Part 1 of this two-part story.
Drakyu: The Australian Open final. It’s Roger Federer vs Rafa Nadal. They have both won two sets each and so this last set is going to decide who wins the championship.
Rikyū: Ah… those two good tennis players that you told me about.
Drakyu: Yep. Nadal just won the fourth set.
[Sipping tea] Ooh, nice tea.
Rikyū: It is a tea that I have always favoured.
Rikyū: Back in the day, tea was not an easily accessible commodity that it has become today. A refined taste only meant for the lips of the rich man. As the years went on, more people had access to tea. But good tea was still expensive. The means of a simple man enabled him to buy good tea, but only a little. In the house of the common folk, rice was added to the tea to make it last. The affluent derided this practice. Their contempt for poverty caused them to overlook a most delectable misfortune that humanity has chanced upon – genmaicha.
Drakyu: It does sit sweetly on the tongue.
Here, they are ready for the fifth set.
[Federer*-Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 0-0]
Drakyu: Federer is serving first. That could prove to be a decisive advantage in the last set. Scoreboard pressure, they call it. Oh, but wait, Nadal gets the first point. A brilliant aggressive forehand to open up the court. Come on!
What does it say about me though, the fact that I like more rice in my genmaicha? Is there any statistical correlation between spiritually lesser beings and people who prefer more rice in their genmaicha?
Rikyū: [Smirking] Evidently. Tea is subtle. Rice is base. Tea is spirit. Rice is survival. Frankly, you are a bit of a brute.
Drakyu: Look at the smug look on your face.
Federer is really going for those backhands today. In the past, he has been guilty of pussyfooting around those heavy topspin forehands from Nadal. Not today, it seems. No matter. My man Nadal has just won another point.
Boy, they are not taking any prisoners tonight.
[Federer-Nadal* 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 0-1]
Drakyu: Phew! After the third set, I thought Federer was going to run away with this. But Nadal has broken right away in this fifth set. Just needs to rally home to victory now.
Rikyū: It is not true.
Rikyū: Tea is not the path to enlightenment.
Drakyu: But you are a tea master. Tea ceremony was supposed to be for the enlightened.
Rikyū: It was a form of expression, an art, for those who were spiritually awakened. Tea itself did nothing. You could substitute tea for rice and it would not matter. An artist can elevate the most mundane to art. The principle of the act is what matters.
Drakyu: And what is that principle?
Rikyū: Creation. Some people will argue that destruction can also be art. And then there are those who cynically twist the definition of creation to justify their destruction. But I do not agree.
Drakyu: It is interesting what you say about art. People often say Federer is like a ballerina on the tennis court. And certainly, he is the most elegant tennis player I have ever seen. And yet, when they say this, it is to contrast it with Nadal’s game, to suggest that Nadal’s tennis is aesthetically inferior. I believe there is a ferocious beauty to his game. Federer’s tennis is exquisite but Nadal’s tennis is a fierce expression of survival. It is art, albeit of a different kind.
Rikyū: Ah… so Federer is tea to Nadal’s rice?
Drakyu: Yes, and I prefer rice.
Rikyū: Well, I pick tea then.
Drakyu: Your stock is not looking so good now. Federer had a double break point but he squandered it. Nadal has consolidated his lead now.
Rikyū: I am not worried. This was just the first brew. The second brew is coming and the tea will be more dominant then.
[Federer*-Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 0-2]
Drakyu: Wow, that was a speedy hold for Roger. It’s his backhand again.
Rikyū: What is happening to his backhand?
Drakyu: He is not slicing it.
Rikyū: That is a good thing?
Drakyu: A backhand slice is generally a more defensive option. It works for Roger because he is right-handed and most players on the tour are right-handed. Also, he puts some serious revs on it. But it does not work very well against Rafa who is left-handed. Rafa’s forehand is one of the most potent weapons this game has ever seen. A defensive backhand going to his belligerent forehand is instantly obliterated. The more aggressive option for Roger is to come over his backhand. However, Roger’s backhand has not always been as consistent as today while hitting through the ball, especially against Rafa’s relentless forehands.
Rikyū: So, Nadal is better?
Drakyu: I certainly think so. Nadal has won more matches against Federer than Federer has against him. But look, there are lots of stats thrown around in these debates. You can combine a bunch of stats and prove whatever you want. I think most people will agree if I say Federer is better on grass courts and Nadal is better on clay courts.
Rikyū: What kind of court is this?
Drakyu: Hard court. A synthetic court that is neither clay nor grass.
Rikyū: And who is better on hard –
Drakyu: Don’t. Just… watch the match.
[Federer-Nadal* 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 1-2]
Drakyu: What’s this? A double fault from Rafa?
[Exasperated] And is immediately followed by a stinging backhand from Roger. Why do all terrible things have to happen to me?
Vamos Rafa! Finally some brilliance from Rafa’s backhand! He saves the break point.
[Federer*-Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 1-3]
Drakyu: The quality of tennis in this match is staggering.
Rikyū: Is this the best match they have ever played against each other?
Drakyu: Most people would say the final of Wimbledon 2008 was the best match they ever played against each other.
Rikyū: Who won?
Rikyū: Was it not expected?
Drakyu: Not at all actually. Wimbledon is played on grass and Federer had not been defeated on grass since 2003 before this match.
Rikyū: That is… incredible.
Drakyu: Exactly. Nadal himself had lost against him in the final in the previous two years. Although, since then, Nadal has won every grand slam match against Federer and it looks like he will continue that streak today as well.
Rikyū: Have they played against each other at this tournament before?
Drakyu: A couple of times. Last time they played a final here was in 2009. Nadal won that match in five sets. Federer could not hold back his tears during the presentation ceremony. If I recall correctly, he said something like, “God, it’s killing me.”
Rikyū: Makes sense. Federer is tea.
Drakyu: Uh… wasn’t that just a metaphor?
Rikyū: Yes, of course. But for a person who is sensitive and emotional, we often say he has too much tea in him. On the other hand, an insensitive person would have too little tea in him. Tea is delicate. Too much of it is bound to make you emotional.
Drakyu: I see. If I may extend the metaphor further, I might say Nadal has an incredible vitality and hence, too much rice in him?
Rikyū: [Sighs] You were always a man of science.
Drakyu: Another comfortable hold for Federer.
Rikyū: The second brew is ready.
[Refills Drakyu’s cup]
I must say, Roger is very fashionable.
Drakyu: Ha! You should see his Darth Federer outfit from US Open 2007.
[Federer-Nadal* 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 2-3]
Rikyū: That… was a good backhand from Federer, right?
Drakyu: Yeah… that was just… a blistering cross-court backhand. He has been hitting those all day long. This could be tricky for Rafa.
Rikyū: One more point for Federer.
Drakyu: You are getting way too much pleasure out of this right now. I don’t like this.
Rafa has challenged this call but Roger thinks it was out. And… it is out… break point for Roger. I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.
Great serve from Rafa! Saves the break point! Just get out of this game unscathed. Come on Rafa…
Back to deuce. Just two aces, please Rafa…
Rikyū: Federer lands another backhand. This second brew has come out very well, I must say. I feel the tea is in the ascendancy.
Drakyu: Your jibes are boorish and unbecoming of you.
Rikyū: You must cultivate a healthy sense of humour. It is only a sport after all. Look, Federer just won another point. It seems that he has also won the game with it. If I recall correctly, the appropriate jargon is – they are back on serve.
Drakyu: Have some shame and hide your face Rikyū. You are grinning from ear to ear.
[Federer*-Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 3-3]
Rikyū: Why is Federer so good on grass?
Drakyu: It’s the way he plays. Grass is a fast surface with low bounce. Federer hits a lot of flat forehands and backhand slices. These shots tend to stay low and make it awkward for the opponent to hit through them. Federer’s remarkably accurate serve also earns him lots of free points on grass. His movement on grass is unrivalled. When others slip and slide on the green turf, he glides across it. Grass accentuates his overall offensive ability and the dexterity of his hands. Robbie Koenig, a popular tennis commentator, once described him as “a mongoose on amphetamines”. I believe I have tried one of those. It is better to take amphetamines directly rather than have mongoose blood with amphetamines in it because then it is digested and doesn’t directly go into your bloodstream. Doesn’t give you the same high. Anyway, you should read David Foster Wallace’s essay about him, Federer as Religious Experience.
Rikyū: Religion sounds too strong a word to me.
Drakyu: Huh, you should meet some Federer fans.
Rikyū: They also called us a religion, you know. Chadō, the Way of Tea. We were trained in Zen Buddhism and that reflected in our practices but we never bound ourselves to specific rituals. At least I never did. I imagined the tea ceremony as the flow of a river to the ocean. There is a conclusion but the path to the conclusion is not determined beforehand. Religions often dictate a path to the conclusion. Now, if your initiation as a Federer fan required you to read that essay, then it would be a religion.
Drakyu: You never know Rikyū. There are some crazy people out there. Maybe you should tell the Federer fans how grass is tea and the Nadal fans how roasted brown rice is clay and preach celestial genmaicha harmony through your Teaism cult.
Rikyū: Cult! [Sighs] I will not take the bait Drakyu. Instead, let us focus on the match at hand. Federer has comfortably won his service game. The ball is in your court.
[Federer-Nadal* 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 4-3]
Rikyū: A double-fault from Nadal. He is 0-40 down now. Is it normal to double fault under pressure?
Drakyu: No! No, no, no, no! I don’t know what he is doing right now. Seems like he does not want to win any more. Should have shaken Federer’s hand right at the start of the match. Wasted four good hours of my time.
Rikyū: Calm down Drakyu. What happened?
Drakyu: Nadal is not supposed to do this! It is Rafa Nadal, don’t you know? With a will forged in iron and moulded on clay, the most brutal of all surfaces? He has just lost twice at the French Open in all these years! That Nadal just handed over a triple break point to Federer by double-faulting!
Rikyū: He is still just a human Drakyu. I guess I cannot expect you to understand what that means, though. Look, he has just saved all three break points.
Drakyu: This is obscene. I don’t know what else to say. It is a mockery of everyone else who plays tennis. That rally was twenty-six shots. Half of those shots should not have come back. That forehand winner from Federer in the end was… oh boy, I don’t know how Nadal is going to get out of this one.
Federer is on fire. What an incredible return to seal the game… Federer is going to serve for the championship now. The match is lost… I can’t take this anymore. Everything conspires against me.
Rikyū: Fret not! There is still some fight left in Nadal. Let me add some more rice for the third brew.
[Federer*-Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 5-3]
Rikyū: Look, Nadal has won the first point.
[Refills Drakyu’s cup]
And the second one as well!
[Drakyu looks up at the TV]
Ace from Federer!
[Drakyu’s face wilts again]
Nadal is quite aggressive in this game. He finished that point at the net. Double break point.
Drakyu: Please please please, please just win this one point.
Ace… Why does he always come up with first serves when he needs them? It’s so annoying.
Rikyū: There we go. Deuce. All break points saved.
Drakyu: Advantage Federer… championship point.
Rikyū: Ace! Oh, no, not an ace.
Drakyu: Double fault! Federer is challenging it.
Rikyū: It is in!
Drakyu: Deuce again! Come on Rafa, come on.
Rikyū: Ace again! Advantage Federer! Second championship point.
Nice forehand! Oh no wait, Nadal is challenging it.
[Drakyu stands up]
Drakyu: It’s in… Nadal has lost…
Rikyū: [Jumps] Chum jetze! [Adjusts his robe] Um… I mean… good match.
[Game, set, match. Federer. 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3]
Drakyu: Chum jetze? Where did you learn that from?
Rikyū: Just a little something I picked up from you tennis fans.
Drakyu: You know, for a Zen tea master, you got way too much into this.
Rikyū: You know, for an immortal, you care way too much about the outcome of this match. You have seen thousands of these matches and experienced millions of these moments touted to be “unbelievable”.
Drakyu: I would argue that they are unbelievable. They are not unbelievable in the sense that I think this could never have been done by any individual but they are singular in that you didn’t expect that particular individual, under those circumstances, to pull off that unbelievable thing. And sports are designed to keep creating such moments. Citius, Altius, Fortius.
Rikyū: Touché. I have been having tea for a while now and every tea experience is also unique for me, even unbelievable. After all, who in their right mind would have thought that Sen no Rikyū would become a Federer fan over a tea chat with Count Dracula?