Thursday, April 19, 2018


The first time I watched Rafael Nadal play Roger Federer in tennis was in the spring of 2005, which kind of seems like a few lifetimes ago. In the fading light of a Paris evening, Federer and Nadal were grappling toward the end of a tense French Open semifinal.

Federer, from Switzerland, was already the established and beloved champion, trying to fill out the career grand slam by winning the French. He was down two sets to one but digging deep, and the crowd was chanting his name to will him on… “RO-GER! (clap, clap, clap) RO-GER! (clap, clap, clap)” A few months previously, Roger had rallied from down two sets to none to beat Nadal in the Miami Open final, but it had been a grind.

The Spaniard Nadal was the precocious teenager, smashing high-bouncing forehands the seemed to hiss and dive and attack his opponent. He was perfectly suited for grinding clay-court tennis. Once, with Federer at the net, Nadal hammered shot after shot, which Federer kept stabbing back at him. “A shot in the dark,” announcer Mary Carillo said of Federer’s volley winner.

It’s kind of funny what you remember, that all these years later I remember sitting on the couch in my parents’ house, watching that, and the crowd chanting and the color of the clay and Federer at the net in the growing darkness and Carillo’s comment. Nadal went on to win, and take the first of his ridiculous 10 French Open titles.

More than a decade later, after several classic Federer-Nadal matches, I stayed up all night watching the two aging legends battle five riveting sets for the 2017 Australian Open title. I rooted desperately for Federer, like all Fed fans, unable to stand the thought of Roger losing another big match to him.
You see, in all those years of rivalry, Nadal probably became my top sports nemesis. I watched him with a mix of respect and fear, and it was always an event when Nadal was eliminated from a major.

For my friends who saw the animosity up close, it probably seemed fairly ridiculous how passionately I rooted against poor Rafa. I wanted him out of the way for Federer, and to not come near Federer’s records, especially the Holy Grail, most Grand Slam singles titles. It’s like I was a Bond villain, and the lineup of players Nadal faced in tournaments was my lineup of henchmen sent to take him out.

When news of a Nadal injury broke, my reaction was often George Costanza’s “restrained jubilation.”

It was a little over-the-top, especially since the two tennis greats seemed to genuinely like each other, even as they battled again and again for tennis’ biggest prizes. There’s video of the two trying to film a promo for a charity event and they slip into a prolonged giggle fit, an inability to keep a straight face that would make Jimmy Fallon proud.

But in some ways, I came by my disdain honestly. Nadal beat Federer five times at the French Open, four times in the final, including a lopsided straight sets final in 2008 that set the stage for an epic Wimbledon encounter. For years Nadal was the unbeatable roadblock to Federer winning the French Open; Roger finally prevailed in 2009 by beating Robin Soderling in the final after Soderling earlier took out Nadal in a shocking upset.

There were other moments, too. Nadal won in five sets against Federer in the 2009 Australian Open final, which reduced Roger to tears in his post-match address to the crowd. “God, it’s killing me,” Federer said. Nadal put his arm around Roger to console him.

Beyond the results, there was the style difference that deeply divided Federer and Nadal fans, even if in later years more and more of us might be appreciating the difference. Federer is art on a tennis court, a player who spurs the late David Foster Wallace to write brilliant pieces titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” He seems to float and dart just above the court’s surface, hitting an insane variety of shots. He picks his spots to charge to the net with the calculating mind of a chess master. He whips one-handed backhands. Words like grace and elegance and genius are used to describe his game. He plays quickly and barely makes a peep during points. His early career ponytail notwithstanding, his fashion style is dignified, classic, almost aristocratic.

Nadal is power. So much power. He digs in at the baseline and bashes the ball until he wins a point. He is also grit and competitive fire and iron will, running down ball after ball, battling each point as though everything was on the line, saving a bajillion break points and jumping and pumping his fist and me shaking my head and wondering how he ever loses a tennis match. His game seems created to give Federer problems, hitting high lefty topspin forehands to Federer’s one-handed backhand, the ball bounced up way higher than the ideal strike zone for a one-handed backhand. Nadal hitting high and wide serves to Fed’s backhand is basically a tennis cliche at this point. Nadal plays so. Darn. Slowly. And he unleashes loud groans on about every shot. So loud. His fashion style is occasionally cutoff shirts to show his spectacular arms, and freaking long pirate pants… on Centre Court Wimbledon.

Ah yes, Centre Court Wimbledon. I’ve been stalling but we must tread here. Federer beat Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals, running his streak to five straight titles at the All-England Club. They met again in the 2008 final. Nadal was always the chaser, Federer the chased. Nadal had dominated on clay but had not yet won a major on another surface.

The ensuing match was an absolute classic, on the shortest list for greatest match ever. Played at tennis’ most hallowed venue, it was incredibly tense and gripping, the champion and the challenger, opposite equals doing battle, storm clouds brewing to add drama and cause rain delays, the last year without a roof on Centre Court to keep rain away.

Nadal won the first set, and then the second. Federer dug in, not going to give his kingdom up without a fight, winning the third set in a tiebreak. Then Federer took the fourth set in a tiebreak, saving a match point along the way on what he still calls one of the best points of his career. The crowd exploded with roars when the fourth set ended. The fifth set had another rain delay and the two legends battled into near darkness, with Nadal prevailing 9-7.

Federer would recover to win the U.S. Open later that year, but it was a devastating defeat. Fed mentioned it many times since then when citing examples of how tennis can be heartbreaking. He won Wimbledon the next year, in fact winning the tournament three times after that fateful 2008 final and winning eight Grand Slams so far since then. But it was still a tough tough loss. That loss alone would turn Fed fans against Nadal, let alone all the other big matches.

So how on earth did I grow to admire Nadal? Early in the fifth set of that 2017 Australian Open “dream final,” when Nadal was up a break and it looked like the match was following the usual Fed-Nadal script (great drama, very competitive, but Nadal grinds it out in the end), I was a bit distraught. But as the epic decisive set raged on, and Federer dug in and came roaring back, and Nadal battled back, I came to appreciate what I was watching.

“We are all fortunate to be watching this,” ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said.

Nadal had not won a major in three years, and Fed hadn’t in four and a half years. Their rivalry seemed to be reaching its end as far back as 2013. But here they were, battling deep into the night and into their careers, pouring it all out. I cheered deliriously for Federer, but even I could see an appreciate the incredible effort Nadal was putting into the match.

Federer won that night, countering Nadal’s advantage with fearless tactics, including stepping in closer to hammer Nadal’s shots before they could fully rise and be as lethal. It left little margin for error, but Fed’s aggression carried the day. He ripped backhands. That shot was finally not a liability against Rafa.

In the post-match speeches, Federer didn’t gloat at all, instead saying something beautiful that no doubt pushed myself and other Fed fans toward embracing Rafa. Federer spoke of last fall, when he visited Nadal’s tennis academy and they talked about wanting to play a charity match, but they were too injured to do that. They were wounded old lions dreaming of better days, dreaming of pushing back against relentless Father Time. And they had done so.

Then Federer said one more thing, he said he was happy to win, but he would’ve been happy to share the title with Nadal if that were possible. The mutual respect and admiration was obvious.

The two went on a reunion tour of sorts. Federer won Australia, Nadal won the French, Federer won Wimbledon, and Nadal won the U.S. Open, the only major where the two have never played. Nadal finished the year ranked No. 1; Federer was second.

Federer won all four meetings between the two in 2017, lifting his record against Nadal to a pretty respectable 15-23, including 13-10 away from Rafa’s clay. I’m sure the tide turning toward Federer helped my stance some, but it was bigger than that.

Adding to the thaw was the first ever Laver Cup, where Federer and Nadal competed together for Team Europe and even played doubles together, a surreal and fun sight.

So far in 2018, both have taken turns at No. 1. In January, again at Australia, I maybe came full circle on appreciating Rafa. He was struggling with an injury, but he kept fighting. He would win a grueling point and then pump his fist and talk to himself between points, chattering and muttering and willing himself onward, telling himself to keep fighting and keep chipping away.

He eventually hit the end, retiring while losing to Marin Cilic. When I saw pictures of him lying on the court in obvious pain, receiving treatment, I didn’t feel any restrained jubilation. I felt empathy for Nadal, for his body not being able to do what he fought so hard to will it to do.

After all these years, I knew he wasn’t a machine, like it had seemed at his most dominant points. He wasn’t a wall. He was a man; it was his vast human will that had pushed him on, even when fatigued or injured or both. His grit had led him to chase down ball after ball, to keep smashing shots fearlessly and counting on them to dive down inside the lines. There is simply no questioning the raging Spanish bull’s heart.

The beauty of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is that it keeps writing new chapters, even when it was a bestselling book a decade ago. I don’t know what twists and turns remain, and I’m sure I’ll find myself mildly rooting against Nadal if it could help Federer’s chances. But I’ve come to realize that Federer’s 20 Grand Slams and vast career accomplishments aren’t lessened by whatever Nadal does.

And most of all, for my favorite athlete of all time, I couldn’t ask for a more worthy rival.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Mt. Elbert

Zooming along the Top of the Rockies Byway last August, I recognized Mt. Elbert as soon as I saw it, a graceful and lofty pyramid rising on the horizon, looking like you’d handed a child a crayon and asked them to draw a mountain. I study Wikipedia the way men on a higher plane might study Shakespeare or a new language, so I knew the look and shape of the mountain from its well-worn Wiki entry.

Five friends and I had driven there, to Leadville, Colorado, to climb that mountain. Here, reader, I ask for your input. Does it sound more impressive to describe Mt. Elbert, at 14,440 feet, as the highest mountain in Colorado, the highest mountain in the Rockies, or the second-highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. states? (Narrowly trailing only that showoff Mt. Whitney.) Whichever sounds most impressive to you, we’ll go with that.

Also dominating the view was Mt. Massive. The name is appropriate, and it appears even bigger than Elbert from the streets of Leadville. It’s only a dozen feet or so shorter than Elbert, and my mom tells the story of hiking Mt. Massive with her family on a vacation. They didn’t go all the way to the top, but they got so high a thunderstorm and rainbow passed by below them.

So yes, the view is breathtaking, including in the literal sense. If Denver is the Mile High City, Leadville is the two-mile high city. Aspen, where rich people romp, and Vail, where Gerald Ford schussed, are both high altitude skiing towns that are more than 2,000 feet lower than Leadville, situated more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

When I laid down to take a nap at our lovely Air BnB house at the edge of town, I folded my hands over my stomach, striking the pose of a great man lying in state. Before I could get into deep sleep, I found myself startled awake trying to draw a deep breath of thin air. After living most of my life below 1,000 feet, I found I was having to work to get deep enough breaths at the high altitude. The weight of my hands on my stomach was too much of an extra burden.

The thin air surely helped me soar to dunk on the decidedly-less-than-10-feet basketball hoop outside our rented home, and I drank water relentlessly to help ward off altitude sickness.

We had some time to explore Leadville as we tried to acclimate. It’s a quiet old town, but it wasn’t always that way. It was once the second-biggest city in Colorado, a booming mining town.
It was a wild and lawless town in the early days, full of mean men who were good with guns. Then the mayor had the brilliant idea to hire a guy who was even meaner and even better with guns to be the city marshal, and he generally restored order. The Tabor Opera House built by that mayor still stands on the main drag in Leadville.

If more modern ghost stories are your preference, check out the Delaware Hotel. It was creepy and creaky and full of weird old photographs and weird old people who looked alarmingly like the people in the photographs. The receptionist spoke good-naturedly of all the “entities” that were supposedly in the hotel, in the casual manner that I might talk about a round of golf.

We ate at the marvelous Tennessee Pass Cafe the night before our climb. I gamely attempted to go to bed early, even if my body was unsure with that foreign development.

We started our climb before 6 a.m., just as light gathered enough to see. Weighed down by five liters of Smart Water and some food in my backpack, walking at the back of our group and the only one without a significant other, it felt like if this were a horror movie I would be ripe for being the first one picked off.

It wasn’t a horror movie, but the climb proved to be plenty arduous. After a brief stint on the Continental Divide Trail, we turned left onto the South Mount Elbert Trail and climbed steeply. I breathlessly calculated how quickly I could chug water to lighten my load.

After a while the trail leveled off some to become a more steady, gradual climb. The trees thinned and we began to see spectacular views to mountains on the horizon and Twin Lakes and the Arkansas River valley far below. Eventually we got high enough we stopped seeing Aspen trees. And then we got high enough the evergreen trees ceased as well, there going the last option for places to relieve yourself in a dignified manner.

Periodically we would stop and rest and guess how high we’d made it. Other groups would do the same thing, and so we’d seesaw back and forth ahead of each other. One such group included Wisconsin Man, a presence wearing a Badgers sweatshirt and khaki shorts, climbing the peak as a Wisconsin Man would, with as little fuss and gear as possible. He didn’t have a pack at all, perhaps just a water bottle in hand.

As we climbed higher, in general the wind was blocked by the mountain itself, but at one spot some strong winds hit, and I started layering on clothes, cocooning myself in wind-resistant material.

But overall the weather cooperated, the wind was minimal, and the sun shone on us. The trail was less kind, turning and seeming to go straight up a wall.

I metaphorically hit a wall as we churned upward. With my pack on my back, I was leaned forward, nearly on all fours, moving along with the drifting and gradual movements of an astronaut in space. At one point I gathered enough breath to tell my friend Nathan Yount I might be nearing my limit. His response was perfect, just a slight tilt of the head and raise of the eyebrows, and he kept inching forward. That was all the discussion I required, and I kept struggling upward, taking deep, frequent and unsatisfying breaths.

Eventually, mercifully, the extreme steepness yielded to a more gradual, back-and-forth climb, and my optimism grew. We kept at it with a deliberate pace and ample rest breaks.

Once, while resting on a grassy overlook, I was taking a picture of my friends Chase Ruble and Caleb Barron looking out at the spectacular view, when a large and friendly dog happened by. He walked over like an Alpine St. Bernard making a mountain rescue, but instead he lowered his head to inspect the contents of my backpack. Deciding he could do better than Smart Water, Uncrustables, fruit snacks (mostly empty wrappers) and Clif bars, he sauntered on. We would next see him at the summit, where he was the star of the show.

We moved on, but it was far more of a trudge than a saunter. Excelsior. Upward.

Like stores on Black Friday, the terrain above 14,000 feet is not a hospitable place for a human. But we could see the bright colors of people on the summit, and determination was the great rubber band stretched between us and that summit, drawing us closer.

Finally, we made the final steps over shattered rocks to the summit. My friends Seth and Oren Maberry, as brothers do, raced to be the first to set foot on the summit.

We made it, all six of us. The summit was a pretty good-sized area, and pretty well populated, as expected on a nice weather Saturday morning in early August.

The views were staggering in all directions. Mount Massive right next to Elbert. Leadville way down below in the valley. Towering “14er” peaks both near and far, distant ranges a hundred miles away, snow and valleys and lakes.

We took photos, sat together and ate some lunch. We had done it!

… Well, half of it. Next came the little matter of getting down the mountain and back to our car. We had more incredible views and a sense of accomplishment, but more than once I looked back up at the mountain and kind of wondered how we had done it.

Quads quivering, skin pinkening in the sun, and dust rising, we made it back down.

Back at our AirBnB, I toasted our efforts with a glass bottle of pop and housed about six Kings Hawaiian rolls, assuming I had racked up a lifetime carb deficit.

We put the party in climbing party and dined that night as conquering heroes, but also tired, humbled heroes. I had assumed it would be hard to climb the mountain, and it had been even more challenging than expected.

The squeeze had been harder than anticipated, but the juice had been sweeter. A good pair of Nikes, prayers, Uncrustables, the encouragement of great friends and general Midwestern stubbornness had lifted me onward, up to the top of the Rockies and to our little lunch spot in the sky.