A great big winner has come roaring out of Paris and on toward London. This winner has had various turns as beleaguered. This winner has been to obscurity and back. Yet in case you didn't notice, this winner just finished poking its head out from the maelstrom of a late-spring sports schedule and pretty much saying, "I am very, very good."
The winner is t-t-t-tennis, the afterthought that just wrung from a fab French Open a fresh truth: As very-good as it had become in this marvel of a Federer-et-al men's era, it has accessed itself another "very." For chunks of the 1990s, people called it boring. At this moment in the 2010s, anybody who would call it boring would be just … would be just … would be just, you know, in error.
If the sight of a towering will can rank among the most compelling sports displays -- and it can, of course -- what a sterling collection of wills this game has amassed through recent years. And to think the 2012 U.S. Open survivor Andy Murray didn't even play this French.
For four hours and 37 minutes on a stirring Friday, lucky viewers saw that when the wills of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal boom against each other, the spectacle can make you gasp serially. And in a high-quality, high-definition women's final of Saturday, No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 2 Maria Sharapova reminded us of their big, big reservoirs of want.
After all, Williams herself said that when she last won the French at age 20 in 2002, she wouldn't have imagined playing at 31 in 2013. She always did have other interests. She occasionally did engender fair questions about her level of commitment way-back-when. She sometimes did have hiatuses for reasons physical and medical and tragic, and in between the Wimbledons of 2010 and 2011, she missed all three Grand Slams.
Yet the stuff she played at Roland Garros revealed a deeply held wish to surpass even her mighty self. Through a tournament she stifled five rounds out of seven, she exacted her will on her least-friendly surface. And when the tournament did ask her for some gumption, down 2-0 and three break points in a third set to Svetlana Kuznetsova, she came through mostly because she "really, really, really, really" wanted to, she said.
Here she is, all these years on, at a must-watch level. At 30 and 31, she has won three of the last four Grand Slams while hilariously un-following on Twitter the only player to beat her (the fellow American Sloane Stephens, at the Australian). That's one big will right there.
Similarly, we might take the long view on Sharapova, that long-term victim of her own ads. If anybody could stop and languish in her own glamour, you'd think it'd be the 26-year-old, U.S.-based Russian. Luckily for viewers, with Sharapova there remains an interior furnace too often undervalued adjacent exterior gloss.
In fighting through two third sets -- including through Jelena Jankovic's 6-0 first-set win in the quarterfinals -- Sharapova found her way not only to her fifth final four in the last six Grand Slams, but to her third final. All this, with a game that, physically, comes in one high-brow notch below those of Williams or Victoria Azarenka. All this should be set against the screaming shoulder that once cast her out (for 10 months) and cast her into doubt (as to permanent infringement).
Getting from that to here couldn't have been easy, so the sport thrives by having her thriving beyond the doubt phase. You could say the same more acutely for Nadal, whose absence from the second round of the 2012 Wimbledon to this French Open really did stoke concern about regaining form.
Consider that concern shooed.
As Nadal and Djokovic played their final-dressed-as-a-semifinal, Nadal's long-known will collided with a Djokovic will long since risen from doubt to impose itself as a giant. Not only does Djokovic sometimes seem as if you can't get any ball past him, but throw in his considerable desire to win the French for the first time, and that craving hovered over their five-set wonder, especially Djokovic's fourth-set jailbreak.
Of course, these two did this kind of thing before, going five hours and 54 minutes at the 2012 Australian Open, but mix in the Parisian clay for some longer points (even given its fastness compared to yore), and what a gasp-a-thon. Djokovic-Nadal at the French was as good as any sports thing, anytime, anywhere.
Nadal's inner furnace won out, and he would beat David Ferrer to become the greatest male champion on any surface, ahead of Pete Sampras at Wimbledon and Roger Federer at Wimbledon and whatnot. But for the utmost gasps in that 9-7 fifth against Djokovic, there came those moments distinctively Nadal, the ones where he turns some impossible defensive situation into an offensive winner, where he sends some improbable shot streaming in from Lyon, where he turns absurdity into something approaching routine.
It should never feel routine, just as watching Williams like this at 31 should not feel routine. And with Nadal and Djokovic and Federer still making quarterfinals and Murray at another Wimbledon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Ferrer and even 35-year-old Tommy Haas, not to mention the top women finding compelling consistency, tennis in 2013 seems about as far from routine as it has been.