Federer might have won this match but that doesn’t mean a thing really. They have been greats for long now and will remain greats for long to come. Their rivalry has defined them, elevated tennis and enhanced our lives.
There were 13 players on the field. But one stood out. And he knew it. There was a swagger to his walk, poise in his posture and his entire demeanour was
And so this then is the nature of
Federer’s story began in earnest on a cold blustery July evening in Wimbledon in 2001. Then, all of 19 years, Federer announced himself to the world in spectacular fashion, defeating Pete Sampras in the fourth round. It was an astonishing achievement. Sampras, by then, was widely acknowledged as an all-time great and he had 13 grand slam titles to his name, more than any other player till then. He was gunning for his 5th straight Wimbledon title, and his 8th Wimbledon title overall, again, unparalleled achievements in the history of the game. This one title could be his claim to immortality. Federer by contrast, till then, never had progressed beyond the first round. But, as so often happens in sport, it is the seemingly innocuous battles such as these that later assume epochal significance. This was one of them. But what was so striking, though, was not just the result, but the beauty of the performance, and the promise that it held. It was apparent to all those who witnessed it, that it was no flash in the pan, but greater things were to come, for a long time after. The great Sampras himself, even as he was smarting under the pain of unexpected defeat, seemed to have recognised something of himself in Federer. He was effusive in his praise and had this to say of the young contender; “There are a lot of young guys coming up but Roger is a bit extra-special. He has a great all-round game, like me doesn't get too emotional and you have to give him a great deal of credit.”
Despite this, few would have had the clairvoyance to predict the sheer scale of Federer’s future achievements. In fact, Federer promptly crashed out in the next round, losing to the local hero, albeit, a perennial under-achiever, Tim Henman, and it took Federer a further 8 attempts to finally win a grand slam. The
This is one of the greatest joys of sporting fandom- to
And yet greatness can never exist in isolation. For greatness is a relative term, feeding not off the mediocrity of others, but being nourished by the excellence of opponents, by the determination of challengers and by the bloody-mindedness of rivals. And thus enters Rafael Nadal. It was his 19th Birthday. He was playing in his first French open. He had steamrolled his opponents in a display of exhilarating tennis and today found himself in the Semi-Finals. But across the net was a certain Roger Federer. By now, Federer had become a seasoned pro and was well on his way to greatness. He had already won 4 grand slam titles, was victorious in his last two and only needed the French Open to complete the elusive set. Roger Federer wanted to win this and was going to win this. Nobody could stop him, least of all, a 19 year Spaniard playing his first French open. Nadal won. And Nadal won his next match. The King of Spain, Juan Carlos, reached down from the front of the president’s box and clasped Nadal in a fierce hug. It was almost as if he was anointing his subject as the ‘King of Clay’. This is another of the great joys of sport; this affront to fate,
Federer, hailing from the border town of Basel, a prominent cultural centre in Switzerland, is all class and grace. Nadal, in stark contrast, is from the holiday island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain, and with his cut-off piratical trousers, sleeveless shirts and long black hair might as well have walked straight off the beach into the centre-court. While Federer eased past his opponents, Nadal destroyed them and while Federer serenaded his genius, Nadal displayed his determination. Federer was hard not to love, Nadal was difficult to like. While we rushed to embrace the genius of Federer, we grudged Nadal his greatness. Even as Nadal began to accumulate fans of his own, many preferred to ignore him and some chose even to hate and ridicule him. Federer was the timeless champion, Nadal was to be the eternal number two. Until that match.
Sport produces brilliance often; an outrageous catch, an extraordinary save or a thrilling dunk. But only rarely, does it elevate itself to divine heights. It happened on the evening of the 6th of July, 2008, on the centre court, in Wimbledon, London. Two men, who were at the peak of their prowess, were playing to secure their legacy. And as the match progressed, it became apparent to all those fortunate enough to witness it, that here was something very very special in the making. One magnificent shot followed another, and extraordinary rallies became
Nine years have passed since that match, but there have been only two more grand slam finals since between the two; until today. In the meanwhile, age seemed to have caught up with Federer. And as his performance has slipped, measured by his lofty standards, calls for his retirement have grown louder over time. For
Meanwhile, as Federer looked a spent force, Nadal looked all set to overhaul Federer’s achievements. But curiously enough, the fall of Federer seemed to have affected Nadal more than any of us. After 2010, Nadal won only one other grand slam outside of the French Open. But in a way, it is perhaps not that curious, not that strange. For these two defined each other. The rivalry got the best out of them and we lapped it up greedily. And so without Federer to push him, Nadal wasn’t the same anymore. He too fought
6 years after their last meet in a grand slam final, we have gotten used to it. We still miss it of course but we have made peace with it. In the meanwhile, new heroes have emerged, and new rivalries have taken shape. And yet, deep down, we knew it was not the same; it was never going to be the same. In this Australian open, even as Federer and Nadal negotiated their way through the early rounds, we dared not hope. We were cynical; we had been let down far too often over the past few years. And so even Djokovic exited early, we refused to acknowledge the magical possibility. There were others dangers lurking, like Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, and we will not give them the chance to break our hearts again. And so today, as they faced off against each other in the final, we were almost caught by surprise.
But the sheer improbability of this has made it all the more special. For a few hours, we have been able to forget our troubles and abandon our worries. We have been transported back in time. And what a treat this has been. Anything less than a five-setter would have been an anti-climax. And this match has been anything but that. The familiarity has ironically only increased the suspense and the intimacy only sharpened the thrill. The fierce back hand of Federer was just as devastating as ever and the return of Nadal just as brutal. The 5th set was truly worth the stature of the players involved and the enormity of the occasion. And you could see it on their faces, how much it meant to each of them. Today, we have been treated to the best of Federer, we have been treated to the best of Nadal, and to the best of Tennis and Sport itself.
Federer might have won this match but that doesn’t mean a thing really. They have been greats for long now and will remain greats for long to come. Their rivalry has defined them, elevated tennis and enhanced our lives. This
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