On a lazy Friday evening, after a friend and I had watched Roger Federer beat Lleyton Hewitt in straight sets in the Wimbledon semis, we talked for a while about near-invincible champions and whether they’re good for a sport.
Conventional wisdom tells us no. Surely it isn’t good for cricket that Australia has been so dominant and for so long (and surely it’s a good sign that that dominance is now coming to an end). And similarly it can’t be good for tennis that its number one male player has beaten the world number two in eight consecutive matches without appearing to break sweat. I’ve read recent sports edits (and even a few blog posts) bemoaning the lack of a great rivalry in men’s tennis, and they all have a point. Even when there clearly is daylight between the best player/team and the next-best, it’s good to at least see something resembling a contest. Maybe Federer could have dropped a set in that semi before reasserting his supremacy, just to make the whole thing more interesting to watch; to add an element of suspense before the inevitable happened. Maybe Australia, at their peak, should have occasionally gone into the final Test of a series against their main rivals South Africa with the scoreline reading 1-1 instead of 2-0.
But of course, in practice it doesn’t work that way when the greatest champions are shining at their brightest, and why should it?
I’m not a big Federer fan yet, though I think I probably will be before too long. But in my years as a sports watcher (and that’s been a relatively short period) I’ve been a big fan of at least two of sport’s greatest champions: the Australian Test team from 1995 onwards, and Pete Sampras on grass between 1994 and 2001. Even while recognizing that their dominance wasn’t good for their respective sports on some level, that there was monotony in the predictability of their success, I savoured their every win. And here’s the strange thing: when they played I didn’t want a "good sporting contest", all I wanted was to see them crush the opposition in the most decisive way possible. Sampras at Wimbledon, beating all contenders in straight sets in the big matches. Australia everywhere, winning the first two Tests of a three-match series against S Africa by innings margins.
My friend felt the same way about the Federer-Hewitt match. He wouldn’t have minded the Wimbledon semi going into a four-setter, he said – it would have made for a longer, more memorable match and would have been good for the spectators too - but speaking from the heart, what he really wanted to see was Federer wrapping it up in three sets and asserting his dominance completely.
I think the reason is that when, once every 20 or so years in the history of a sport, a player or team comes along that is clearly leagues ahead of any contemporary, our gut response is to want to witness the full measure of that ability. Instinct (only later backed by statistics) tells us we’re seeing something special and we want to see how much more special it can get; we want to see the limits stretched. For the sake of political correctness, we might half-heartedly agree with the complete-dominance-isn’t-good stance. But secretly, when such a star does make its presence felt, we want to see it shine at its brightest, dwarfing everything around it.
There’s another, more poignant aspect: when we’re watching a champion in full flow, the knowledge that a day of dethronement must follow adds urgency to the desire to see the best he has to offer. Take Sampras. When his decline began, what a decline it was! I remember the thrill I felt watching his progress in that 2001 US Open where he came in after a spate of injury/fitness problems, nowhere near his best, and then proceeded to knock off all his major competitors one by one. Agassi, Rafter and then, memorably, the young Safin who had rudely beaten him in the previous year’s final. Sampras swept past them all to reach the 2001 final and as far as I was concerned, that was it: he was going to win, he was the Champion again, he would be champion forever. But I woke up the next morning to find that he had lost to a young upstart named Hewitt, and that was the beginning of the end; a new generation had taken over the marquee. As Pistol Pete began to look vulnerable, it became more imperative to cherish his days of glory.
Likewise with the Australian team. I became seriously interested in cricket very late, in 1995 or so, which is when Mark Taylor’s Australians had just risen to the summit of the game. What this basically means is that I have never known cricket without Australia as its leading team, and it now seems that in another couple of years (if not sooner) I will. Even if I hadn’t been such a big fan of the team, I’d probably have felt a tinge of regret, or at least nostalgia, at its passing.
I imagine there will be a similar poignancy when we see Federer’s light begin to fade a few years from now. That’s when we’ll look back and treasure the memory of these crushing three-set victories and say bollocks to polite notions of "competitive matches" and "good sporting contests". There are times when those niceties stop mattering.