Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Eat, Drink, and Watch Tennis

The extended 4th of July weekend proved to be big on fireworks and even bigger on sporting events. Most of you probably heard about the thrilling and—at times—unbelievable five-setter at Wimbledon between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. I’ve watched a lot of tennis over the years and I’m pretty sure that masterpiece is the best tennis match I’ve ever seen. The aftermath saw columnists across the world proclaiming it not only the best tennis match of all-time but the best sporting event of the year (don’t forget about the Super Bowl which was one of the best ever). Those who are willing to toil in the obscure were treated to an equally phenomenal sporting event in the form of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. I postponed our ETD on a family trip 30 minutes to see the 10-minute sloth-fest and it proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

First, Federer/Nadal. Those who follow tennis even just remotely knew the back-story going into the final. Federer had won five consecutive Wimbledon titles one short of holding the open-era record by himself (Borg also won five). He hadn’t lost a match in 40 tries at Wimbledon and was within one victory of tying Bjorn Borg’s record of 41. Nadal has been primarily known as a clay-court specialist having won the last four French Opens three of which were over Federer. He had only reached the finals in two non-French Open majors before his year. Both of those were defeats to Federer in each of the last two Wimbledon finals. However, Nadal had been closing the gap. Two years ago in the ’06 Wimbledon Final, Federer hammered Nadal in four sets. Last year, Federer needed five sets. This year, both cruised to the final losing only one set between in 12 combined matches along the way.

There were countless factors that made this match such an astonishing event heading into the match. We were clearly watching the two best players in tennis. Federer was looking to tie Borg’s consecutive match streak and set the record for most consecutive Wimbledon Championships in the open era. This was the third consecutive year that these two were facing off in the final. All of the elements for a spectacular showing were present before a point was played. It was up to the competitors to add the requisite level of excellence to make this a match to remember. Anyone who watched knows what happened next. Nadal came out blazing in the first set. Federer seemed to be poised to tie it up at one set a piece jumping out to a 3-0 lead. Nadal fought back and miraculously claimed the second set. It looked at that point that this match was going to be over quickly. Nadal was in control. No player since 1927 had lost the first two sets and managed to win the title at Wimbledon. Then, Federer fought back by taking the next two sets in epic fashion. Both went to tiebreakers (7-5 and 10-8). Considering how well Nadal was playing, it is amazing that Federer was able to win those sets. That set up a fifth set with as much anticipation as any in the history of tennis. Fittingly, this set would go to overtime. The rules at Wimbledon state that there are no tiebreakers in the final set so it just goes on until someone wins by two. Nadal eventually broke Federer to take the title 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5), 6–7(8), 9–7 to become the first player since Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back.

Those who claimed Federer had lost his edge heading into Wimbledon will certainly have fodder to bolster their argument. Likewise, those who felt Federer had plenty left in the tank will have ammunition for their viewpoint. Few doubt, however, that Nadal’s best days are ahead of him. Even though the match went five full sets, Nadal seemed to be in control most of the way. Federer probably holds the edge in more basic tennis-related skills including serving and ground stroking. However, Nadal has the equalizing combination of court-coverage and shot-making. He not only gets to more shots but he has the ability to put Federer on the defense on those shots. That was the difference in this match and that could very well be the difference that propels Nadal to the top of the tennis world. Federer broke Nadal once on 13 tries. Nadal won at least six games in every set. This was not a fluke. Nadal’s game is perfectly suited to combat Federer. The two players who are often cited as the best tennis players of all-time—Pete Sampras and Roger Federer—won a combined zero French Opens. The open era has not seen a player who flourishes and dominates on all surfaces. If Nadal can capitalize on his breakthrough on grass with a dominating three or four year stretch on all surfaces, he could grab the mythical title of “best tennis player of all-time”. Until then, Nadal’s victory at Wimbledon counts as just one. He has a long way to go before he can be talked about in the same breath as Roger Federer.

I realize that competitive eating doesn’t get the same fanfare as tennis. Since tennis doesn’t exactly get much fanfare itself, it’s safe to say that competitive eating is about as popular as professional lacrosse. However, those who have given it a chance have likely been pleasantly surprised by the suspense and skill required to excel at ingesting larges amounts of food. The Kobayashi/Chestnut rivalry is every bit as rooted as Federer/Nadal. They are the dominating eaters in the world of competitive eating holding numerous records between them. The big event on the IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating)Tour is Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Competition. Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut have finished 1-2 each of the last three years. Before Chestnut shocked the world last year, Kobayashi had won the competition six consecutive years. It’s safe to say that Kobayashi is the Federer of eating and Chestnut is the Nadal. Unlike tennis, though, the rest of the competitors are worth talking about. They have personalities and intrigue that the world of tennis simply cannot match. The competition—once ruled by 400-lb mammoths—is now littered with WWE-style, regular-sized, personalities. Tim “Eater X” Janus and “Crazy Legs” Conti (both of Cash Cab fame) are two such personas. “Eater X” has face paint ala The Ultimate Warrior and “Crazy Legs” just has, well, crazy legs and even crazier occupations. Patrick Bertoletti is a Mohawk-wearing, healthy food cook rendering him a walking contradiction. Sonya Thomas aka “The Black Widow” is the most logic-defying competitor on the tour. She weighs in at a whopping 98-lbs. She finished second to Kobayashi in ‘05 at Nathan’s having eaten 37 hot dogs in just 12 minutes. She holds 20+ world records including eating 65 hard boiled eggs in under seven minutes. While the cast is crucial for the long-term viability of competitive eating as a spectator event, there is no question that the Kobayashi/Chestnut rivalry is what brings competitive eating into the mainstream once a year.

Last year’s Nathan’s Final was mired in controversy. Kobayashi had jaw issues heading into the event which caused some to question the validity—or meaning rather—of Chestnut’s monumental win. Chestnut was poised to prove that last year’s win was not a fluke. However, he would have to contend with a game-plan changing rule amendment. Upon further review, it seemed that the Nathan’s competition had originally begun as a 10-minute competition—not the 12-minute competition that we have been accustomed to. This would have a similar impact of turning a long-distance race into a sprint. While I appreciate ESPN’s willingness to televise the event, it would do itself a favor by telling its announcers to avoid saying things like, “even with the reduction to 10 minutes, we think that 70 hot dogs is possible.” The previous world record was set by Chestnut last year at 66 in 12 minutes. Did they really think that he was going to eat four more hot dogs in two fewer minutes? Math skills aside, ESPN’s coverage is a blessing for food-lovers across America.

Once the competition started, Chestnut and Kobayashi took the lead as expected. Chestnut held the lead for the majority of the competition but Kobayashi came on strong to overtake Chestnut with just a few minutes left. At the one-minute mark, it looked like Kobayashi had it wrapped up. Chestnut was more than one hot dog behind. As the buzzer went off, Chestnut smashed as much food against his mouth as he could fit into his hand. The rules state that what you have in your mouth as time expires counts. Amazingly, the final count was a 59-59 tie. I think Kobayashi was robbed. As much as I was rooting for Chestnut, Kobayashi had more in his mouth as time expired. Chestnut had a decent amount in his hand pressed against his mouth which he inevitably ended up swallowing. There needs to be reform in the way the competition is judged. If it were up to me, once time expires, hands should be removed from the mouth. But, the ruling was official and, like Wimbledon, we were headed to overtime. The “dog off” is a 5 hot dog-blitz. Whoever eats five hot dogs the fastest wins. Chestnut won by a miniscule-margin and proved his win last year was not a fluke. He also went home with 20,000 extra calories. I can’t help but to think that if this competition were held in Japan Kobayashi would’ve been crowned the champion. There is just too much subjectivity in the judging. That will need to be cleaned up if competitive eating wants to go mainstream.

As far as which event was better, it all depends on how you judge it. I compare it to differentiating between the player who averages the most points per game in the NBA and the player who scored the most points. Which is more meaningful? Kobayashi/Chestnut gave us more bang for our time. That excitement only required ten minutes of our time. Federer/Nadal provided more fantastic moments but—with multiple rain delays—required six hours of our time. Regardless of your preference, these events were spectacular in their competitiveness and underappreciated in their obscurity.

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