It's the quarterfinals last weekend, and Kei Nishikori is otherworldly in the first set – how else do you call it when he makes the greatest player the sport has seen look clueless.
He is up 5-1 in no time and yet to make a single unforced error! And then Fedex time, as we have come to know it whenever he was under pressure, came up. An outward swerving serve down the middle, and he is in position for the inevitable lunging return from Kei to his backhand, and then two leisurely steps towards the yellow sphere hanging mid-air waiting for his divine caress and he unleashes that whiplash of a backhand flat down the line. Nishikori made no effort to get there and was already walking to face the next serve. Two aces, and it is game Federer. From 1-5 down, Roger would make it 6-6, lose the tie-breaker, and endure a five-setter before he came through.
A day earlier, Alexander Zverev was taking apart Rafael Nadal at the Rod Laver arena. The gangly kid had looked imperious as he broke Rafa in the very first game of the match. With Nadal down 2 sets, it was only a matter of time before his comeback was truly over. The pessimistic Federer fan in me was truly reveling in the moment and egging on Zverev, the future of the sport, to complete the job. Finally, however, 19-year old Zverev, the poster-boy of GenNext, came face to face with something older and greater men have failed to surpass - the indomitable spirit of the Mallorcan beast. My hopes of a Nadal exit and Zverev's first Slam disappeared down the hallway alongside the hobbling German. As promising as he looks, Zverev though is still just a nicotine patch to my Federer addiction.
As over the weekend, Federer got through another five-set marathon against a Stan Wawrinka who played like he had nothing to lose with a self-inflicted injury and Nadal did the same against a Grigor Dimitrov playing the match of his life, the sense of foreboding grew within. Both men were supposed to be down; both were meant to be out by now. Yet, there they were – getting up against all odds. But can Federer get up from another defeat at Nadal's hands? I, for one, dread the Sunday.
I had started the day early with a marathon of those three Wimbledon finals starting before daybreak. There was no hurry to rush through them. Replays are so liberating in that sense. Maybe that's why we tend to love living in the past, constantly fighting off that natural passage of time as it slowly chips away at your fondest memories. The past holds not a bit of that excruciating anticipation. There is no anguished nail-biting when Federer is staring down the barrel and at a break. You perfectly know how it's going to unfold and you sometimes even remember where that next shot is going to land. I have watched them that many times – the first two, I mean. Over years of carefully planned evasion, I have avoided reliving the painful memory of that Wimbledon final of 2008. Today, suddenly alive to the prospect of Nadal actually laying a claim to Federer's 17, I finally brought myself to watch it after eight long years- until the end when Rafa climbs his way up the roof and into the Royal Box - slowly picking through the scabs of that semi-healed scar.
Nadal's road to the center court at SW19 and on to the stands, however, had begun four years back at the 2004 Miami Open. The 18-year old defeated Roger in straight sets to start what will be the greatest rivalry the sporting world has ever known. Federer had yet to assert himself firmly as the prima donna of the tennis world. He had won only 2 titles by then, and I only vaguely remember that defeat of Federer although the Spaniard was already firmly earmarked as a contender by then. But then in 2005, Federer got the better of Nadal at the Miami Open in the first of many epic five-setters that would come – that too from two sets down. The pattern had been set. This would not be easy for Roger, and this bloke is not going to take the best seat in the court and be content watching.
That, however, was exactly what has made this the greatest sporting rivalry of all times. Sports has seen great rivalries in the past - Ali vs Frazier, Lauda vs Hunt, and of course Sampras vs Agassi. But, each of those tales has had a singular ending with one emerging the clear winner out of the duels. The Federer-Nadal saga though does not have that sickly sweet storyline. The great man has almost a psychological block by his own admission when facing Nadal, which he attributes to having faced him on his favorite clay courts in the early part of their rivalry. None of the others have lasted the time as these as well. Lauda Vs Hunt is more like a blip on the fabric of the Federer-Nadal timeline.
For once though, let's not dwell on who's the greatest – for Federer fans will shake their heads in disbelief until eternity at even the prospect of a comparison with this “one-course horse” while Nadal fans would insist “you can be the best only if you beat the best” with a deliberate smirk, for tomorrow will decide almost decisively who that is. If Federer wins, the 18 will be out of reach for Nadal, but if Nadal wins tomorrow and expectedly carries his form to the Rolland Garros, all the genius of Federer cannot defend that one-Slam difference.
For once, as time steps back to allow the duo, the two greatest of all-time, to recreate that magic one last time (for it's next to impossible for the dice to roll this way again that they meet in another final), there is little time to squabble.
Fierce friends off the court and formidable foes on it, it is their contrasting qualities that have enriched the rivalry. The two could not have been more diametrically opposite – one who beggared belief with his capacity for withstanding pain, the other whose wiry frame belied the force he could generate. One with the blinkered doggedness and exuberant fist-pumping and the other with his affable genius and stoic steeliness. One with an inhuman ability to not just retrieve but return the ball from impossible areas, while the other who produces, simply put, Federer moments, as the inimitable David Foster Wallace wrote in that greatest of Federer think pieces ever penned.
Although the game appeared to have moved on leaving the two behind, here they are! It is not simply a case of the stars aligning to afford these old warhorses one final showdown. It is also simply not the more plausible explanation of the plexicushion surface this year having finally been made faster. The duo have slowly but steadily reinvented themselves for. Federer has never returned so well in years, and if I may further it, in his career – he has chased the ball around like a man possessed to the ends of the court. Nadal, meanwhile, has advanced to the net more in that semifinal yesterday than he used to in entire tournaments. When they face each other tomorrow in a final after half a decade, they will each be facing a completely changed player.
However, some things never change. As a Federer fan, I have moved from pure unbridled hatred to practiced indifference to grudging respect for Rafa – only if Federer is not at the other end. But this man just refuses to go away, and when tomorrow comes, I will not have the strength to watch the match. As much as Federer has accomplished over the past two weeks, will he be able to overcome all his past demons? I just wish Nadal does not break him, one last time.