Two living legends find a way to do it one more time.
Life goes on. The same is true in sports. Stars are born, they fade, and if skilled and transcendent enough, they are immortalized forever as lasting fixtures of their game, serving as the standards for the young bucks who hopelessly try to duplicate their success. The one constant is that there will be an end, and history tells us it can be a messy one. Those most unfortunate will struggle to find any bright side when enduring their twilight years. It is filled with moments that the videographer wisely refrains from including in their greatest hits clip show. Fans do their best to suppress the humanizing of their superheroes, but it is a relationship they begrudgingly accept. We sit through the end, which can be at times agonizingly painful, but allow it to be overshadowed by the good.
The men’s Australian Open Final was an exception to the law of the passing-torch, and an afternoon of bliss for anyone who has has ever wished to see two icons freeze time.
It goes without saying that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal represent everything we love about sports, but I will rehash their intertwining and historic narratives anyways. They are the epitome of class, the gold standard of how all professional athletes should act. Both men maintain a constant air of humbleness despite maybe being the two best to ever step behind the baseline. They possess that crucial next-gear that seems to elude so many others. It is what distinguishes them from all of the other greats. Perhaps, most importantly, they visibly love the game, even after all they have achieved. Superstars can become jaded, especially in a sport that relies so heavily on the mental psyche of an individual and their ability to withstand immense physical punishment daily.
It is their combination of endless drive and rock solid mental toughness, which escaped other legends like American greats John McEnroe and Andre Agassi, that puts them at the top of their field. Tennis exposes character, or lack thereof, and these two warriors have proven to be in an elite class of their own. They display a visible love for the game that should be emulated by all up-and-comers. To do otherwise is a disservice to their exemplary careers.
Fans deserve more sportsmen like Nadal and Federer. They thoroughly enjoyed the duo’s epic clashes over the years, but that’s the point. People witnessed years of memorable showdowns between the one-handed-backhand assassin and the King of Clay. They oohed. They aahed. They marveled. And then things changed, or rather, ran their natural course. The dominance faded and was displaced by just flashes of big-stage brilliance, which further regressed into mere competitiveness, with the immortality all but out of reach.
Tennis, while being a cruel mistress for anyone past the age of 30 (Federer is 35 and Nadal an old 30) does offer the occasional day in the sun. The stars have to align sure, but it is certainly plausible for both the racket and body to behave when they belong to an all-time great. The idea of renewing an iconic rivalry, however, in the final of a major tournament years after both players have been unseated from their respective thrones is not just luck as it may have initially seemed. It is destiny, justice, and quite possibly the most fitting ending to the golden era of tennis and the greatest rivalry in the sport’s history.
The day belonged to Federer, who after three and half hours of leave-it-all-on-the court tennis, stood tall as the gleeful victor, winning a record eighteenth Grand Slam title, but Nadal deserves to share in the glory as well. Both men were part of something truly special. Up a break in the fifth set, the loss will obviously haunt him if he is unable to win another major, but he had finally been able to climb over the metaphorical wall he had hit after countless upsets suffered in majors over the past few years. It was gut-wrenching to witness him squander sure-fire victories, or hear of him withdrawing from last year’s French open due to a wrist injury. Every one of his recent matches left viewers uneasy no matter the result. It did not even matter if he was playing like his old self or if he was actually healthy. The feeling was that sooner or later the engine was going to break down.
Nadal’s advancement into another final started to become difficult to fathom. He defied the odds by doing maybe the only thing he could do to regain his top form. He adapted. Nadal, known for his unshakable loyalty to coach Uncle Tony, welcomed former world No. 1 and fellow Spaniard Carlos Moya to the fold. The 1998 French Open champion slightly tweaked his notoriously long practice sessions, which may have made the difference as he navigated an arduous slate of competition that included the next big thing in Alexander Zverev, Wimbledon runner-up Milos Raonic, whom he defeated in straight sets, and the reemergence of former top ten player, and soon-to-be again, Grigor Dimitrov in an electric five-set semifinal. People will not see the legacy aspect of the match in regards to Nadal since he presumably has plenty of tennis left, but his feat deserves to be engraved in the list of his career-defining moments. The problem was that there can only be one winner, which almost seems unfair in a duel of this magnitude.
That winner, Federer, went a long way in solidifying his status as the greatest of all time by overcoming a sub-par record against his kryptonite Nadal to win No. 18. He entered the tournament as the No. 17 seed, after being ravaged by knee and back injuries in the months prior. He seemed to be on the same trajectory as Nadal, only five years older. His headlining days seemed to be winding down. Sure, he makes for one hell of a warm-up act, but with his fragile health and an unfavorable draw, a comeback looked improbable. He again showed himself to be an unidentified specimen when he bested Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Nadal in successive five-setters, the respective No. 5, No. 3 and No. 9 ranked players in the world. Throw in a third-round meeting with No. 10 Tomas Berdych, which culminated in straights, and Federer’s Aussie run is worthy of all the cliches. Incredible is the word that first comes to mind.
However, it is best to focus on the duo, instead of analyzing their individual runs back to prominence. Their meeting was legendary before the match even started, but expectations were inconceivably topped, as all of the palpable pre-game excitement was intensified by a battle that built in suspense and then produced a climax with enough drama that it could have peeled right off a movie script. It started off as being what we expected: Two likely-exhausted 30-somethings both trying to shake off some championship rust. For Federer, it was his surprisingly errant forehand, and for Nadal it was his inability to consistently dictate pace with his ground strokes.
Still, the match remained a must-see for the aforementioned reasons. They each had their own moment to shine. Nadal put on gutsy performances in both the second and fourth sets to keep up with the Swiss man and Federer turned in a superb third set which saw his serve, movement and beautiful back-hand fire on all cylinders. The fifth set, however, symbolized the reason for all of the hype. It was the perfect swan song for their rivalry. The fans, despite having rooting interest, wanted a joint scene-stealing performance, and the final set delivered.
They relived their glory days in the moment, live on the court. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did not get to go back when they relinquished their respective crowns to Michael Jordan. Manny Pacqiuao and Floyd Mayweather had their face-off with all the hype, but with little electricity in the actual match. Federer and Nadal did the unimaginable. They reignited a rivalry against all odds, past their prime, and rediscovered the old magic. Nadal hit a tremendous crosscourt backhand for break point. Feder then ascended to that famous next-gear, which at this point seemed unfathomable. Nadal then did the same after the match had turned in Fed’s favor. He desperately fought on, and shocked the crowd yet again by earning two break points. Ultimately, Feder’s serve was too overpowering and guided him to the long-awaited victory. There was no longer just an aura. The match became legendary because of the actual competition unfolding within a extremely dramatic tale of two heroes embarking on what could be their final quest.
The match had it all. Long rallies (more toward the end, but they made up for a slow start) uncertainty, Federer battling through injury (groin), and powerful facial expressions that perfectly encapsulated the moment all made for not just a solid retelling of an old classic, but a worthy saga in its own right. And at the end the fans were not saying “it’s time.” They were saying “more please.” Perhaps we should not be greedy and appreciate the fact that it could be the last major for Federer or the last chance for Nadal or their last head-to-head final. None of that really seems relevant at the moment, though. The match was the embodiment of why we even bother to invest in sports in the first place. Here’s hoping that the chaos of Melbourne continues, and these two are just getting started because no matter how the landscape of tennis looks like it is hard to imagine ‘Federer vs. Nadal’ ever getting old.
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