ROGER Federer has closed out the first set 6-4 with a surgically precise service game. Rafael Nadal, serving 15-0 in the first game of the second set, swings one into Federer’s body, the ball kicking and swerving away from the right hander.
Federer plays a checked, looping backhand down the middle, a defensive response calculated to buy some time to get back into the point. Nadal sets himself up on the baseline and hammers a piledriver of a forehand back at his rival.
Nadal’s relentless strafing of his weaker side pushes Federer further onto the defensive. He tries to change the angle of play with a blocked backhand cross court. Rafa runs onto the ball, his momentum giving his forehand added venom.
Rafa’s cross-court forehand has been Federer’s bugbear ever since the two first met in Miami in 2004. Thanks to a combination of venomous topspin and high bounce, Federer is forced to play his backhand at about the level of his shoulder or even higher.
This Rafa shot is a replica of all the shots he has tormented Federer with over the last 13 years – loaded with spin and bounce, swerving out wide and jerking Federer off-court as if on a string. Federer’s response, an attempted pass down the line, is weak; Rafa runs across to cut off the angle and volleys it deep into the untenanted desert that is Federer’s forehand side.
Vamos! The Rafa battle-cry echoes around the stands; the answering call of ‘Come onnnnnn Roger’ is equally fervent. And sometimes – possibly a trick of the acoustics, probably wishful thinking, or maybe a very real comment on the nature of the most remarkable rivalry in contemporary sport — it feels like the same people are rooting for both players.
TENNIS is a tough sport,” Federer was to say after it was all over. “There are no draws, but if there were I would have been happy to share it (the Australian Open trophy) with Rafa.”
More often than not when these two meet, they leave everything out there – and yet the affection they have for each other is as palpable as their very evident desire to destroy each other. It feels like a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome — only, at any given point in time, you can never be sure which of the two is the terrorist and which the hapless captive.
This dichotomy infects their respective evangelists – ever since Rafa upended Federer in Miami in 2004, the tennis-watching public has been split into Rafa fans and Federer acolytes. Each group is ferocious in their insistence that their preferred player is the best, yet both groups treat their favourite’s rival with a respect that borders on affection.
Federer, 0-30 down in the second game of the second set, serves out wide to Nadal’s backhand. This time it is Nadal who is scrambling to stay in the point; his response is a double-handed backhand cross-court that lacks depth. Federer is on top of it; for all the paeans that are sung of his grace and finesse, he can whack the ball when he wants to, and right here right now he wants blood. He hammers a forehand that drags Nadal to the opposite side of the court; with no defensive options left, Nadal tries a Hail Mary cross court but Federer is already on top of the net, waiting. There is no angle left to exploit, and Nadal’s attempt to manufacture the impossible ends with the ball trapped in the netting.
Now Nadal is 3-0, 30-0 up on Federer’s serve. Roger slams a 180k serve way out wide to Nadal’s forehand side and follows it into the net. By all the canons of geometry, by all the laws of probability, it is Federer’s point. Nadal’s only possible response is defensive and whether he goes across or down the line, Federer is racing in for the knockout volley. But somehow – and after having watched the replay a dozen times I can’t figure how – Nadal reads Federer’s intent, moves even as Federer makes contact on the serve, and manages to control a down the line pass that floats along the tramline, over the KIA logo, well wide of a bemused Federer and then, as if GPS-enabled, swerves inward to land with millimetric precision in the corner.
It’s laid out there in these magical moments, the story of this storied rivalry. They are a study in contrasts, Roger and Rafa, and they force us into the sporting equivalent of a Rorschach test.
Which do you pick: the puritanical, almost antediluvian orthodoxy of a Federer or the postmodern machismo of a Nadal? The style and precision of the Swiss or the unabashed, unapologetic, unbridled violence of the Spaniard? The grace of Federer-in-motion as he levitates around the court, or the raw energy of Nadal as he thunders along the baseline like the rampaging bull he is so often twinned with? The minimalist, no-movement-wasted, zen-like calm of a Federer or the hyper twitchiness of a Nadal who, even when resting between odd points at courtside, fusses with the alignment of his towels and the precise positioning of the labels on his water bottles? The opulent talent of the one or the outsize, indomitable heart of the other?
Pick, knowing that your choice will say as much about you as it does about your preferred favourite.
AND pick you will because Nadal and Federer, over 35 meetings including 12 in Grand Slams spanning 13 years, have forced you out of neutrality. It is only after you make your pick that you realise the true nature of this rivalry – over time, over successive meetings spread over countless hours of call and response, question and riposte, these two have not only exposed each other’s deepest, darkest vulnerabilities, they have forced each other to learn, to improve even on individual perfection.
Thus, Federer’s backhand is today tighter, more potent because it has been honed against Nadal’s relentless strafing; Nadal is more willing to take the ball early, to use the flat and fast return to set up points rather than rely exclusively on the whiplash topspin and wicked bounce that earns him his bread and his butter.
Across two hours and 37 minutes, the two litigate the same questions that have characterised their relentless rivalry. How does Federer counter Nadal’s savage assault on his backhand? How does Nadal find a way past the sharp, flat ground strokes that rob him of the time he needs to set up an adequate response?
Nadal gets closer to the baseline; Federer steps into his backhands, hitting on the up and taking the bounce out of the equation. Nadal breaks. Federer breaks back.
Commentators run the gamut of superlatives. “Unreal!!!” screams a commentator after a Federer forehand paints the line with pointillist precision. “Insane!!”, yells another when a venomous Nadal crosscourt forehand burns the air and leaves a vapour trail in its wake. Finally, the commentators give up and let the rock-concert roar of the crowd do the talking.
All that is past is prelude to a seminal passage of play that starts with Nadal, at 3-4 and 40-all in the fifth set, producing a first serve that swerves into Federer’s body and bounces vertiginously. Roger’s first four strokes in that 26-stroke rally are desperately defensive – blocked forehand return of service, lunging backhand return, looping forehand, forehand again, each stroke an exercise in survival, in keeping the ball in play and as deep as he can possibly get it.
It is with his sixth shot – a backhand he steps into, taking the ball early and hitting flat across court – that Federer sees a glimmer of a chance. He begins to move Nadal from corner to corner, mixing deep down the line strokes with even deeper cross-courts, all of them skimming over the net, no air to them, no oxygen for Nadal to breathe.
Control shifts. Federer is now dictating the pace of what is building into an epic rally.
Nadal sprints the length of the court to conjure an impossible return on his forehand. It is the halfway point of the rally, but the crowd can’t bottle it any longer – it erupts in appreciation, in admiration.
It is now Federer’s flat forehands against Nadal’s double-handed backhands, and there is no let, no quarter, for two exchanges, then a third. And then, on the 26th stroke of the rally, Federer in a moment of genius produces the knockout – a flat, hard down the line forehand that flat-foots even a Nadal.
“Ridiculous!” yells one commentator. “I will for as long as I live never, ever, forget that rally,” says another. (The same commentator had, earlier in the match, called another rally “the best of the match”. That is the problem onlookers face when these two play — the “best ever” has a shelf life measured only in minutes before they conjure up something even more magical.)
The crowd is beyond ecstasy. At the far end of the court, you notice a line judge shaking his head, complicit in our collective disbelief. We are like the guy who went to the zoo, saw a camel for the first time and said, “I don’t believe it, there ain’t no such animal!!”
The AC/DC anthem ‘Thunderstruck’ had blared out as Federer walked onto the court, a lifetime ago. Now, three hours and plenty later, you realise how apposite it is – “thunderstruck” describes Nadal, and the crowd, and the extended audience in front of millions of TV screens.
Somewhere above the superlatives of the commentators and the orgasmic roar of the crowd, you hear the fat lady going mi-mi-mi, limbering up her vocal chords. And you know that there is just no way back now, not even for a Nadal, the player with the heart as large as all outdoors.
Nine years ago, when Federer at this same venue lost in the semi-final to Novak Djokovic, the latter’s mother Dijana with characteristic gracelessness said to the assembled reporters: “The king is dead! Long live the king!”
Nine years and innumerable obituaries later, stop the presses: The king is back, and with him is his friend and relentless rival.
And, just like that, it is yesterday once more.