I do not know how to introduce this piece. I do not even know if it makes sense. I just wrote it.
On Sunday, the second instalment of a wonderful throwback finals weekend at the Australian Open will take place. Roger Federer will combat Rafael Nadal in the 35th edition of one of the greatest rivalries in tennis history. This match-up represents the extreme north and south of the game of tennis, displaying how both slick elegance and grinding power can be equally beautiful.
I want to write about this clash of all collisions, this tenth Grand Slam meeting between two all-time greats. And yet I do not really know what to say about it. For once, I do not want to analyse, or to predict whether or not Nadal will relentlessly target the Federer backhand for the umpteenth time. I am not thinking upon whether Federer’s extra day’s rest gives him an unfair advantage, or whether the Swiss’ stunning form and the quick courts will take him to a record 18th Grand Slam title.
Well… not much, anyway.
This weekend, I am distancing myself from critical opinions. But for the last few years, I have had a strong opinion regarding regarding these two players, and regarding their rivalry. Ever since Federer began to struggle with form and injury during 2013, and from the start of Nadal’s mental wilderness in 2015, I refused to believe that either man was on their way out of the sport. That they would never hit the heights again. And this was not because I did not want to believe it, but because the notion was completely and utterly ridiculous. Federer had one rocky season, and immediately pundits and onlookers – and even some fans – were writing him off. Andy Murray was allowed a whole season to resurge after minor back surgery – a season which culminated in a 6-0 6-1 defeat at Federer’s hands – but the rules were apparently different for an older man. It was a somewhat similar story for Nadal, when he made his comeback from injury in 2015. As he muddled through the year, people anxious for either a story or a new era did not give him a chance for the 2016 season. Therefore, when injury once again destroyed his mental and physical progress, it was widely accepted that the Spaniard had never truly exited the land of struggles. Apparently, Nadal was on the decline – whatever the 30-year-old said himself.
But the 2017 Australian Open has changed everything. Here, Roger Federer has proven once again that his God-given talent is superior and sensational, in reaching a major finale during his first event back in seven months. Here, Rafael Nadal’s replenished mental fortitude has been on full display, and has manifested itself in trademark off-forehands, spell-binding backhands, and perhaps even a vaster and more reliable repertoire than he possessed at the peak of his career. Dangerous assets such as his net game and backhand slice were nurtured during his months of struggle, in an effort to keep himself alive. And now that the storm has passed, they are part of an artillery that makes him lethal from any part of a tennis court.
During the weeks and months and years that I stood by these two players, I have been called an idiot. I have been laughed off. I have been accused of bias. The multitude of people taking an opposing stance even made me half wonder, at one point, if I really was being biased.
Nevertheless, the last two men standing in Melbourne have had their say on that one.
I did not structure this piece, as I would meticulously plan a normal article. Honestly, I’m not even sure if what I have written makes sense. But I would like to suggest that Sunday’s Australian Open final should not be a time for long-term wonderings, for picky observations, and for questions as to how much longer Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will last.
If anything has been learned from this fortnight, it should be that the racquet is in the hands of each individual player – and no one else. And they will hang it up on their own terms, in their own time. And whether they are dropping away like former world no. 3 David Ferrer, or performing masterclasses like Federer, they should be allowed to simply get their heads down and get on with it.
That is why I never doubted, not even for a moment, that Federer and Nadal would return to this most elite of positions. Both men had voiced their beliefs that they had years of competitive tennis left in their bodies. And talent does not die that quickly. A combined total of 31 Grand Slams will become 32 on Sunday night, and that statistic alone points an incredulous finger at all those onlookers – now in hiding – who said that night had fallen for Federer and Nadal.
Perhaps they were right. After all, when night falls, that is when the stars come out.
Enjoy the final. We may not have another clash between this duo for a very long time, and we may get another as soon as the French Open. But right now, who cares? Stay in the moment, and relish what these legends are proving, and what they are giving to this sport – and to all of us.
May this showdown be a five set epic – and may the word ‘retire’ not be mentioned if it is not.
That is all.
Thanks for reading! Hope this made some sense, or at least captured some of the emotion of this occasion. I didn’t really dare to read it back. Comment away!