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Of Federer and Nadal; of Sport and Us

There were 13 players on the field. But one stood out. And he knew it. There was a swagger to his walk, poise in his posture and his entire demeanour was of a man who knew there were a million eyes on him; who not merely was aware of and acknowledged it, but also courted the attention, craved for it and feeded of it. As the ball soared off his bat, 50,000 rose off their chairs in unison; but even before the triumphal act was concluded, the smiles were wiped off their faces and there was tension in their eyes. The fielder settled under the ball; it was to be a regulation catch. But, was it to be? The floodlights shone down upon him, almost sinister in their intensity, but that did not matter; he has done this a thousand times before. What mattered though was the thousands of eyes boring into him, the unnatural silence, the searing hostility of strangers, the expectations of teammates and most of all the stature of the man of whose bat the ball has soared from and was now hurtling down towards him. The fielder dropped the catch. The mighty Eden Gardens, as only it can, erupted in a cacophony of noise, a naked expression of violence but also an exquisite display of camaraderie. Among thousands, the fielder stood alone. Kohli smirked and resumed his batting.     

And so this then is the nature of sport. Not merely a contest between bat and ball or even a battle between two great players. Of course, it is all of that, but then it is also so much more. It is the fan who makes the sport, who gives it meaning, nourishes it with context and adorns it with significance. A fan is not just a passive spectator, but an active participant, who is not just influenced by the action on the field but also is an influencer of it. And it is also why, the men’s final of the Australian Open today, between Roger Federer, arguably the greatest Tennis player of all time and Rafael Nadal, perhaps the strongest counter to this argument, is so very special. It is a critical chapter in the stories of Federer and Nadal but it is also a special chapter in our story; for each of us.

Federer’s story began in earnest on a cold blustery July evening in Wimbledon in 2001. Then, all of 19 years, Federer announced himself to the world in spectacular fashion, defeating Pete Sampras in the fourth round. It was an astonishing achievement. Sampras, by then, was widely acknowledged as an all-time great and he had 13 grand slam titles to his name, more than any other player till then. He was gunning for his 5th straight Wimbledon title, and his 8th Wimbledon title overall, again, unparalleled achievements in the history of the game. This one title could be his claim to immortality. Federer by contrast, till then, never had progressed beyond the first round. But, as so often happens in sport, it is the seemingly innocuous battles such as these that later assume epochal significance. This was one of them. But what was so striking though, was not just the result, but the beauty of the performance, and the promise that it held. It was apparent to all those who witnessed it, that it was no flash in the pan, but greater things were to come, for a long time after. The great Sampras himself, even as he was smarting under the pain of unexpected defeat, seemed to have recognized something of himself in Federer. He was effusive in his praise and had this to say of the young contender; “There are a lot of young guys coming up but Roger is a bit extra-special. He has a great all-round game, like me doesn't get too emotional and you have to give him a great deal of credit.” Despite this, few would have had the clairvoyance to predict the sheer scale of Federer’s future achievements.  In fact, Federer promptly crashed out in the next round, losing to the local hero, albeit, a perennial under-achiever, Tim Henman, and it took Federer a further 8 attempts to finally win a grand slam. The rest as they say is history, but in this case, happily, an incomplete one with more tantalizing chapters promised.

This is one of the greatest joys of sporting fandom. To recognize the spark in a young talent and to hope for great things. The investment gives a handsome return, when the player not just fulfils the immense promise that he has shown but goes on to far exceed it. As we live the fairy tale vicariously, the bonds of affection and adoration that we form with the player often prove to be just as strong if not even stronger, than the bondage of family that destiny has bestowed upon us or the bonds of choice that we forge with friends and lovers. They become a part of our story, a fraction of our lives and a fact of our very existence and identity. For some, it was Tiger Woods, for some others, Sachin Tendulkar and for many more, it was Roger Federer.

And yet greatness can never exist in isolation. For greatness is a relative term, feeding not off the mediocrity of others, but being nourished by the excellence of opponents, by the determination of challengers and by the bloody-mindedness of rivals. And thus enters Rafael Nadal. It was his 19th Birthday. He was playing in his first French open. He had steamrolled his opponents in a display of exhilarating tennis and today found himself in the Semi-Finals. But across the net was a certain Roger Federer. By now, Federer had become a seasoned pro and claims of greatness sat lightly on his shoulders. He had already won 7 grand slam titles, was victorious in his last three and only needed the French Open to complete the elusive set. This was to be the tournament when the claims of ‘Greatest Ever’ were to graduate from being mere whispers to an undisputed fact. Roger Federer wanted to win this and was going to win this. Nobody could stop him, least of all, a 19 year Spaniard playing his first French open. Nadal won. And Nadal won his next match. The King of Spain, Juan Carlos, reached down from the front of the president’s box and clasped Nadal in a fierce hug. It was almost as if he was anointing his subject as the ‘King of Clay’. This is another of the great joys of sport; this affront to fate, snub to destiny; the shock and awe of a monumental upset. In his next 9 attempts, Nadal would go on to win the French Open a further 8 times, thwarted once only by a cruel injury. King of Clay, he was.

Federer, hailing from the border town of Basel, a prominent cultural centre in Switzerland, is all class and grace. Nadal, in stark contrast, is from the holiday island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain, and with his cut-off piratical trousers, sleeveless shirts and long black hair might as well have walked straight off the beach into the centre-court. While Federer eased past his opponents, Nadal destroyed them and while Federer serenaded his genius, Nadal displayed his determination. Federer was hard not to love, Nadal was difficult to like. While we rushed to embrace the genius of Federer, we grudged Nadal his greatness. Even as Nadal began to accumulate fans of his own, many preferred to ignore him and some chose even to hate and ridicule him. Federer was the timeless champion, Nadal was to be the eternal number two. Until that match.

Sport produces brilliance often; an outrageous catch, an extraordinary save or a thrilling dunk. But only rarely, does it elevate itself to divine heights. It happened on the evening of the 6th of July, 2008, on the centre court, in Wimbledon, London. Two men, who were at the peak of their prowess were playing to secure their legacy. And as the match progressed, it became apparent to all those fortunate enough to witness it, that here was something very very special in the making. One magnificent shot followed another, and extraordinary rallies became the normal. Even as Nadal made us aware of angles that we knew not existed, Federer unfurled his one handed backhands, coating the ball with his genius. And as the evening wore on, and as darkness began to set in, it almost seemed as if even the gods had risen from their slumber to witness divinity. These were not two players playing against each other, but two performers putting on a flawless synchronous performance and in the process taking the game into unchartered territories. The match was scheduled to start at two in the afternoon and finally ended at 9.15 in the night in near darkness. The match time of 4 hours and 48 minutes was interrupted by two rain breaks, almost as if, the gods themselves could not bear to witness such sustained excellence of the highest calibre. In the end it did not matter, for the match transcended time and space and will remain an eternal classic. That day was coated with gold dust and the memories will continue to burn brightly for a long time. Nadal won the match but there were no losers. And the players themselves knew as much; as the pride in their performance was overwhelmed by the respect towards the opponent’s grit and skill.

Nine years have passed since that match, but there have been only two more grand slam finals since between the two; until today. In the meanwhile, age seemed to have caught up with Federer. And as his performance has slipped, measured by his lofty standards, calls for his retirement have grown louder over time. For us fans, who had been pampered with genius so far could not accept Federer’s mortality. It little mattered to us that Federer still managed to reach the semis and finals consistently. For us, anything less than a victory was a failure. But the man himself battled on, never losing his grace, and not once, abandoning his innate dignity. For he played on because he loved the game. And he played on because he believed. Believed that he could lift a grand slam trophy yet again. For it is that belief that makes them the champions they are. And so he played on.

Meanwhile, as Federer looked a spent force, Nadal looked all set to overhaul Federer’s achievements. But curiously enough, the fall of Federer seemed to have affected Nadal more than any of us. After 2010, Nadal won only one other grand slam outside of the French Open. But in a way, it is perhaps not that curious, not that strange. For these two defined each other. The rivalry got the best out of them and we lapped it up greedily. And so without Federer to push him, Nadal wasn’t the same anymore. He too fought on though, for after all, determination built over a lifetime can be a hard habit to give up.

6 years after their last meet in a grand slam final, we have gotten used to it. We still miss it of course but we have made peace with it. In the meanwhile, new heroes have emerged, and new rivalries have taken shape. And yet, deep down, we knew it was not the same; it was never going to be the same. In this Australian open, even as Federer and Nadal negotiated their way through the early rounds, we dared not hope. We were cynical; we had been let down far too often over the past few years. And so even as Djokovic exited early, we refused to acknowledge the magical possibility. There were others dangers lurking, like Wawrinka and Murray, and we will not give them the chance to break our hearts again. And so today, as they faced off against each other in the final, we were almost caught by surprise.

But the sheer improbability of this has made it all the more special. For a few hours, we have been able to forget our troubles and abandon our worries. We have been transported back in time. And what a treat this has been. Anything less than a five setter would have been an anti-climax. And this match has been anything but that. The familiarity has ironically only increased the suspense and the intimacy has only sharpened the thrill. The drop shots of Federer have been just as delectable as ever and the returns of Nadal just as brutal. The 5th set was truly worth the stature of the players involved and the enormity of the occasion. And you could see it on their faces, how much it meant to each of them. Today, we have been treated to the best of Federer, we have been treated to the best of Nadal, and to the best of Tennis and Sport itself.

Federer might have won this match but that doesn’t mean a thing really. They have been greats for long now and will remain greats for long to come. Their rivalry has defined them, elevated tennis and enhanced our lives. This match though, is not just about Federer or Nadal; it is also about each of us. We have been part of their journey and stakeholders in their rivalry. And this was our reward. If today proves to be the exclamation mark at the end of a glorious chapter in Tennis, we have played our part in it.       


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