(by Vivek MV )
Rafael Nadal was one set up and the second set was going on serves. At 4-4, millions of Roger Federer fans across the globe knew where this was heading. A glimmer of hope was all they had. “Let’s watch something else,” my boss, a Federer fan, declared at work. “Federer is putting up a fight,” my colleague uttered a trademark modest response of a Nadal fan. Inside, he was already celebrating.
On clay, Nadal is always ten steps ahead of his opponent. The long rallies can be misleading. Beneath the small portions of exciting tennis, the opponent is like a lamb to the slaughter. He is often clueless about the incoming killer blow.
This year’s French Open semifinal remained on the expected lines as Nadal romped home with a straight-set victory over his long-standing rival Federer. Needless to say, in the King vs Prince title clash, the former came up trumps. Downing Dominic Thiem for his 12th crown, Nadal’s love affair with Roland Garros continued.
Nearly two decades ago, when grass, my favourite surface, was witnessing the end of Pete Sampras – the laid-back conqueror armed with a good mix of elegant and explosive weapons –it was also blessed with the rise of Federer. And the popular Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras rivalry made way of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Today, it owns the famous name: Fedal.
It’s never just a game when these two champions are on the court. The hilarious reactions on social media reflect the unceasing tension among the fans. “If you felt the earth moving it’s nothing but the collective sigh of relief from millions of Roger Federer fans after he won the set,” is one of my all-time favourite Tweets.
Passion runs through the veins of Fedal fans. Passion, that makes the matches and the players closer to their hearts. With Fedal, even exaggeration is lovable. Sample this from my colleague: “I tell my wife that watching a Nadal-Federer game is a matter of life and death for me. My BP shoots up and I can’t help it.”
I have enjoyed and learnt a lot about Fedal through my best friend. A die-hard Federer fan, it’s the Swiss maestro’s impeccable style and class that amazed my friend. Talking about style, who can forget the 2009 Wimbledon final? Federer graced the Centre Court at the All England Club with a jacket that resembled a British Army uniform over a gold accented waistcoat. The special outfit met a special finish as Federer downed Andy Roddick in a marathon clash to surpass his idol Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles.
During his prime, it was poetry in motion every time the ball kissed Federer’s racquet. But more than his brilliance, it’s his calmness that made the man more lovable. As the fire raged around him, Federer always remained an iceberg.
The invincible nature of Federer’s early days blinded his fans to the rise of Nadal. Despite his successive defeats to Federer in Wimbledon final (2006 & 2007), Nadal was closing in as world’s best player. And he made his biggest statement in the 2008 final. The rain-marred match, considered as one of the bests in tennis history, saw Nadal nail Federer at his fortress.
Even as Federer fans consoled themselves by terming their hero’s slip up as a one-off, the 2009 Australian Open final put an end to all doubts. With Nadal’s triumph, it was clear that not one but two players were dominating men’s tennis. One need not look beyond Federer’s reaction post the defeat to understand this. “It’s hurting inside,” said Federer as he wept uncontrollably holding the runners-up trophy. As my friend was inconsolable that night, I tried to hammer home the point that it doesn’t make Federer less of a champion if he falters in the final.
To his detractors, Nadal is one-dimensional and a player unable to sort out his numerous injury issues. Nadal might be one of the sport’s greatest defensive players. But to win majors, you also require shots of brilliance, which Nadal possesses in abundance.
Like Federer, it’s the person more than the skill that makes Nadal extraordinary. He is just not all power. Even in a hypothetical situation, where Nadal learns about his defeat before the match begins, the left-handed genius will still compete and give it all to change the outcome. Try to snuff his determination and you will end up losing more often than not. Despite your allegiance towards Federer, your dislike towards Nadal gets swallowed up by the audacity at which he performs.
As age caught up with them and as Novak Djokovic grew to be the best on all surfaces, the two legends’ made news for stumbling against unheralded players carrying ridiculous world rankings. But the 2017 Australian Open Fedal final gave a second wind to both the players. The epic final was the start of a great season for them as Federer (Australian Open and Wimbledon) and Nadal (French and US Open) shared the Grand Slams on offer.
Resurgence is the soul of sports. It inspires us inexplicably with positive energy. Following Federer’s brilliant come-from-behind (a recovery from 1-3 down in final set!) win at the Australian Open final, I remember discussing one of my problems with my friend. “If he can win a major after five years, then I even I can do what I aimed to,” I had told him.
Nadal continues to fight. Federer, to suit his ageing body, has incorporated a range of new shots in his game. And the rivalry has aged well. It is marked with maturity and respect. Federer’s nice words to Nadal makes his post-match talks extremely interesting. Nadal has been open about his admiration towards his arch rival. Tennis needs characters (I can imagine John McEnroe fans grinning). But the sport definitely doesn’t mind darlings like these.
The end is nearing. Federer appears like the one to take the exit first. The rivalry never stuck to its script, just like my friend’s life, which was taken away in an accident. With a heavy heart, we joked that he couldn’t work his magic from upstairs when Nadal comfortably beat Federer in the French Open semifinal last month.
Now we watch the matches for him. We read and go back to the previous matches of these two masters like all tennis fans do. We think of telling our children about these two rare specimens. Because there is no end to this rivalry. Fedal is immortal. There is no one winner. It’s always “Game, set and match Rafa and Roger.”