Everything I know about tennis I have learnt from watching the sport since I started [as a wide eyed kid trying to figure out who won the point based on who the camera zoomed on] way back in 1987. Everything I know about life, I have learnt by stumbling along, to quote Prince, ‘this thing called life’. But everything I know about the intersection of tennis and life, I know because of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
I have always been a Federer fan, his aesthetics and artistry easy to get used to, his natural talent so blazing bright that the moth of fandom is effortlessly seduced by it. I enjoyed watching him play tennis at ridiculously brilliant levels, almost on a different plane to everyone else as he won almost everything that came his way. It was around then that I got commissioned to write my first ever sports piece for a magazine back in 2006 – a small piece in their year-end issue on the rise and rise of Rafael Nadal, a feisty Spanish teen. He had had a breakthrough year and I had predicted that his tenacity is likely to pay off in terms of finally breaking Federer’s iron grip at Wimbledon. Nadal tried gamely in 2007 and came oh, so close. He couldn’t quite get there, but it was a heck of a fight.
Back then I had written
They faced off at center court and the contrast couldn’t have been starker. Federer, expressionless, composed, calm and at home with the surroundings had the air and smoothness of a Swiss Investment Banker while Nadal, gingerly daring to dream on a surface not quite dear to him had the attitude of a risk taking, adrenalin driven derivatives trader on Wall Street. And amazingly, the risk taking almost worked with Nadal working up confidence after losing his first service game (the only time he was broken till the 5th set!). The strategies were just like that of a trader, smartly hedging his bets of the runs to the net with punishing cross court winners that would have made Federer proud. Nadal showed that he was willing to learn as he gave a dose of his own medicine back to the ‘Federal Express’. The ‘Fed’ meanwhile trudged along with the solidity and conservatism of the ‘Federal Reserve’ chairman and edged himself ahead with two key tie break wins (Federer came in with a 12-3 record in the breaker and Nadal was at 9-6).
But Nadal turned the tables once more breaking Federer twice in the 4th set. But that’s where the risk trader’s luck ran out. Federer was in his element in the fifth and finally managed to break Nadal at 3-2 in the final set. The juggernaut rolled from there as the ball did not even cross the net once in Roger’s next service game. Nadal the trader still took a couple of brave bets (running to the net with renewed vigor), but by then Federer had sniffed victory and he sealed it breaking Nadal again.
The old adage that the more solid investments (in a Warren Buffet or Benjamin Graham sort of way) will outperform the market (or in this case competition) over the long run proved true again! But Nadal, like the cyborg ‘Terminator’ has been picking up skills and adapting himself to the fight as he battles more, and soon enough the trader might strike it rich on the floor. The only thing is that time wasn’t 2007.
You all know what happened next. There has literally been a book about it. But it was in 2007 when I watched Nadal battle with incredible tenacity even as I high fived a fellow Federer fan [a complete stranger at the café] during that final set when Roger broke, that I realized that while my card carrying Federer fan cred will probably endure, Nadal had just carved his own niche in my tennis loving part of the brain.
Federer had always been classical music, the movements orchestrated to almost a fault, beauty almost a requirement rather than a byproduct of how he played. The contrast Nadal provided with his tennis, so ferociously beautiful that I fondly call it poetry set to punk rock music, was a new experience for a fan who had already been seduced by the aesthetics of Federer. Till then, fandom to me was mostly about dichotomy. Nadal introduced me to the idea of the abundance of ‘and’ rather than the tyranny of ‘or’; that it was ok to have a soft corner for another star even though my wagon remained firmly hitched to the other. That’s probably because how they have carried themselves on and off the court has helped me assimilate their statesmen like understanding of what their legend means for the sport of tennis, which they clearly hold dear above all else.
Come Sunday, they will take on each other in another Grand Slam final and my mind drifts back to a decade back, when in a café, I was distinctly partisan in cheering Federer. This time again, the fan in me will cheer Federer on, but the wizening time that has elapsed in between will intervene and let me know, that it’s all good and I’ll probably feel just as happy if Nadal wins. That’s not a hedged bet. It is the most important lesson I have learnt about tennis and life from these two – about enjoying and appreciating the beauty of what you have and being in the moment.
Vamos Rafa! Allez Roger!