Epic match trumps Champions Ball
By MICHELLE KAUFMAN
IMBLEDON, England -- I was supposed to attend the Wimbledon Champions Ball on Sunday night, and I was quite excited about it. Instead, my borrowed dress remains on a hanger, my car service has been canceled, and I am emotionally drained after watching one of the most thrilling tennis matches in history.
It isn't every day a sportswriter receives an invitation to the Wimbledon champions dinner, so I was determined to be there following the much-anticipated men's final between No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal.
The annual event is held the evening of the men's final, at a posh hotel in London, and it is attended by about 300 tennis dignitaries, including the recentlycrowned champions. Each year, they invite a few journalists from the country of the champions. Because Venus and Serena Williams live in Palm Beach Gardens, I was chosen.
It starts at 10 p.m., so even factoring in a few rain delays, I figured I'd have plenty of time to cover the 2 p.m. men's match, write my story and get dolled up for the Ball.
Invited guests who didn't pack proper attire (like myself), are provided formal wear through a company called Having a Ball Dress Hire. They transform the ladies locker room into a boutique, resplendent with racks of gowns, piles of fancy shoes and bags, and a beautiful assortment of jewelry. It was like a free fashion buffet -- every woman's dream.
Imagine my surprise, when as I was trying on a satin burgundy gown, Venus herself walked in on me. Yes, the five-time Wimbledon champion walked in on me as I was changing. Talk about an awkward journalism moment. She was there selecting a dress for her mother, Oracene.
Needless to say, Venus didn't need to borrow a dress for herself. She brings one from home. We had a nice chat, and then I headed out to cover the men's match and she headed home to get ready for The Ball.
I settled into my Centre Court seat, and began taking notes. This was the final every fan and journalist wanted. The Swiss No. 1 against the Spanish No. 2. Contrasting styles. The sublime Federer, in his herringbone sweater, against the aggressive Nadal, in his muscle shirt and Capri pants. The King of Grass (65 in a row on turf) against the King of Clay (four consecutive French Open titles).
This was their third consecutive meeting in the Wimbledon final. It went four sets two years ago. It went five sets last year. Surely, we were in for a classic. Bjorn Borg was in the front row of the Royal Box, watching as one of his records would be broken.
Either five-time champion Roger Federer would surpass Borg to become the first man with six consecutive Wimbledon titles, or Nadal would become the first man since Borg to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back.
The first game included a 14-point rally. Oh, my. This is good stuff. Nadal broke Federer early, and the tension mounted. ''I've never seen Roger this nervous on grass,'' said a security guard. The two players matched each other shot for shot and wound up in spine-tingling rallies.
Nadal would get to break point, Federer would unleash an ace down the center line. Federer would hit what looked like an unreachable cross-court winner, and Nadal would lunge, swing his muscular arm into the ball, and somehow get it back over.
And so it went . . . until Nadal took a two sets-to-none lead, and Mother Nature, apparently a Federer fan, opened the skies and poured on Centre Court. The tarps come out. Umbrellas go up. I look at my watch. It's 4:52 p.m. Plenty of time to get to The Ball.
They uncover the courts at 6, and play resumes at 6:12 p.m. Plenty of time to get to The Ball, right? But the scintillating play continues from both ends of the court. Back and forth they go, like a see-saw. It's 2-2. It's 3-3. It's 4-4. It's 5-5. It's 6-6. Time for a tiebreaker. Federer serves four aces and wins the set.
It's getting on past 7. They're slugging it out in the fourth set. It's 4-4. It's 5-5. It's 6-6. Another tiebreaker. Nadal takes a 5-2 lead and is serving.
Surely, he will pull off this upset and avoid a fifth set. Or not. He double-faults, Federer wins the next point, and they get to 10-8 before Federer wins the set and forces a fifth.
Oh, no. It's getting cloudy again. Very cloudy, in fact. At 7:53, it rains again. Covers on. Umbrellas up. The Ball is looking iffy. And so is my Monday flight home. If they don't finish this match by nightfall, it will be postponed until Monday. It happened in 2001, when Goran Ivanisevic beat Patrick Rafter.
Part of me is annoyed that my social and travel plans are being ruined, but I can't help but feel lucky to be present for one of the greatest tennis matches ever played. It's 9:16 p.m. The match is finally over. Federer hits a routine forehand into the net. Nadal collapses to the court, and then climbs into the stands to kiss his parents and his uncle. He grabs a Spanish flag. He's crying. I'm crying. It's 10:20 p.m. and Nadal comes in for his press conference. At 2 a.m. I'm filing my story.
I'm exhausted, but this was so much more fun than a ball. I return the dress. It wasn't meant to be. Maybe next year.