Late Saturday night, or more accurately early Sunday morning, I watched one of the most fascinating sporting events I’d ever seen. It kept me up until 7 a.m. even though it was my first time watching the sport in several months. I had no strong rooting interest, but it was still one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had watching sports in a long time.
The event was the Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The top two players in the world played one of the best tennis matches ever, obliterating the record for the longest Grand Slam final in history by squaring off for nearly six hours. Six hours. You could watch the entire third season of Arrested Development in that time—and still have enough time to watch a whole basketball game, too.
It wasn’t just the length of the match that made it fascinating. Djokovic and Nadal are two of the best players in tennis history, and they showed why in this match. Even after five hours of running, diving, jumping and smacking the Wilson logo off the ball, these two guys were still peppering blistering shots all over the court. Some of the best points I’ve ever seen were at the tail end of this match, when any mortal person would have been fainting from exhaustion.
For a while, a six-hour marathon seemed very unlikely. Djokovic looked flat early, allowing Nadal to take the first set 7-5. After that, Djokovic took control, winning the next two sets and appearing to cruise toward victory. As the fourth set wore on, though, Nadal just kept hanging around, and a late spurt allowed him to win the fourth and nearly take the match in the fifth. Djokovic ended up winning, but anyone watching the match had to be impressed with Nadal’s fight in that match.
Now, it may have just been the sleep deprivation in me, but the match got me thinking about something several thousand miles closer to home: the Stanford men’s basketball team. Yep, the Cardinal is like Nadal. I know it seems like a stretch, but bear with me.
This year, Stanford got off to a quick start, winning 10 of its first 11 games and nearly knocking off Syracuse. The Cardinal has since hit a rough patch, going just 5-5 over its past 10 games, including a bad home loss to Butler and four road losses by double digits. Just like Nadal, Stanford looks to be down and out. Of course, Stanford is nowhere near as good at basketball as Nadal is at tennis, but thankfully the Pac-12 is no Djokovic. And that’s exactly where the parallel comes in.
We’re halfway through the Pac-12 season, and even with the poor performances by Stanford, the Cardinal can look up at the standings and see a golden opportunity to get right back in contention. Nadal saw his opportunity and parlayed it into a near-win in the Aussie Open. Whether or not Stanford is able to finish strong and contend, the opening is there for the taking.
This was particularly evident in last night’s game at Cal. Stanford was very flat early, shooting below 30 percent for much of the first half. The Golden Bears couldn’t build a very big lead, though, and an unexpected boost from Stefan Nastic allowed the Cardinal to hang around. Stanford got virtually nothing from its backcourt duo of Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright (two points, no field goals in the first 34 minutes), yet the Cardinal actually took the lead in the second half and was still just one small run from taking control for much of the game.
Stanford is a very inconsistent team, as evidenced by the sudden outbursts from role-players and the equally frequent disappearances from starters. Even with these woes, the Cardinal is still in position to contend in the Pac-12, two games behind co-leaders Washington and Cal. Just nine games remain, and five of them will be at Maples Pavilion, where Stanford is 11-1. The Cardinal doesn’t have to play the Washington schools anymore, and two of the four remaining road games are against bottom-feeders Utah and USC.
Of course, just like Nadal against Djokovic, Stanford didn’t have enough down the stretch against Cal. The way the team is playing during this three-game losing streak, there doesn’t appear to be much left to hope for. But at 5-4 in the Pac-12, things could really go either way for this young team.
The opportunity is still there. It’s time for Stanford to finally start taking it.
Jacob Jaffe is currently the subject of an internal investigation in his dorm after five residents submitted complaints about his alleged boisterous cheering during the match at four in the morning. Send him your support at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.