Day 15: On Greatness
At 8:30am this morning I signed on for a stressful Sunday. Today was the Australian Open men's final. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal - In my opinion, the greatest match up in tennis.
It was a thing of beauty, and though it lacked the raw, emotional, swash bucking quality of some of the other great matches they've contested, most notably THAT 2008 Wimbledon final - widely regarded as the greatest tennis match of all time.
Theirs was and is a rivalry that any writer would dream of creating. Federer, the silky skilled finesse that was at his peak, almost unplayable, his effortless movement around the court, his old school gentleman demeanour as a classicist of the game. He dominated all comers, destroying his opponents like Roddick and Hewitt to the point that playing him was like a mortal taking on a demi god - the Hector vs Achilles fight, most particularly with Roddick whom you could see throw everything he possessed at Federer and know it simply wasn't ever enough.
Then from the Island of Majorca rather than Crete came the Minotaur. The young Nadal with his cut off T-shirts and rock star hair had none of the effortless superiority of Federer. His was a raw and powerful, muscular game that poured every ounce of strength and desire into every shot. He never seemed to tire and separated from the streamlining effects of national tennis academies, had developed an extreme topspin forehand that was close to impossible to deal with, especially on the biting clay courts that lifted the ball at times above even the heads of his opponents on the bounce.
Two more contrasting rivals could scarcely have been created. The archetypes were beautifully set and battle commenced. Tennis is often compared to boxing in terms of its psychology and the nature and intensity of its duels. A difference we can all be thankful for is that where boxing fans may get to see the greatest figures meet once, the world of tennis has seen its two greatest ever players battle for over a decade with numerous blades notched and wounds taken.
Both men aged, and as time and injury tool their toll ceded the top of the game to Djokovic and Murray. Nadal's more intense, physical style seemed to have a greater impact on his body and from the heights of grand slam victories, year after recent year was blighted by injury, the kind of compound damage, knees and wrist that signal the end for a tennis player. Federer too, five years Nadal's senior was feeling the strain. A back injury followed by a nothing tweak bathing his daughter resulted in the first surgery of his career.
Nadal and Federer met toward the end of 2016 as Federer came to open Nadal's tennis academy in Manacor, Majorca. (My uncle and cousins were there to see it) They were supposed to play an exhibition, but both men, now into their thirties were nursing respective serious injuries. Great rivals, seeing the winding down of their potency, I would have loved to hear the conversations that passed between them. Certainly neither would have imagined, that a few short months later, they would be battling once again out in the bright lights and heat of yet another grand slam final.
Most people who love the game will, when pushed, admit to being Team Federer or Team Nadal. I'm a Nadal guy, though I love watching both. I remember being court-side at the World Tour Finals watching Federer - then the undisputed best player of all time in his prime eviscerate Andy Murray who looked like he would rather have been anywhere in the world but on that court. As it was, Federer's serves were bouncing into my seat and I got to see a glimpse of what sporting immortality looked like up close. As for Nadal, I remember sneaking onto Court One at my first ever Wimbledon to catch a glimpse of him. From high in the stands and with security closing on me for illicit rubbernecking, I was still able to see him. That was 2008, the year of that great Wimbledon final for which I was offered a second hand ticket on gumtree for £350... and refused because it just wasn't financially sensible. (A decision that still haunts me)
As it was, the match was an unremarkable classic. It was such an assumed certainty that it would go five sets that almost nobody mentioned on it. Both men were at times brilliant and fragile, tired and on song. Early in the fifth, with Nadal holding a slender lead, it was like watching Rocky II. Balboa and Apollo Creed, the championship rounds hanging onto each other to stay up, even as they tried to knock the other down. The skilful dancer and the brawler... and this time, in the third fight (Maybe the one they had behind closed doors in Rocky 3) the dancer, Federer with his extra day of recovery and more economical style took the final set as Nadal finally faltered, still swinging, still fighting for breakpoints, even as the end came.
With players at this point in their careers, it's very possible that this may be the last time we see them under the glare of grand slam final lights. Murray and Djokovic will come back stronger from their somewhat anomalous early round defeats. We could be just one tweaked tendon or back strain away from saying goodbye to these guys, which to me is like the end of the age of heroes and the transition into the powerful, practical kings of the Djokovic/Murray Era. Their tennis is an unbelievable athletic achievement, but it will never be loved like the elegant fencing of Federer, or the raw, emotive lassoe of Nadal.
So if this is indeed the end, it is, I feel a fitting one, and as a fan and fantasist hobby player, I want nothing more than to thank these heroes, my heroes for over a decade of undiluted joy, passion adrenaline and catharsis. We have witnessed the champions of the golden age of tennis and it may be many a year before we see their like.