Time, they say, waits for no one. But on 29 January, 2017, for three hours and 37 minutes, it seemed to slow down as Roger and Rafa slugged it out in the Rod Laver arena.
The match was a constant stream of ‘do you remember’ moments. For every brilliant shot, there was a memory; for every little chink in armour, there was an ‘I told you so’; for every mistake, there was a curse. This wasn’t just a tennis match, this was much more and you didn’t need to be a tennis fan to understand that. In a way, this match transcended sport.
It took us back in more ways than one. When Rafa first burst onto the scene, the world was yearning for a challenge to Roger. If Roger had kept winning the way he was, it would have become boring. It would have become predictable. So when Rafa, as a 17-year-old, beat Federer in their first meeting in 2004, many tennis fans heaved a sigh of relief — finally, a rival. They willed him on, ‘he will make Roger even better,’ they thought. He did that and much more — he got himself better at an even faster rate.
The relief quickly turned to fear and then anger. Few could have accounted for Nadal’s tenacity; fewer still could have envisioned how quickly he would catch… how quickly he would push the Swiss master into a corner. Between 2005–10, Federer so far ahead of everyone else, was slowly but surely reeled in by the Spaniard. Federer had Wimbledon; Rafa had Roland Garros. The hard courts were a free for all and it was there that Rafa got better with each passing year. For six consecutive calendar years, Federer and Nadal finished as the top two ranked players on the ATP Tour, the only pair of men in history to have done so.
The early admiration for Rafa faded. It was either ‘Team Roger’ or ‘Team Nadal’ now. There was no middle ground.
In 2011, Nadal flipped a switch. Starting with the Miami masters, he started dominating Roger. In 12 matches (right upto Basel 2015), the Swiss master won just thrice. This was the kind of stuff Federer regularly did to his rivals — just ask Andy Roddick — but to see him so powerless was a humbling experience for many of his fans too.
Now, they clung on to Federer’s ‘class’, his charm. The more he lost, the more they seemed to love him, the more they willed him on… in the hope that one day, the collective force of our prayers would propel him to victory. Note, by this point, his fans could see that he was good enough to beat the ‘mortal’ players but Nadal and to a lesser extent, Novak Djokovic were getting beyond him. A match against Nadal was accompanied by a feeling of frustration and a preparation of excuses.
The game plan was always the same: Nadal would attack Federer’s one-handed backhand and keep at it until it would breakdown. Try as he might, Federer was never quite able to counter the 4000 RPMs that Nadal would impart on the ball with his deadly forehand. That was until yesterday.
In Nadal’s words, Roger ‘played super aggressive during the whole match.’ Perhaps he took a lead from the way Grigor Dimitrov rattled Rafa; perhaps he finally realised that he didn’t have a chance with his regular game. He went for broke — which was evident from the number of unforced errors (57 to Rafa’s 28) and winners (73 to Rafa’s 35) — and it worked. It still took five sets but it worked.
And then once again, in our mind’s eye — we stepped into a time machine. Many will tell you that with a record of 23-12, it doesn’t seem like much of a rivalry. But this rivalry was never about the numbers. It was about what they stood for. And strangely enough, the rivalry once again seems to have returned to the early days when we were egging them on to make each other better. Only now, we hope that it makes them play on and on.
There are some who already believe that Federer should call it quits now. The ‘ending’, it seems to them, cannot get any more perfect. But to put things in perspective, Roger had to beat four top 10 seeds on his way to the title, a feat not done at a major in *35* YEARS. And three of those wins came in five-setters. Djokovic and Murray may have got knocked out early but let’s be clear, Roger earned this as did Rafa, who for the first time in 31 months had managed to get past the quarters at a Grand Slam.
In fact, it just might be the other way round. They just might have the wind in their sails and the rest of the tour better watch out, there’s a west wind blowing and it’s called Fedal.
The last word, though, should belong to Juan Martin Del Potro. He put it best when he tweeted: “Thank you both, don’t you ever quit tennis!! GRANDEEE ROGER 🙌 So inspiring!!”
Indeed, don’t quit on tennis. Tennis clearly didn’t quit on you.