Friday Night, Part 1
It’s July 13th, 2018, a little after 11pm, and I’m slouched on a child’s beanbag on the floor, five feet from the television screen in our front room. The TV is not one of those ultra-HD behemoths that can dominate any room in any house. It’s small and it’s borrowed, but from five feet away it’s done the trick tonight, as it’s done the trick all summer.
I’m watching tennis, the Wimbledon men’s semi-finals. Novak Djokovic, the Serbian all-time great, who has by this time won 12 Grand Slam tournaments and on three occasions been a Wimbledon champion, is playing Rafael Nadal, the Spanish all-time great, winner of 17 Grand Slams and twice champ at Wimbledon. Both men are now in their 30s. Their bodies have entered that phase of a sportsman’s life where they are no longer capable of sustaining over an entire season the level of performance they may once have done. For these two—two-thirds of a triumvirate, alongside maybe the best of them all, the Swiss Roger Federer—reaching and sustaining their greatness even for the full duration of a Grand Slam fortnight is all but impossible now. They have reached the down days of careers in which their bodies have been fed through the mill several times more than is good for long-term health. (It’s the paradox of the competitive sportsperson: exercise and nutrition are key components in optimal physical and mental health for the rest of us, but for the pros, the search for glory comes at the grave expense of their long-term wellbeing, and often the glory is elusive too.)
Their greatness—the greatness of reputation, of garlands, of silverware and money and all the trappings of success—is assured. But you suspect that for Nadal and Djokovic, such a definition is either too narrow, or too broad. That if you take away all the outcomes, and they are left just with the elongated moment of peak performance, still they’d be happy and content.
For most matches in most tournaments, that greatness may elude them these days.
For one match, though, it could still be within their grasp.
For one match.
For this match.
For this match, played beneath closed roof and floodlights, the midsummer sun long gone down and a snakeline of eager spectators creeping along the footpaths outside south London’s Centre Court, optimistically awaiting “one out, one in” access whenever someone who had been inside makes a late-evening decision, however incomprehensible, that they have someplace better they need to be.
That they are even here at this time, past Wimbledon’s 11pm curfew, is an occasion in itself. Late evening play at Wimbledon has traditionally been prompted only by weather delays, but no such impediments presented themselves today, for men’s semi-finals day, when play started on time at 1pm and progressed uninterrupted from there, the sun shining as it had done every day in this already long dry summer.
Djokovic and Nadal had been tentatively pencilled in for 3.45pm, although the start times for anything beyond the first match of the day can never be set in stone in Grand Slam tennis, when men’s singles matches over best of five sets can typically take anywhere from two hours to five, or beyond.
Sometimes well beyond.
In 2010, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played a first round men’s singles match at Wimbledon which sprawled out endlessly over three days. By the time the last ball had been hit, the match clock stopped at eleven hours and five minutes. Back then, Isner, the lanky American, won the 138th game of the fifth set to finally nose those two games in front of Frenchman Mahut, on a frankly ludicrous winning score of 6–4, 3–6, 6–7, 7–6, 70–68. The US Open ended the possibility of such chaos by changing its rules so that the final set would go to a tiebreak at 12-12, and by 2019 Wimbledon—largely because of the two matches mentioned here—would go the same way.
Eight years later, hours before Djokovic-Nadal 2018, Isner was at the centre of things once again. He had won through to his first Wimbledon semi-final and his match against Kevin Anderson, a similarly tall, similarly torpedo-serving South African, eventually finished more than six and a half hours after it started. This time Isner was on the wrong end of it, losing 26-24 in the fifth. The time was almost 7.45pm on a Friday evening.
Through it all, Djokovic and Nadal had waited, presumably patiently, presumably in or near their shared locker-room just off Wimbledon’s Centre Court. They could do nothing but wait. Today or tonight or tomorrow, their turn to walk the walk onto the world’s most famous tennis arena—second nature to them, alien to the rest of us—would come, eventually.
If Nadal and Djokovic were presumably patient, as the evening wore on there was considerably less of that virtue detectable among the gathered hordes. The general restlessness as Anderson and Isner smashed down serve after serve was perhaps not audible amongst the polite attendees at the All-England Club, but it was certainly so among casual watchers from afar. Twitter, routinely the angriest of angry rooms, lamented that a match between two giant grunts was delaying what was seen as the main event. The warm-up act had long since outlived its purpose, and now they had eaten gravely into the time of Sammy Davis and Sinatra. The main event was so tantalising that when Isner and Anderson eventually hauled their weary bodies off the stage few were unhappy to see them go.
I come from the sports TV generation. A child of 1977, I grew up alongside the explosion in live televised sport. Amongst the typical childhood memories—the first day at school, my mother at work in the kitchen with Gay Byrne on the radio, sand between my toes on a day at the beach—are an almost unlimited flow of memories of sport, and not just sport but the experience of watching it.
Said Aouita in the 5000 metres at the Los Angeles Olympics is a memory every bit as vivid as John Treacy’s silver in the marathon that same week; strange, perhaps, as Olympic medals of any colour were rare events for Irish athletes. I recall Norman Whiteside’s curling extra-time winner in the FA Cup final in 1985, but it’s with some bitterness: I loved Everton, and was an aspiring goalkeeper, so shots of a beaten, prone Neville Southall gave me no joy at all. I kept an Irish Independent Mexico 86 wall-chart slid beneath my uncle’s couch, and made the short walk across the field every evening to watch a game and fill it in. Diego Maradona was the face and the star of that World Cup, never more than in his cunning-and-charm performance for the ages against England in the quarter-finals, but Preben Elkjaer, Emilio Butragueno, Igor Belanov, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Michel Platini and Zico are immortal in my mind, not to mention the spider-shadow on the pitch at the Azteca Stadium and the deep square nets that hung from the goalposts and seemed to make every goal more beautiful a sight. Deaths at Heysel and Hillsborough did little to diminish the appeal of these far-off fields beamed live into my sitting room. When Mike Powell long-jumped eight metres and 91 centimetres, I was watching, home alone in an aunt’s house in Dublin for reasons that have long since become unknowable. I was there when Shane Warne first-balled Mike Gatting, when Boris Becker dived full length on the grass, and when Ayrton Senna crashed. In 1990, when it seemed like the entire country headed for Dublin to welcome the Irish team home from Italia ‘90, I saw off the rest of the family and settled in alone for England 3-2 Cameroon.
Spectator sport is nothing without at least one of three things: skin in the game, context and back-story, and something real and tangible at stake. I generally resisted the skin in the game. At 21, I drank pints at a bar counter and celebrated Manchester United’s unlikely injury time rise from the ashes to beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, and immediately felt sullied, a feeling which persisted for decades. Partisanship was an insult to the art I was fortunate enough to observe.
But those other two—context and back-story on the one hand, and something real and tangible at stake on the other—if those two are present it’s possible to enjoy, more than enjoy, to be fully and hopelessly invested in, any sporting occasion, irrespective of the standard or grade.
Too often in modern professional sport, both the context and the stakes are blurred entirely by relentless repetition and persistent prostitution before the altar of commerce. Take a game between Real Madrid and Barcelona, for example. It is a monumental occasion, enough to be dubbed El Clásico, but in each of the past two completed seasons, from 2017-19, these two giants of Spanish football met eight times. In the previous ten years, they met 34 times. Such repetitiveness, played out against the backdrop hum of the hype machine, dilutes the beauty so much that everything ultimately becomes forgettable. Much professional sport, therefore, has been reduced to the equivalent of momentarily diverting wallpaper rather than the heroic battleground-by-proxy I had grown to love, brought to life with colour and depth and tone and everything on the line. When participants generally seem more interested in riches beyond their wildest dreams than a glorious moment of true grace, the division of the spoils seems trite and insignificant and devoid of any honour. When there is always another battle, a few weeks or months down the line, the present one ceases to have much meaning.
Frequent repetition alone would be enough to chip away at the importance of such occasions.
The trouble is that the erosion is magnified, speeded up, by other forces. It’s a case of frequency squared, with each contest spun into further nauseating irrelevance by the endless hyperbole of rolling news channels and dedicated sports papers and websites, each seeking to exploit or contrive the most tenuous angle in a bid to provide their own outlet or masthead with the momentary oxygen of some precious attention from the perpetually distracted masses. But ultimately the attention is short-lived and the oxygen runs out, and the whole media survival circus is compelled to crank things up again, seeking the next hit.
In so much pro sport now, this hype/frequency matrix has each slider cranked perilously close to the max—but not at the max yet. No, the max is still to come, awaiting us on the far side of sport’s black hole of final irrelevance.
Such a situation is repeated virtually the world over, and like just about everything, it’s hard to argue that the Internet isn’t a contributing factor. The nature of our all-things-on-demand-at-all-times culture has elevated the significance of the few moments in the collective life of humans that are not on-demand.
In the past everything happened on a schedule, with the unavoidable wait time that a schedule incurs. If you’re of a certain age you might remember discussing the latest developments in a hit TV series—The Sopranos or The Wire, say—at an office watercooler or bar counter or in a long email thread with friends. How quaint that all seems now.
Now, with millions of hours—All Episodes Available Now!, scream the promos—available at any given second, when Netflix and YouTube and Spotify and Amazon give us almost everything we could ever want to watch, listen to or read, whenever we want it, when almost everything is ours at any moment we choose, we find ourselves reduced to cast-off consumers of entertainment, lost in an endless sea of freedom of choice.
The global Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 brought the essential moments and privileges—of health, food, family, community, and freedom of movement—into sharp focus, and further cast a light on the “Everything Now” environment we had created and contributed to, and the habits forged by such an environment. Sporting competition ceased overnight, and the lasting appeal of such competition was rendered clear by its very absence. Pandemics apart, only a handful of occasions truly captivate the simultaneous attention of even a segment of humanity: presidential elections or social revolutions or major sporting occasions happen in a particular place, at a particular time. Even tragedies are tragically dispensable, pawed at and quickly kicked aside for the next news item in the vicious, voracious and never-ending 24-hour cycle.
It is difficult to escape the feeling that we’re being herded like sheep in a pen, and our pen is surrounded by wall-to-wall HD screens and bright yellow tickers yelling “EXCLUSIVE” or “JUST IN” or “BREAKING”. The most important thing that’s breaking, though, is not the latest sound bite from a heavily sanctioned press conference, but our collective connection to things that were once so vital. All is illuminated and all is choreographed, and we are at once the customer and the product: we are the customer because we pay with our monthly subscriptions and our pay-per-views and the daily frittering away of our time and attention; and we are the product because the attention we offer up so routinely is bought for obscenely big bucks by YouTube pre-roll ad auctions and television rights highest bidders.
This reality is everywhere we look.
But every once in a while something new and strange occurs, some restoration of natural order amid the artifice and the fake importance of man-made intensity. Like every act of God, this shift is always unexpected. Against the reality of authentic high stakes, the manufactured drama so regularly served up becomes laughable. As though we were witnessing nature in all its force and glory, authentic high stakes pin us down and force us to sit quiet and wide-eyed and gawp with wonder at the majesty of what we’re witnessing.
Sport has the power to do this to large tranches of humanity, and because by definition it happens on a schedule—the fixtures at least, if not always the drama—it shouldn’t be surprising that big business would try to harness that power and bask in its reflected glory in the form of sponsorships and endorsements and advertising.
Yet the power of authentic high stakes and deep-rooted context—combining to create an occasion where everything is on the line—cannot be artificially manufactured. The weight of tradition alone takes decades to create and attempts to stimulate it artificially are almost certain to end in failure. The rest—the indescribable sorcery of a Leo Messi sprint-speed two-touch control, one-touch finish against Nigeria in the 2018 World Cup, or a Joe Canning sideline cut, or a Rafa Nadal backhand drop-shot from the baseline at match-point down—is rare to witness and utterly impossible to cultivate, like the gossamer blossom of a flower that blooms for one week every year and grows only above the tree line on Kilimanjaro.
By some strange unknown alchemy, and usually when least expected, things come together to produce moments of inexpressible drama. The bare minimum requirements are: first, the awareness of everyone involved—participants, adjudicators and spectators alike—of the context, tradition and history against which the occasion is being played out; and second, high stakes borne out of so much more than mere money, its importance resting more on glory and honour, authentic glory and honour, truly precious and wonderful human intangibles in a world where their manufactured equivalents lay claim to our senses everywhere we look.
A bonus extra ingredient can take things to another level entirely: that the occasion is rare or even unique and never to be repeated in precisely the way that it is unfolding here and now before our eyes.
As Wimbledon’s Centre Court roof slid closed and the lights came on and play continued late into the night, it became clear that this semi-final between Nadal and Djokovic was one such occasion.
Friday Night, Part 2
While most people with an interest in the goings-on at Wimbledon on that Friday evening in July 2018 had been hoping for several hours that the two unattractive sluggers would get it over with, I, for one, watching on from afar and never even having been in the vicinity of SW19 in south London, was one of the few who was happy Anderson and Isner had taken so long to sort things out.
The beanbag had been stationed on the floor of the front room, three feet from the TV, for about a month. I had found myself absent-mindedly setting down there for Uruguay v Egypt in the second game of the FIFA World Cup at lunchtime on June 15th, and it became my home whenever possible for the next four weeks.
Three-match World Cup days came and went. Initially motivated by and soon discouraged by events on the football fields in Russia, I regularly found myself lying flat out and full-length, misshapen beanbag morphed into makeshift pillow. Though I was fortunate to ship no damage to my spinal cord, all those hours passed in passive attention to the movements of 22 men and a ball 3,500 kilometres away did little to lift my spirits.
Fortuitously, I found that I picked my battles well. In need to get some real work done, I gave France-Denmark a miss and the only 0-0 draw of the tournament passed uneventfully without me. I was travelling across country on the night England were due to face Belgium in the group stages, but prior results had rendered the match meaningless so it wasn’t at all dispiriting to miss it. On another day my schedule allowed me to bolt for the beanbag in time for the second half of Korea-Germany, a game not highly anticipated, to put it charitably, but which resulted in some of the tournament’s highest drama. Cho, the unheralded, unknown Korean goalkeeper, produced the performance of his and several other lifetimes. At the other end, his superstar opposite number Neuer ended the game mobbed and dispossessed in the opposing half of the field and Son sprinted through, unopposed, to stroke the ball to an empty net and dump Germany, the World Cup’s defending champions, out after the first round.
World Cups, in spite of corruption at the governing body, offer a saving grace amid the remarkable ascent of football’s riches and the corresponding decline in its general appeal. For one thing, the absence of a marketplace where everything has a price and today’s obscene sums become tomorrow’s baselines, ensures the tournament can be reduced to which team has the best coach, the sturdiest systems, the greater talent or the most luck. For another, the four-year rhythm layers on some of the ingredients that are essential for unforgettable drama: the fear, anxiety and wonder engendered by the knowledge that this one time in history will never been repeated.
As so often happens in World Cups, though, the novelty wore off after the first couple of weeks. It was generally heralded as a fine tournament and there were several memorable match-ups: Belgium’s recovery from two goals down to master Japan deep into injury time; France’s 4-3 win over Argentina which signalled the arrival on the world stage of Kylian Mbappé, soccer’s newest superstar; Belgium, again, holding out against Brazil in arguably the one true heavyweight showdown of the tournament. The soundtrack of England’s stroll to the semi-finals was a social media refrain of “It’s coming home”, a grandstand, bandstand and sidestreet renewal of the Baddiel, Skinner and Lightning Seeds song of 1996 that started out in 2018 as a self-deprecating irony (England were, after all, without a win in knock-out tournament football in 12 years) but somehow became transformed, or was seen to transform, into a show of English arrogance. But overall, by the time the World Cup finalists had been decided—Mbappé and France to meet the surprise packages Croatia—the whole thing had the feel of the dawn hours following a heady party where for a short while everything was possible, but where now humdrum reality had settled in and almost everyone had gone home apart from a couple of tired revellers trying to hide their fatigue and console themselves with a little razzmatazz for their own enjoyment.
The summer had also seen heatwaves and hosepipe bans, and it was against this backdrop of endless sport and endless sun that the Wimbledon men’s semi-finals were taking place. The Friday before the World Cup final was a day free from World Cup action and, on its third to last day, the old Wimbledon tournament had finally been given the chance to walk into the spotlight. It was Isner-Anderson then Djokovic-Nadal and Centre Court was full, collectively keen to give the combatants in the first match a couple of hours of respectful attention before settling in for the main event.
My Friday had started with a 90-minute train journey from Drogheda in the east of Ireland to Belfast in the north for a business meeting. A second appointment pencilled in for later the same day—in my first year as a freelancer, I had become acutely aware of the need to maximise efficiency of time by organising at least two meetings for work trips—was cancelled at short notice, and my return train was due in at 3.45pm. With the rational brain at work, the schedule for the day had been mapped out with creative and business projects in mind, but as the hours passed and the end-of-week feeling took over on the train journey home, the ungovernable heart took charge and my thoughts turned repeatedly to the unexpected chance of settling in to watch two of the world’s greatest ever sportsmen engage in a duel to the bitter end.
I visualised the green sward of Wimbledon scuffed brown at either end by two weeks of battle, and I allowed myself to imagine the commentary of Andrew Castle, Boris Becker and John McEnroe in my eardrums. (Castle on his own is hardly an elixir; take Becker and McEnroe and plonk them down anywhere else on earth and they will not be long to reassume the mantle of their outsized egos; but place all three in a commentary box at Wimbledon, and something warm and soothing happens.)
I could feel the comfort of a beanbag on the sitting room floor.
I opened my phone and searched Google for “Wimbledon” to check the status of Isner-Anderson, for no other reason but to gauge the potential start time of the second semi-final. I checked in throughout the train journey, the little flickering green light indicating that the match was still in play.
One set all.
Two sets to one, Isner.
Two sets all, the fourth set the first so far to have been decided without requiring a tiebreak.
As the fifth and final set was starting I made it home, but there was a commitment to an under-7 soccer team at 6. Two small-sided matches. There and back: 90 minutes total, home by 7.15pm. While trying to remain steadfast for the under-7 boys, I stole occasional peeks at my phone.
Isner-Anderson 16-16 in the fifth.
After the boys finished their game, I paced quickly to the car and headed for the house, a small part of me holding out hope that one of the two giant servers would wilt and I might see an hour of Nadal and Djokovic before darkness settled in.
Isner-Anderson 24-24 in the fifth.
I reached the beanbag at 7.45pm.
Five minutes later, Anderson had match point, and converted.
The concept of preordained fate had never made much sense to me, but in that moment something stirred inside. The events of this day, which had started with a train departure 12 hours earlier and no plans for this moment, seemed meant to be.