Every athlete needs a signature moment to make history. Titles and championships and stats are needed too, of course. Something has to fill the record books. But the moment adds pictures and memories and oohs and aahs to the words and numbers.
Muhammad Ali had the Thrilla in Manilla, and another one in Zaire. John Elway had The Drive, and Joe Montana The Catch, and Willie Mays the over-the-shoulder nab. Babe Ruth pointed (supposedly) to the bleachers. Michael Jordan? Well, he had a bunch of them.
So after Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in 5 hours, 53 minutes in the final of the Australian Open Sunday, he took the microphone and told Nadal over the PA system: “We made history tonight.’’ He was talking about it being the longest major final ever.
The truth is, Djokovic moved into history because of the match itself.
A classic. An epic. It might have been the greatest match ever played, though I’m still putting Nadal’s moment – the win over Roger Federer at Wimbledon – ahead of it, as well as at least one of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe Wimbledon finals.
But this was the greatest example of two athletes reaching their absolute physical, mental and emotional limits, giving every last drop.
Imagine a cartoon: Roger Federer standing on top of a mountain, or maybe floating a few inches above it, saying “This is the golden era of tennis.” Meanwhile, a bunch of other players, including Rafael Nadal, hurt with crutches and bandages are in a pile at his feet.
You might have heard that Federer and Nadal — the greatest, nicest individual rivalry in sports — are having a tiff. Nadal complains that the tour has too many mandatory events, is too grueling, has almost no offseason and is beating up the players. Federer, as the president of the player council, doesn’t seem to notice.
“For him, it’s good to say nothing,” Nadal said. “Everything positive. ‘It’s all well and good for me. I look like a gentleman,’ and the rest can burn themselves.”
Nadal is right. Federer is oblivious. But this is a much bigger problem than two superstars bickering. The players are in serious need of a union. So many of them know it, but they just can’t seem to figure out how to get it done. At the US Open in September, Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick went in unity to tournament officials to complain about being forced to play on slippery, rained-on courts just to make TV networks happy.
“It’s the same old story,” Nadal said. “All you think about is money.”
That seemed to be the beginnings of a union. Now, Federer suddenly is an obstacle. And Nadal is example No. 1 of why the union is needed. So the rivalry takes on a different tone.
What makes Nadal an example? The thing is, at just 25, he is starting to get old. He can feel it. He can see it.
Greg Couch is a national general columnist at FoxSports.com, and has traveled the world covering tennis. He is a member of the International Tennis Writers Association. A former sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, he is an award-winning journalist whose tennis writing has been anthologized in the book "The Best American Sportswriting."