published Monday, January 30th, 2012

Wiedmer: Awe-sie final is best match ever

Essie Bartlett couldn't sleep Saturday night. Despite knowing she needed her rest to put in a full day of work at the Manker Patten tennis club, she kept thinking about the Australian Open men's tennis final between world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and second-ranked Rafael Nadal.

Scheduled to begin a little after 3 a.m. local time, she finally woke up for good at 3:45 a.m., turned on ESPN2 and started watching what just might be the best tennis match ever played.

Or don't you think a Grand Slam final going the full five sets and setting a record for the most elapsed time in a major tourney final (5 hours and 53 minutes) could be anything less than the best?

"It was definitely a good one," Ms. Bartlett said of Djokovic's eventual 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 victory over Nadal, which is also his third straight Grand Slam tourney win over the former No. 1.

"It's all anyone's been talking about around here all day."

It could be all that tennis fans talk about for years to come, in much the same way the first John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg Wimbledon final in 1980 is fondly revisited, or Nadal's fifth-set, rain-delayed, barely-enough-sunlight-to-finish Wimbledon win over Roger Federer in 2008 is recalled.

"I thought it was unbelievable," said McCallie coach Eric Voges, who turned this Awe-sie Open on around 6:30 a.m. "It would have to be one of the top four or five Grand Slam matches ever. And one thing I liked about it was that it was just hard-fought tennis. It was entertaining for the tennis, not the showmanship. These two guys have such respect for each other and show such sportsmanship. It's not like those old [Jimmy] Connors-McEnroe matches."

Manker Patten general manager and Baylor School director of tennis Ned Caswell played on the pro circuit after graduating from Furman.

He didn't get to see most of the match but he saw enough to observe, "The level of play was sickening. It just seems physically impossible to do what they did. I played a few three-and-a-half-hour matches, but that match was so much more physical than anything I played against. It has to be compared to the epic matches of all-time. I really don't see how it can get better than that."

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga womens' coach Jeff Clark played on satellite tours in Europe after starring at both McCallie and Vanderbilt. Having watched Nadal square the match at 2-all when the Spaniard rallied from a 5-3 hole in the fourth-set tiebreaker, he headed off to church with his family, confident that Rafa had seized momentum and halted his losing streak to the Djoker at six matches, all of them in tourney finals.

"I'd put the Australian Open app on my phone," said Clark, a huge Nadal fan. "When I got out of church I checked the score, saw Djokovic had come back and won and said, 'You gotta be kidding me!'

"But what an amazing match. They're in these grueling 20-to-30-shot rallies after being on the court for five hours. Just to see the foot speed, flexibility and finesse. Maybe now more people will see these guys as the same elite athletes as football or basketball players."

A single quote from Djokovic to support that belief: "You're suffering so much your your toes are bleeding."

There's at least a wee bit of evidence that the brilliance of these two players -- along with third-ranked Roger Federer -- may be starting to bleed over into the tennis interests of young Americans.

Just Saturday, while giving lessons to a young girl, Voges noticed her bouncing the ball several times before each serve, much as Djokovic has long done.

Turning to the girl's mother to ask why, Voges was greeted with, "She's been watching the Australian Open," before he could pop his question.

So maybe this match will spur a growth in American tennis not witnessed since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when McEnroe, Connors, Bjorg, Chris Evert and Tracy Austin had kids everywhere learning the game.

Clark even joked that the match's stunning length could alter the DVR industry.

"It's not good for DVRs, but it's great for tennis," he laughed. "I'm sure a lot of people set their DVRs for an extra hour and still missed the end of it."

It certainly caused a shock at Manker Patten, according to Bartlett, whose husband Tommy might be the greatest senior player in U.S. history.

"A lot of people were planning to watch the replay at 9 [a.m.]," she said. "Instead, they got to watch the last hour of the match live."

Said Clark, "I just hope we get to see these two again in the French Open final."

Or better yet, to quote Djokovic after the fifth Grand Slam title of his career put him halfway to Nadal's 10: "Hopefully, [Rafa and I] will have many more matches like this in many more finals."

And at least until this time next year, none of the remaining three majors will begin in the wee small hours of the American morning.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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