The Most Exciting Tennis Match Ever?

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Sports analyst Bill Wolff looks at the Federer/Nadal match at Wimbledon yesterday and all the rest of the weekend sports news.


And now, we segue our way onto sports, the sporting life. This weekend included a win, a stumble, and this question. She is how old? Wimbledon, track trials and Olympic swimming were on the agenda, and we will recap now with Bill Wolff. Hello, Bill.

BILL WOLFF: Well, good morning, Mr. Pesca.

PESCA: Good morning, Bill. Let's start with a little clip of Wimbledon to try to reset what was a great, great match.

(Soundbite of 2008 The Championships, Wimbledon Men's Final)

Unidentified Announcer: Finally here, in this most amazing contest, four hours and 47 minutes old, he has this, to become Wimbledon champion for the first time. He serves down the center, forehand return, backhand from the dowel, forehand into the net! Flat on his back! Rafael rolls Wimbledon! Roger's long reign is finally over!

PESCA: Ah, tennis on the radio, I love it.

WOLFF: Yeah.

ALISON STEWART: It's only better, Mike. Hi, Mike. It's Alison. I'm bombarding the sports segment this morning.

PESCA: What?

STEWART: See, we were on family vacation at Martha's Vineyard, and my grandma Vike is upstairs, making breakfast, and Bill was too nice to say we're on vacation. So, he decided to do the sports segment. So, I'm just joining along.

PESCA: All right, so...

STEWART: My family watched this tennis match yesterday.

PESCA: What was going on in the Wolff/Stewart household as this tennis match unfolded?

WOLFF: Well, grandpa was rooting for the Nadal, but being a wise son-in-law, I did not announce that I was kind of rooting for Federer. I just said, yep, oh, yeah. Right. Got it. You know, you don't want to alienate the father-in-law by taking the other side.

PESCA: I was rooting for Federer only because he was, after falling behind two sets, his would be the comeback. But by the time it got to the fifth, I didn't care. I was just pinching myself that I got to see it.

STEWART: Seriously, talk about the time! It went on forever. Why was that, Bill?

WOLFF: Because it was five sets long, because Roger Federer, who has been perhaps the greatest tennis player over a five-year period in the history of the game, is apparently, or reportedly, at the end of the run. He has crested, and he is now descending as a player. But he dies hard. He was down two sets to love to this guy, Rafael Nadal, whom you saw, the sleeveless wonder from Spain.

STEWART: That's the one that my two - my nieces and her 18-year-old friend like because they think he's cute.

WOLFF: Well, you know, what are you going do? Anyway, he was up two sets to none, and Federer just would not die. I mean, brilliant shot after brilliant shot to save himself from losing the match, particularly in the fourth set tiebreaker, he was at championship-point. That is, had Nadal won a point, he would have beaten Federer earlier, but Federer just wouldn't go away. The reason I was rooting for Federer is I, as a sports fan, I always enjoy watching the best who ever was.

That's why Tiger Woods is so compelling. You get to watch the one who is the best who ever was. And I thought, well, if Federer wins this, the argument is finished. He is the greatest, if he's able to beat this guy Nadal, who is pretty much favored to beat him, coming back from two sets down. So, I rooted for him, but you know, it was not to be. It was Nadal's day.

PESCA: On NBC, John McEnroe called it the best match he ever saw. The one - the competition for that would be a match that McEnroe himself was in, in 1980 in Wimbledon against Bjorn Borg. But where did it ring for you in terms of best tennis matches you've ever seen?

WOLFF: It was among a handful of the greatest I ever saw, given the stakes, the history of where the players are in their careers, the level of the rivalry, and then the brilliance of the tennis. And to go extra games in the fifth set, you know, it's one of the all-time greatest matches. My own personal favorite was Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open at the age of, I believe, 39. Do you recall that match? I think he was playing Aaron Krickstein, maybe, and survived a series of overhead smashes to win a point and go crazy, but it was really only the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.

PESCA: Right. That was his last stand. He was past his prime. He fed off the crowd, who knew they were seeing the last best of Jimmy Connors. That was a great one.

WOLFF: Exactly. So, to me, that's my favorite. He's also - Jimmy Connors is from the St. Louis metropolitan area. So, even though he was the world's super brat, I always liked him because he was from my home.

STEWART: You throw St. Louis into any conversation.

WOLFF: Woman, hold on. This is the sports section, so standby. But I thought, yeah, this was one of the greatest matches ever played. I think that's a fair statement. For McEnroe to say that is something. It was the greatest match he ever witnessed, but he may have played one, as you said...

PESCA: Right.

WOLFF: That was even greater.

PESCA: Yeah, from his own perspective. Do you want to talk about the Williams sisters on the women's side?

WOLFF: Well, that is equally amazing. I mean, the Williams sisters, speaking of folks whose reign as the best players in the world was perceived to have been finished, there they were, Serena and Venus, in the Wimbledon final together, proving that when they are healthy and whey they are focused on tennis and not fashion design or whatever else it is they like to focus on, they may still be the two best players in the world. And you cannot diminish the historic significance of the Williams sisters, African-American women from Compton, California.

STEWART: That's what I'm talking about.

WOLFF: Well, it's true.

STEWART: Just a shout out.

WOLFF: In a sport which knows no other African-American woman has dominated tennis the way either one of them has, and there they are...

STEWART: Props out to Althea Gibson, though.

WOLFF: Well, Althea Gibson and Zena Garrison and various others, but no one has dominated. These are the two best players in the world, and it's always compelling to watch siblings compete for a championship, and compete hard, and give no quarter to one another, and then remain loving sisters afterwards. Amazing, and Venus Williams got the win. I think most people - you know, it was hard to say who was going to win. The experts I heard talking about it on television, and they're always right, favored Serena, but Venus was able to win in straight sets.

You just have to appreciate what the Williams sisters have meant to tennis. I mean, they are truly groundbreaking, both in the way they play the game, particularly Serena, who is an unbelievable athlete, I mean, just physically stronger, more nimble, and more amazing than I think any woman who's ever played with the possible exception of Martina Navratilova, what they meant in terms of how the game is played and what they meant for who plays the game. To be African-American women in a sport utterly dominated by European women, white women from America, you know, you have to salute the Williams sisters, absolutely awesome. And I have to say, tennis has not been so compelling, relative to all the rest of the sports in the world, for the last, I don't know, Pesca, what? Last 10 years, 15 years?

PESCA: Since the rackets got big and the guys retreated to the baselines, pretty much, but - yeah.

WOLFF: Exactly. And this - this year's Wimbledon was spectacular, totally great, totally fun, totally interesting to watch, and I think a little bit - and transcendent. You know, if it's four players in the final of whom you've never heard, it's not so amazing. But to have Nadal versus Federer in this classic five-set match for the men's championship and have the Williams sisters in the women's championship, from the mass-appeal perspective, Wimbledon could hardly have been better than it was this year.

PESCA: I credit Gordon Brown. Let's go - this is the - these are the weeks.

WOLFF: Credit Gordon Brown!

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: These are the weeks when the U.S. Olympic teams, in all the different sports, field their athletes. And in track, Tyson Gay won the 100, but then it came, or you know, he progressed well in the 100 and he's holding a record. Then came a 200-meter qualifying race. He went down with a muscle strain. This could be a guy who everyone was saying best shot at gold of anyone we have, but because he went down in that one race, that's it. He's off the team. Bill, what do you think of this kind of cutthroat-competition way they have of defining who's going to be on the team?

WOLFF: Well, I actually - I like it. From the genuistic (ph) point of view and from the point of view of giving the United States the best chance to win gold, it's not very smart.

PESCA: Right.

WOLFF: But the point is, it should be prize enough to make the Olympic team. And I feel terrible for Gay. You know, he's a tremendous, tremendous athlete, and his life's goal is to make the Olympics. And it is a sorry thing for him. I have sympathy for him. But in terms of the standards of making the U.S. team, making the U.S. team ought to be as difficult as winning a gold medal. So, I'm actually - even though I'm a big softie and a total sentimentalist and also always root for the Americans in the Olympics because that's just what I do - I think that's what everybody does - I don't mind that the rules to get on are so strict that things like this happen, because making the U.S. Olympic team ought to be a thrill tantamount to winning the gold medal to me. PESCA: Alison, do you know Dara Torres?

STEWART: Yeah! Yeah.

PESCA: Have you seen her?

STEWART: She's a lady of a certain age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Not old in terms of lady ages, but in terms of Olympian ages. Wow! Forty-one-years-old and...

WOLFF: Well done, Pesca.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And I think that when she was - eight years ago, she was in the Sidney Olympics. She was the oldest member of the swim team then, and she's going to go back to China. That's pretty amazing, huh?

STEWART: The most mature, not oldest.

PESCA: Yes, experienced.

WOLFF: Well, it's shocking. I mean, it is truly stunning. I mean, among the great feats in athletics history, being 41 years old and not just making the Olympic team but setting a record in the process of doing it, you know, how many other people passed, you know, their perceived physical prime have done something quite that astounding? You know, Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at the age of 46, pretty great, but a man can swing a golf club when he's 46. Swimming, you know, you peak young when you swim.

PESCA: Yeah. Because there's a 15 year old on the team also.

WOLFF: Exactly. So you have to give Dara Torres - another one of these things, and again, we're on a Monday where you simply have to salute a lot of what happened over the weekend, but Dara Torres is right there. This is absolutely unbelievable, and she just made the cover of every single woman's magazine in the world. Yes, you can, ladies!


WOLFF: Yes, you can!

PESCA: Including Amazing Musculature Illustrated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Yes, amazing. I'm a subscriber.

PESCA: And you know, I will be the first to admit that there were greater barriers for the Williams sisters, as African-Americans growing up in L.A. to crack the world of tennis, but Dara Torres is Jewish on her father's side, and Mark Spitz was Jewish. I don't know how it is, Bill, but the Jews seem to be great swimmers.

STEWART: You're talking to one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I know.

STEWART: Captain of the Harvard water polo team.

WOLFF: I was never a great swimmer one day in my life, but...

PESCA: Tell me about these swimming Jews.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: The entire time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Why the swimming Jews? Why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I hear that's a band on the Lower East Side...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I love the Swimming Jews.

STEWART: They play on Wednesday.

PESCA: Yeah. The Swimming Jews, yeah. They...

WOLFF: There are varied theories among Talmudic scholars. Me, I think it's that most of our fathers wouldn't let us play football or hockey because it was too dangerous, so we focused on the nonviolent swimming sport.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: BPP sports analyst Bill Wolff and his wife and host of the BPP in just a couple more weeks and forever hence...

WOLFF: Through this entire time - throughout this entire intense experience of being on the radio with you has been feeding our nine-week-old child.

PESCA: And multitasker, Alison Stewart. Thank you very much, guys.

STEWART: Take care, Mike.

WOLFF: See you.

PESCA: Wow. That was a surprise. I like that. Coming up on the show, the ultimate Pepsi challenge, going to the Jim Crow South and selling Pepsi as a black man, and selling Pepsi to the masses. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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