net tape; it is the posture of an old man.
Fourth Set: At one point Federer is distracted by the crash of bleachers being disassembled on other courts in the distance, seemingly attuned to the sound of the tournament winding down. Nadal, the newcomer, seems not to notice.
Fifth Set: Federer, who has worn a ridiculous throwback knit sweater to warm up for all his matches this fortnight, warms up after the rain delay without it. At this point, in the midst of his ferocious comeback, it's as if he's abandoned affectation and become all heart.
Fifth Set (5-5): The stadium has become eerily quiet in between points. This is partly due to the cold and partly to that strange ability great athletes have to take your breath away.
Fifth Set (5-6): The crowd breaks the silence in between games by chanting "Roger, Roger!" Their cheers become indistinguishable from the Nadal fans who cheer "Rafa, Rafa!" It seems fitting for these two great competitors that in the cheering, they have become one great athlete.
Fifth Set (9-7): Federer's return catches the net, Nadal has won the match. He sinks to the grass. The camera flashes that the ump warned the audience against using during play start exploding around the darkening arena like stars, and the two apparitions dressed in all white seem, for a brief moment, to be given the ascension they both deserve. I turn to the couple next to me. Federer fans, they are leaving before the trophy presentation. But they are holding hands, and at the top of the gate, they turn around together, and savor the moment.