Tomorrow’s Wimbledon Men’s Final match between Scot Andy Murray and Swede Roger Federer has got to be one of the most-anticipated tennis clashes in recent history. Both men are extremely talented and well-respected in the tennis community. Both men have a shot at history. More on that in a second.
For many, it’s hard to get excited about tennis. There are only four regular tournaments the sports media covers, and when they’re covered, they’re usually relegated to ESPN 2 or worse. Add to that time zone changes, which lead to matches starting at seven or eight in the morning. Not a good combination for ratings, or anticipation at any level.
But then there are tennis fans, who follow the sport loyally and wake up early because it’s what they love. This is the audience that comprises the a large part of Grand Slam viewership. The other part is less dependable but more mainstream – the audience that wakes up from a tennis-deprived slumber when a great match presents itself. That’s who I hope will be watching tomorrow morning when Federer and Murray take to the grass at the All-England Club.
They’ll be watching two men, both of whom are making a run at history.
For Roger Federer, age 30, tomorrow’s final is old news. He’s won Wimbledon six times, including five times straight from 2003-2007. Across his career, he boasts an 82% match win percentage, he’s won 74 career titles, and has raked in more than $71 million in winnings. Add to that lucrative endorsements from the likes of Rolex, Nike, and Gillette. Federer’s résumé could not be more flush. He is the Tom Brady of the tennis world.
So why should anyone cheer for Tom Brady to win another Super Bowl? Because many would argue this Tom Brady has since hit his peak. Since 2009, he’s won just one Grand Slam final – the 2010 Australian Open. Though his streak of consecutive quarterfinal appearances is intact (and now a world record), Federer has slowed down. The stretch of absolute dominance that began in 2003 ended, and the last major final that included an “R. Federer” was the 2011 French Open. In a sport where contemplating retirement by age 30 is more than normal, it’s not unreasonable to ask if this could be Federer’s last chance for one more Slam title. Federer also hopes to cement his name in the history books by achieving a seventh Wimbledon championship – placing him atop the all-time leader board with Pete Sampras and William Renshaw, tennis legends both who share the record.
While Roger Federer is looking for a comeback, and more accolades – Andy Murray is fighting for his country’s very reputation. It’s well known in the tennis community that the U.K. hasn’t had a Wimbledon winner since 1936, and hasn’t even had a representative in a final match since 1938. Murray already has broken that 74-year “curse” by just getting to the finals, but now his country demands a championship. The English media has hyped this chance at a title to no end – if you don’t believe me, just check today’s papers.
Murray is a very good tennis player, but he’s no Roger Federer, either. He “only” has 22 titles to his name, and his highest worldwide ranking was again, “only” two. And while he’s seen a great deal of success at tournaments like the Australian Open, Murray is also viewed as somewhat of a serial semifinalist, at least at larger venues (like Wimbledon). Not only is Murray chasing history for his country, but a win over Federer tomorrow would solidify him as one of the world’s best players.
So I find myself with a tennis match tomorrow morning in which I have no idea who to support. Both men have good claims, and great story lines if they win. All I can ask for is a five-set thriller, and that the non-tennis watching world wakes up and pays attention. It’s not often a final this compelling comes along, with such compelling players. Who knows when one will come our way again?
I have a confession to make.
Despite how much I prattle on and on about the fact that Ryan Grant is underrated, that Brooks Conrad should never pinch hit, and the Bret Bielema should really learn how to use timeouts, I’m relatively new to this whole sports thing. In fact, I’ve really only been paying attention to professional sports since 2007.
I was raised in a culture (read: Wisconsin) that worships professional sports. The Packers, Brewers, and Badgers all have rabid fans here. But my parents never really followed any of these teams, and so neither did I. Sure I knew who Brett Favre was, and my grandmother occasionally had a game on TV when we were over, but I wasn’t exposed to football or baseball the same way I feel so many around me were. That all changed in 2007, when the Green Bay Packers compiled an astounding 13-3 regular season record.
I followed the regular season from afar, mostly checking stats online and learning about football as I went. The first Packer game I actually remember watching was the 2007-08 NFC Championship game, against the New York Giants. The Packers were heavy favorites to make the Super Bowl after the Dallas Cowboys were eliminated, and the New York Giants were just some upstart Wild Card who had managed to rattle off a few upsets. And yet the Giants
won that game 23-20, in overtime. I remember that loss vividly. It hurt. This was OUR year, we were the team that was supposed to WIN. I couldn’t believe Brett Favre threw that interception. I couldn’t believe Lawrence Tynes finally made a field goal.
But despite the tough postseason loss, I couldn’t really complain. The Packers had a great 13-3 season. It was their best year since 1997. And as a fledgling football fan, I had to appreciate that.
Ever since then, I’ve had it pretty cushy as a pro sports fan. The Packers? They’ve had just one losing season since then, a promising 6-10 campaign with new starter Aaron Rodgers under center. They won a Super Bowl. They had two other postseason appearances. They almost had a perfect season.
And it doesn’t stop at the NFL. I started watching Badger Basketball in 2009. In the three seasons I’ve been a fan, they’ve made the NCAA tournament all three years, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen twice, and dropping just 28 games across those three years. Badger Football? I started watching in 2010, and they’ve been to two Rose Bowls. I started watching the Milwaukee Brewers just last year, the year they won their first division title since 1982.
Suffice it to say, I’ve been spoiled. I’ve never really had to cheer for a losing team. Which is why the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers have been so vexing. The Brewers are now 28-34, and as I type this they just lost a game to one of the worst teams in baseball (Kansas City, 26-34), after blowing a two-run lead in the ninth and losing with a walk-off walk. Yes, a walk-off walk.
The 2011 Brewers were fun to watch. They went on a 23-3 run in the second half of the season. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun were offensive monsters. John Axford saved almost every game he had a chance to. But none of that magic has translated to this year. Prince Fielder left for Detroit. John Axford has blown two saves this year already, and an unfortunate string of injuries has left the Milwaukee roster decimated and with almost a majority of AAA talent. They’ve seen tough loss after tough loss, and it’s getting harder and harder to convince myself this Milwaukee team is headed for the postseason.
But I guess what I’m trying to get at is – that that’s okay. I’m not entitled to see a winning team in Milwaukee, nor is anybody who calls themselves a Brewers fan. Sure it’s frustrating. Sure we can question Ron Roenicke’s decisions. But at the end of the day, Wisconsin sports fans are witnessing a period that can only be described as “an embarrassment of riches”. With the exception of maybe the Bucks, pro sports teams in Wisconsin are consistently excellent – we don’t have much to complain about if a baseball team is six games under .500. And if the 2012 Brewers start a run and win the World Series – that’d be great. I’ll be the first person to gladly point out I was wrong. But it might be time to shrug off the losses this season, enjoy baseball for baseball, and end this post with a truism – “you can’t win ’em all” – whether that’s an individual game, or an entire season.
The last time I watched the Packers lose, I watched a team on the ropes lose. It was a Green Bay Packer team that was 8-6 and outside of the playoffs looking in. (To compare that 8-6 record to this season, take a look at the Cincinnati Bengals or Jets, both fighting for the 6th seed this year.) The Packers needed desperately not only to win out against the Giants and the then-formidable Bears, but they needed help in the form of the NFC East beating up on each other. Remarkably, everything fell into place for the Packers that December. They blew up the Giants, survived a match up against the I-refuse-to-rest-my-starters Bears, and rode to the playoffs on a punt return for the ages. Those Packers, with no less than 15 starters on I.R., won four road playoff games and brought home the Lombardi Trophy for the first time since the 1996 season.
The situation surrounding this year’s first loss couldn’t be any different. The Packers had absolutely cruised to 13-0 for the first time in franchise history, locked up the NFC North for the first time since 2007, outscoring opponents by 188 points along the way. Everything in Green Bay was magical. With a few exceptions, Green Bay hadn’t lost any key players to injury. Aaron Rodgers showed he was the best quarterback in the league. Jordy Nelson and James Starks both emerged as key figures in the offense. The defense (and defensive backups) proved their “bend, don’t break” strategy was an effective, albeit slightly terrifying one. After a Week 14 laugher over the Raiders, 16-0 seemed all but assured. 19-0 seemed feasible. The Patriots’ 21-game winning streak record seemed like it would fall.
Then, the Packers went to Arrowhead Stadium to play the Chiefs. By all accounts, the class-of-the-NFL Packers should have pounded the Chiefs. All the experts predicted a Packers victory. But that’s not what happened. Why? A few possibilities.
- The pressure of a perfect season was too much. Media attention to the Packers’ undefeated season had, of course, increased exponentially for the last few weeks. Players in the locker room, for the first time all season, started mentioning the undefeated season. And eventually, no matter the record of your opponent, that starts to weigh on a team. I think that is a huge contributing factor to the many drops we saw on Sunday. It’s why we saw Aaron Rodgers struggle for the first time in a long time. And it’s why the Packers notched their first loss of the season.
- Injuries were building up. Premiere Wide Receiver Greg Jennings missed his first game since Week 17 of the 2007 season. This had a huge impact on how the Chiefs planned their defense. Without more attention on Jennings, Jordy Nelson was faced with tougher match ups and more coverage. In the past, he’s excelled at breaking out of single coverage. Unfortunately that’s not what he was facing on Sunday. Defensive end Ryan Pickett also missed the game. That could be why the Chiefs were so effectively able to carve up our defense with the ground game, which so perfectly set up Kyle Orton’s dink and dunk pass game. Add to all that the state of Green Bay’s offensive line, which, by the end of the game, featured mostly backups. The Packers also lost OT Derek Sherrod for the season to a broken leg. The pressure on Rodgers was too much. Last year the Packers excelled at adapting to injury. That may be the case again this year, but it wasn’t in Week 15.
- The Chiefs were ready to pounce. The Monday before the game, the Chiefs made the bold choice of firing Head Coach Todd Haley. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Kansas City also signed QB Kyle Orton, since Tyler Palko, well, was Tyler Palko. Both of these key elements came together for the Chiefs on Sunday. Interim head coach Romeo Crennel brought the heat, and he brought it well. Kyle Orton showed once again that in the right system, he can be a very effective quarterback. Simply put, the Packers weren’t ready for these Chiefs. They planned for the Chiefs that got blown out by the Jets.
- No turnovers. The last game the Packers lost was also a Week 15, just last year against the Patriots. In that game, the Packers D hadn’t forced a single turnover. In the next stretch of 19 games (and 19 wins), the Packers forced at least a single turnover in every one. This loss against the Chiefs was the first time since that Patriots game without a turnover. And thus, the loss.
So. Here we are today. The day after, with a 13-1 record. What perspective has a good night’s sleep created? Well, let me say without hesitation that the Packers are still the best team in the National Football League That may come with some debate in the form of Saints or Patriots, but I contest (with bias) that Green Bay still has the most complete team in football. We (yes I use “we“. Get over it.) are still the #1 seed in the NFC. More than likely, with a win over the Bears or Lions, the Packers will lock down home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The road to Super Bowl XLVI goes through Lambeau Field. Think about that. Aaron Rodgers has NEVER played a playoff game at Lambeau. The last playoff game at Lambeau…I’d rather not talk about. But now Rodgers gets a crack at it.
That being said, no action comes without consequence. Some of these are good, some of them bad. But here’s what I think results from the Packers going 13-1:
- Less Starters in Weeks 16-17. If the San Francisco 49ers lose tonight, the Packers have locked in home-field advantage. And there’s officially no reason to start Aaron Rodgers against the Bears or Lions. If the 49ers win, the Packers can still get home-field with a win over the Bears on Christmas, in which case we might see Rodgers. But expect Mike McCarthy to liberally rest his starters in the next couple of weeks.
- No Pressure for Perfection. The proverbial monkey is off the Packers’ back. No longer do they have to worry about chasing history. Just about winning their first playoff match, then the NFC Championship Game, then the Super Bowl. Believe me when I say losing yesterday is infinitely preferable to losing in the playoffs.
- Rodgers MVP? All season long, QB Aaron Rodgers has been getting the majority of the buzz for the NFL’s MVP award. I’d like to hope that one off game won’t result in him losing that award. But there is tough competition. QBs Drew Brees and Tom Brady have also been having stellar seasons. But both of those athletes have had off games, too. Let’s not forget Brees and the Saints getting pounded by the Rams, or the Patriots losing early in the season to the Bills. As long as Rodgers bounces back in Weeks 16 and 17 (or doesn’t get any worse, assuming he even plays), I think this award is still his.
- About that Offensive Line… The Packers are seriously in a tough spot right now with their offensive line. Nobody on it is playing very well in the first place, and now both Bulaga and Sherrod are injured. Is Mark Tauscher still in football shape? This is going to be Mike McCarthy’s #1 concern over the next week. He absolutely has to come up with a way to protect Aaron Rodgers.
As I watched the Chiefs slowly eek out a win yesterday, I won’t pretend I wasn’t both sad and disappointed. I had hoped, along with millions of other Packer fans, that this team could make a bit of history this year. But there’s still lots to be happy about — Packer fans have the best quarterback in the league, and the first real shot at back-to-back Super Bowl wins in nearly a decade. Whether or not this Packer team makes it that far remains to be seen. Tough games and tough opponents await. But let’s not lose anymore sleep over 13-1. It is, after all, one loss away from perfection. As Vince Lombardi so aptly put it:
“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”
That guy knew what he was talking about.