Few matches live up to hype. This one did.
It illustrated the greatness of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It brought forth the greatness of individual sports, which often play second fiddle to team sports since the latter enjoy a mass following.
The battle was not limited by time, format or distance. According to the rules, there would be no tiebreaker in the fifth set. So there was no telling when the match would end. There was no maximum.
It was each man for himself. No teammates. No one to pass the ball to or rotate strike with. Each had to sustain brilliance and courage over a long time, in this case four hours and 48 minutes, and in testing conditions.
Rain break? Deal with it. Gusts? Play on. Fading light? Sorry, you cannot stop.
The match reminded you of The Old Man and the Sea, where an ageing, luckless fisherman is out on water engaged in a three-day battle with an 18-foot marlin.
When it went into the fifth set, it ceased to matter who won. Nadal and Federer had done enough, even before the last point had been played, to prove their heroism. Nadal with his open-24-hours supply of venomously spun, heavily slugged groundstrokes, Federer with his steely-nerved yet smoothly struck aces, forehand winners and stirring comeback.
As we know Nadal, who in speech ends every second line with a rhetorical ‘No?’, won the match. Sad as it was to see the usurping of Federer, you doffed your hat to the new champion. He is a remarkable player, unlike any in history. If Federer could rank as the most elegant tennis practitioner ever, Nadal could be the game’s greatest ‘effort’ player.
It is difficult to think of anyone who has overcome as many weaknesses to evolve into a match-winning demon. He was not comfortable on grass. On Sunday he conquered it. He was not a great server. On Sunday he was broken once in four hours and 48 minutes. In the white-knuckle fifth set, in which he served eight games, he allowed Federer one breakpoint. Federer conceded six.
It is difficult to think of any player who had power, movement as well as heart and who pushed the envelope of strength and endurance. Nadal is Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Muhammad Ali and Lance Armstrong rolled into one. For a game that sometimes still gets the rap for being elitist, Nadal is a godsend. He appeals to the kind of guy who likes his sport sweaty and bloody.
Federer’s greatness unquestioned
Sunday’s reverse does not threaten Federer’s place in the pantheon of tennis gods. He secured it last year, when he defeated Nadal in five sets to win his record-equalling fifth consecutive Wimbledon. Till that victory, questions over whether he had the mental strength to match his shot-making genius were perhaps valid. But by pulling that match, he answered them. To raise them again would be unfair. And while Nadal leads their head-to-head race 12-6, he has beaten the Spaniard on every surface. This, along with his 12 Grand Slams, record reign as the No.1 and all-court consistency ensure his place among legends.
Federer was disconsolate after Sunday’s final. He didn’t hide it. But the loss could have its benefits. One, it will make him hungry to win again. Two, it could unburden him. The imminence of Nadal’s takeover weighed on him the last couple of years. Well, it has happened now. He can now play as a free man. Save for winning the French, Federer has done everything. On Sunday, he proved that on non-clay surfaces he is still difficult to beat. With some tactical tweaks — he is known to be stubborn and must get a coach — and a new, easier life as ex-king, he could still pull off a couple of Slams and match Pete Sampras’ record of fourteen.
For now, though, while he tends to his wounds, he must salute the new emperor. No?