Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Tennis and Eating: Connected at the Hip

In a year of thrilling championships, two momentous events took center stage this past weekend. In the men's final of Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal held off Roger Federer in an epic five-hour battle that some are calling the best tennis match of all time. Across the pond, American Joey Chestnut defended his mustard belt against competitive eating legend Takeru Kobayashi in an overtime eat-off--surely the most exciting Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Competition ever. (God bless America.)

On the surface, these events seem disconnected. Wimbledon is one of the most celebrated traditions in athletics. While it's the crown jewel of the competitive eating circuit, the Nathan's competition is treated as a novel curiosity by any outsider. But part of my job is to look closer, so I'd like to illustrate some more intriguing connections.

Both Roger Federer and Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi have long held sway against their competition. Federer had won five straight Wimbledon championships up to this point, and The Tsunami is a six-time hot dog champ. (He also owns records in brats, cow brains, lobster rolls, and rice balls.) For the better part of this decade, both men were clearly the ones to beat, and every time they stepped onto their fields of play, it took on a historical context.

The rain delays were ridiculous this year! LOLZ!!!

In their previous competitions, however, Federer and Kobayashi suffered upsets to their up-and-coming rivals. Federer was destroyed in the French Open by Nadal, but the fact that Nadal is a more skilled player on clay still negated that loss. It was seen as a largely mental misstep and set the stage for a more relevant changing of the guard at Wimbledon, which had obviously been Federer's territory.

Similarly, Kobayashi's six straight hot dog titles had been challenged by San Jose's Joey Chestnut, but Jaws was never seen as a realistic challenger until he outlasted The Tsunami in last year's record-breaking competition. At the time, it was not seen as a fair fight. Kobayashi had suffered a serious jaw injury and almost declined his invitation to participate at all. The injury was serious enough for him to lose at the Major League Eating Championships, and he was unable to defend his Krystal Square-Off title. Chestnut held the mustard belt, but he would not be seen as the true champion until he beat a healthy Kobayashi on the biggest eating stage.

Changes have overshadowed both Wimbledon and the Nathan's competition this year. The queue system used for years at the All-England Club has been regulated, thus keeping the common man away from tickets, and a roof over Centre Court will change the event forever next year. Similarly, the time limit for the hot dog eating competition has been trimmed from the industry standard twelve minutes to a more TV-friendly ten. (The competitors rose to the occasion and adjusted to keep pace with previous record-breaking years.)

The stage had been set for two important challenges, but the matches themselves were eerily similar as well. Just as no lower seeds realistically challenged the Swiss and Spanish favorites, there seemed to be a ceiling for Chestnut and Kobayashi as well. Through the eat-off at 59, they were neck-and-neck, but no one else came close. They could have taken the final minute off and still won. Patrick Bertoletti, the upstart I thought had a chance, only finished with 38.

"Kobay, tell me how my ass tastes."

Kobayashi and Chestnut battled during each minute, and at one point Chestnut had to make up a three dog difference during minute five. Federer staved off a two-set lead from Nadal. When everyone was still tied at the end of regulation, we went to bizarre tiebreaks.

In deciding sets at Wimbledon, the players eschew the normal tiebreak system and just keep playing until someone wins by two, which caused the weird final set to be 9-7. At the eat-off of the Nathan's competition, the gurgitators were each given a plate of five dogs, and whoever finished first won. This was admittedly a really unscientific overtime, especially considering that Jaws was on biased American soil.

The champions even perform similarly. While Federer hangs back and returns with precision, Nadal is a less efficient player, moving all over and depending upon his awkward left-handed power to catch up. Kobayashi rarely shows emotion, but Chestnut's eyes reveal every hot dog he's ever eaten. He sweats and grimaces. He tries to push the dogs down into his diaphragm with his hands. Part of the majesty of Federer and Kobayashi's dominance is that they don't seem to care whether or not they lose.

How Federer and Kobayashi bounce back from these devastating losses will be interesting, but they're already champions for the ages. The biggest difference between these two situations? Joey Chestnut is number one in the rankings, and Rafy is somehow still number two.


Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

i think you terribled a sentence at the end of the penultimate paragraph

look at bubis read and comment -- the day has arrived