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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Hype not required

So we all watched the match, and it was great. Really Great, the kind that you put a capital G on and carefully put away in the memory bank.

Then came the hard part -- having to decide what to make of it all.

The players had barely left the court before the questions came pouring in. Was it the greatest match of all time? Was Federer finished? Had Nadal just conquered men's tennis for the foreseeable future? Will these two play in the U.S. Open final?

Is tennis a haven of grace and sportsmanship in an increasingly ugly sports world? Would the sport be more popular if players had more animosity toward each other?

Where does the match rank in the pantheon of great sporting moments? How many people watched? Will coverage of the sport explode this summer? Is tennis "back"? (Frankly, I didn't know it had been away.)

Phew. Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Can't blame you.

The good news is that unless you're a highly paid professional being paid to ask (or answer) such questions, there's no need to have a definite reply. Matches like this don't need the validation of hype; the fact that they happened is enough.

Was this the greatest match of all time? Well … every truly great match feels like the greatest match of all time when it has just happened. But at the same time, other great matches have had decades to build up their legend and be retold over and over again, so it's hard for a fresh contest to bring down the great monuments of the past. There have been a number of great matches in tennis. This was one of the very best. Is it really that important to nail it down further?

What's ahead? The reason that question is compelling is because there's no answer. If there's one thing this contest showed us, it's how closely matched Federer and Nadal are at the moment, and any tiny, unpredictable thing can tip the balance. Come the hard courts, Novak Djokovic will also be in the mix, and a few other talented players will be looking to break through. Whatever happens, it'll be fascinating to watch, right?

Is this the beginning of a new era of mass appeal for tennis? There's no downside to a match like this. And it's never bad to have such a high-profile reminder of what tennis can be. But if the pundits of popularity use it as an impossibly high bar for the sport to live up to, then it could turn out to be an unwitting source of yet more negativity. "It's no Federer-Nadal" will simply become a replacement for "It's no Borg-McEnroe." Ultimately, isn't it up to people to watch and decide whether they like what they see?

The only thing we do know is that on Sunday, we witnessed the rare sight of the two best players on the sport's biggest stage, playing their greatest match. And really, that's all we need to know.