I have a theory that explains the Federer-Nadal divide among tennis fans. It’s unscientific and anecdotal; some even call it dubious. But then theories are conjectures at best. As for sporting theories, they are anyway notorious — selectively researched, slyly sampled and cleverly worded. Primarily, they are biased hypotheses floated to belittle rival supporters.
Disclaimer out of the way, now the theory: anyone who has been on a tennis court — pros, weekend enthusiasts or even those who pick and quit the game four times a year during every Grand Slam fortnight — most certainly prefer Roger Federer over Rafael Nadal. Millions of non-players, too, have “RF” tattooed on their souls — God bless them for their choice — but rarely will you find a man lugging a heavy tennis kit whose heart doesn’t flip when Federer’s hands flap like a giant butterfly while hitting that single-handed backhand that launches the ball across the net as magically as Spiderman firing that sticky web from his wrists.
As for Nadal fans, not all, but the majority of them are in a mostly long-distance relationship with tennis. The closest they have gone to a tennis court is about seven feet — the average prescribed distance to watch television. Their “ad” and “deuce” courts are the two corners of their couch. Their tennis talk is likely to be about numbers, head-to-head records with Federer and Grand Slam final statistics. On other days, it might be about the marathon that Nadal runs during every five-setter, his gym-sculpted physique, the titanium will and those metal pins holding together that fragile body. They also call Federer boring. Tennis, as in “tennis”, is rarely brought to the table when the “Rafa-backer” attempts to topple Federer from his perch and tries to prop up their man as a possible all-time great contender.
Last Sunday at Melbourne, tennis’s “palace” intrigue died. January 29, 2017 will go down as the day when world tennis finally saw light. Doubters turned believers and a long-dragging bitter dispute was settled for good.
It’s often said that Federer didn’t play Nadal when he was at his peak. Their five-years age gap is responsible for tennis archives ending up poorer. In his first four seasons as World Number 1 — 2004 to 2007 — Federer won 42 ATP titles, 11 of them at Grand Slams. In this period, Federer and Nadal met just five times in Slams, the Spaniard winning thrice, all on French Clay and the Swiss twice, both times on grass. 2008 saw Federer slump. That year the unthinkable happened — Nadal beat Federer at Wimbledon to be the new Number 1. In the years to follow, Federer’s aura faded, he could never be the Federer of those glory days, when he won at an average of 10 ATP titles a year. After 2007, his season title count never reached double figures.
In this context, this Australian Open final had historical significance. That’s how it became the moment of truth for Federer and Nadal fans. With the clay and grass specialists playing on their second-best court — the strikingly blue hard court — no one started as a favourite. Coincidentally, both were returning after longish injury breaks. It was almost like Federer and Nadal were thrown on a neutral surface with their “form” disabled. As the techies would say, they both reverted to their “factory settings”.
Eventually, Nadal did run Federer close, but ended second best. It was a closure of sorts. Federer was tennis’s undisputed king. He won his 18th Grand Slam, the most by a male tennis player, that too against Nadal, while being World Number 17 and after a virtual year-long break from Slam action. And he is 35. You wondered which dude had the rights for a RF biopic? It’s a heartwarming tale with Oscar potential, the ultimate feel-good flick.
Sport fans are suckers for underdog tales. However, they aren’t kind to ageing veterans. It’s worse Down Under; the hard-nosed Aussies are brutal and direct. They aren’t known to indulge the undeserving, especially the overstaying seniors. Years ago, when Colin Cowdrey played his career’s last Test at MCG — just a short walk away from the Rod Laver Arena —he was a podgy 42 year old. Earlier in the series, Cowdrey, recalled from retirement to rescue England, had taken the field with his dignified walk, carrying along his British etiquette. He greeted the Aussie wild boy Jeff Thomson warmly: “Mr Thomson, I believe? How good to meet you!” Folklore records Thomo’s reply as follows: “That’s not going to help you fatso, piss off.”
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) 29 January 2017
But not Federer, they loved him like their beer at Melbourne. They could have him any time of the day. That’s because even at 35, the father of four is the life of any party. He is the antidote to tennis’s modern day brutal, but predictable, avatar. Patience-testing rallies of those baseline bums, who were virtually indistinguishable from each other, were getting terribly boring. Slow courts, extra-zinging strings, those ever-increasing sweet spots of space-age rackets were cutting errors and making greats look like the greatest. The exquisitely handcrafted players, their muscle groups worked on by teams of trainers and their minds fine-tuned by previous champs, never tired. Tennis was once called boxing with a net in between; now, it resembled mixed martial arts in a cage. Modern-day players resembled factory-assembled F1 cars. You wondered how soon ATP would propose a season-ending “Makers Medal” to acknowledge the efforts of the men behind these machines.
The industrial revolution swept modern tennis, but Federer remained the proud craftsman, refusing to change his tools. It wasn’t a fight to stay relevant, but it was always about being the leader. In his pursuit to be the best, despite the changes around, he remained an ardent adherent of classicism. The purity of his art makes him the hero of all “player-fans”. In a survey covering 25 countries, he was voted as the second-most trusted man on earth after Nelson Mandela. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Bono trailed him, but, still, on big match days, you always had doubts. That Federer backhand is breathtaking, but it has an air of vulnerability around it now. Like most things that are delicately beautiful, it, too, comes with a fragile tag. It’s tough being Federer and keeping the flame alive.
Watch him closely when he parks himself on the baseline, countering the waves of attack launched by those bazookas across the net and you feel for him.
His game plan on most days, and even last week against Nadal, is to meet the ball early and dispatch it back. It’s his old trick, the quick counter is to hustle the baseline sluggers, catch them on the wrong foot, deny them the space to swing their arm and eat into their time to load up for those monster hits.
Against the likes of Nadal, Federer tries to build a wall bang on the baseline, that rebounds every shot fired at him, virtually with the same intensity, if not more. This method to neutralise the power hitters is an open secret, but it’s easier preached than practised. You need God-given gifts to follow this plan. For that, you need to be omnipresent, or, like Federer, be a cat chasing a fuzzy yellow ball, as if on a blazing tin roof.
That brings us to the famous Federer footwork — that one trait that makes him float above the battlefield and makes the pundits, pros and peers go weak in their knees. For someone who is 85 kg and 6” 1’, the sleekly-built star is surprisingly lithe on his feet. While chasing a ball, he doesn’t over-run, thus avoiding the risk of getting cramped. Rarely does he end up over-stretching because of a misjudged stride. Shot after shot, the fleet-footed star follows that same energy-efficient footwork pattern. The Federer die-hards, who haven’t taken their gaze away from him for decades, talk about the surprising lack of shoe “chirp” — that squeaky sound of fresh soles on finely polished hard courts — when he glides around the court. That’s because those giant initial strides and even those minor small adjustment steps at crunch time, just before reaching the ball, aren’t hurried or unsure. It’s his beautiful balance, an envy of most of his rivals, which simplifies the complicated art of “sprint-slow down-stop-hit-turn around-sprint-slow down-stop-hit”.
Keep an eye on him when he is pushed out of the court by, say a fierce Nadal top-spinner, wide on the backhand side. Federer, sure-footed as ever, races towards the ball, and then, suddenly, breaks the sprint and comes to a grinding halt. He ensures that he maintains that precise distance from the ball, so that he gets a free swing of the racket to belt the living daylights out of the ball. For that micro-second, while meeting the ball, he is planted stoutly on the ground and only after he completes the exaggerated follow-through of that “butterfly flap” would he move towards the centre again. Lesser players take the extra step, or a hop, to get their balance, some even one more step to recovery. So on most days, Federer is a couple of steps ahead of the competition.
At home after a month in Australia. Huge thanks to all of you, for your unbelievable support pic.twitter.com/zy7M0HDTHx
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) 30 January 2017
Michael Jordan defied gravity, at least his shoe manufacturers wanted the kids to believe that. Federer, even physicists agree, questions the law of inertia about moving objects. Back to last Sunday and that one-of-a-kind down the line half-volley Federer winner from the baseline at 30-30 in the second game of the third set. After a longish rally, Federer is pushed to the backhand corner and Nadal hits deep on the forehand side. The ball lands very close to the baseline. Instincts tell you to move back diagonally to retrieve the ball. However, men like Federer do things differently. He darts parallel to the baseline, and miraculously settles into a half-squat, waits for the ball and plays it back with the short back lift as if on a table tennis table.
At the Rod Laver arena, they were shaking their heads in disbelief; around the world, sofa springs in living rooms were bouncing under the weight of delirious fans. However, the ones clapping loudest and in a state of disbelief were those who have held a racket and tried to hit an on-the-run ground stroke. They knew this wasn’t just another winner. Even hours of training for years wouldn’t see you pull off this one. This wasn’t about good hands, muscle memory or creative coaching. In Federer’s case, the real talent was stored above the shoulders. As they said about Socrates, and even Dhyanchand, “When you think he will pass, he shoots, when you think he will shoot, he passes.”
Had Federer not won, would his legacy be different? Probably yes, it would surely be a shade duller. There would be an asterisk, an ultimate anti-climax. His page in the history book would have an apologetic rider.
A volatile teen with a pony tail, peerless champ with sublime skills, inexpressively aggressive on court, teary-eyed with silverware, expressive wife in stands, a pair of twins at home, restrained charm — in short, a typically neutral Swiss — but he choked when facing the other great player of the era and his only true rival: Nadal.
Former World No.1 Mats Wilander, the bohemian Swede known for his unconventional choices in life, had once made a highly objectionable comment. “Rafael has one thing that Roger doesn’t. Balls. I don’t even think Rafael has two, I think he has three. Federer might have them but they shrink to a very small size. It’s not once, it’s every time,” he said after Rafa had dumped Federer in another Slam final.
Everyone stop right now .. take 6 months off. Come back. Win ….. can’t believe what I watched. Congrats to my friend @rogerfederer
— andyroddick (@andyroddick) 29 January 2017
Seven days ago, in the fifth set, when Federer was broken early, Wilander’s words came to mind. Not again, you thought, dreading the prospect of facing the Rafa-backers and stressed about how history would remember your favourite. The silverware was travelling to Spain, you suspected. The script would change. Nadal got broken twice. But still it wasn’t over. Federer’s delicately vulnerable game, Nadal’s untiring legs, past record of this rivalry and Wilander’s comments messed up the mind.
But at 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 5-3, when Federer entered the court, restless to serve out the most important match of his life, the referee gave a sign. He said something that made you sure that Federer’s quest to be the greatest couldn’t be challenged any longer. He said: “New balls.”