I spend a lot of time putting together these weekly columns. Days, sometimes weeks of walking to and from lunch, kicking rocks down the street. Hours scribbling in various notebooks, then a night getting all of them together and typed into a computer file.
There’s a lot of writing, a little praying and great weeping and gnashing of teeth involved before I finally fall asleep sobbing and wake up to remember it still isn’t finished, and I’ve got to stay at work until it at least looks like it is.
So in the middle of all of this, writing a column about politicians and celebrity, I noticed the Australian Open final was about to start, (1) Rafael Nadal vs. (2) Roger Federer. I’m not a tennis fan in any way whatsoever. The sport bores me, especially when it doesn’t involve women I can objectify.
But I follow it enough to know this match had been anticipated, and I left it on with the television muted so I could keep up with how it was progressing. I had a file open and began typing, glancing at the TV every now and then.
Pretty soon, I couldn’t keep thinking about my column and kept making asides related to tennis.
This is some of the most fantastic spectacle I’ve ever seen. I don’t understand much about tennis except that the two of them are great, in the unexaggerated sense, and watching the competition of two people at the top of their sport – at the top of their anything- is simply mesmerizing.
I unmuted it so I could turn to see a great volley when the excitement got in the announcers’ voices.
These two guys are so completely dominant that the sport might as well have a consolation tournament and have the two of them play each other for the actual final.
And I started watching long stretches until I was only typing whenever there were breaks in the action and eventually couldn’t write about anything but the match.
Every sport ought to do instant replay as well as tennis.
Mein Gott, that’s beautiful.
I made another file and started putting this sort of stuff in it, but it was a lost cause, and by the end of the second set, I’d given up on typing anything and just sat in front of the television in slack-jawed awe.
When it was over, after several downright preternatural displays of athleticism and an extremely disappointing fifth set, I was struck with the realization that never in my life will I be as good at anything as these two men are at tennis right now.
It’s a silly thing to be good at, pointless really. Yeah, they can hit a ball back and forth across a net. So what? But excellence is transcendent.
Commentators sometimes talk about transcendent sports figures that can interest non-fans to watch. And that’s partly true, but there’s a deeper sense of transcendence, too, something so perfect, it transcends the activity and becomes universal. The sport is the thing; the excellence is the thing itself.
I love football, and surprisingly, this year’s Super Bowl was an exciting game, but the only thing that compares to the Australian Open that I’ve ever seen is the 2006 Rose Bowl in college football. Texas and USC were undeniably the two best teams that year, and in that moment, they competed for and earned greatness.
Sports are appealing for many reasons, but if all they did was give people an opportunity to see undiluted and inarguable excellence, their existence would be justified.