It has been 24 hours and I am still emotionally recovering from the Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal final at the Australian Open 2017. The contest in Melbourne went to the Swiss, giving him his 18th Major as he extended his lead on that count over his contemporaries and the greats (Nadal is at 14, Sampras finished with the same number, Djokovic is at 12), after Federer won a thrilling five set match that ended on a dramatic challenge by Nadal. You could cut the tension with a knife at the Rod Laver Arena, witness to many an epic battle (remember this?) but even among those and the epic battles arguably the two greatest tennis players of all time have themselves had between them, this one stood out for the universality of how it was hailed as something spectacular, extraordinary and special. Experts seem to concur that the quality of tennis at their famous 2008 Wimbledon final was better, or Nadal’s counterattacking in the 2009 Australian Open final more thrilling, but still everyone has put this one down as one down for the ages – a memorable and beautiful encounter.
Unquestionably why the 10th meeting between Federer and Nadal in a Grand Slam had everyone transfixed had a lot to do with their storied rivalry on court (and their exceptional mutual respect off it) and some romanticism and nostalgia (it was a dream run for two players not given much of shot – even by their own selves! – at the tournament) which had a lot to do with the fact that many fans did not ever expect them to be competing in a Grand Slam final against each other and when it did become evident that they will here, most considered it the last chance to catch a glimpse of the peak of tennis perfection. But all of this was *before* even a single serve had been sent down in the final. The final battle itself would leave everyone breathless going beyond their wildest dreams (although, to be fair, Grigor Dimitrov, after being beaten by Nadal in the semi had predicted a ‘freakin amazing match’).
I thought the final would be good but likely one sided with whoever gets going early snuffing the other out, because that’s how their games seemed to be matching up. Boy, was I wrong and boy, was I delighted. It was not just about witnessing history, not just about the fact that as a Federer fan I finally saw that 18th Major arrive after an agonizing 1,666 day wait since Wimbledon 2012, or not even just about how for the first time in my career of being a card carrying Federer fan my heart beat for Rafa and I lived and died either way with every stroke towards the end. It was, in my opinion, about getting an inner glimpse into how a masterpiece gets made.
They both brought their biggest strengths on court – Nadal letting those forehands fly and working out astonishing angles, Federer floating like a butterfly before bearing down on the tennis ball for a ground stroke that stung the surface like a bee. But it wasn’t all flawless – in the final set, Federer lost his serve on a terrible down the line error, one that would have made 1998 Federer playing the qualifiers at this very Major blush; in the next game, he hit a volley long on the baseline despite having an open court in front of him, the chair umpire with a higher probability of getting to a ball put in court than Nadal who was at the other corner. Nadal made similar errors and served indiscriminately at times, like he was nervous. But at other times, the tennis was sensational to the point of making every adjective pale in comparison to how good a shot actually was. Nadal reached and managed to convert a precisely placed Federer backhand baseline corner bomb into a cross court winner, the only thing the commentators could blurt out at that moment was that it was like a squash shot. Talk about transcendent tennis.
Usually, we see the beauty of a creative piece of work – a book, a painting, a movie, a song – only after it is out there in its finished form. We are never really privy to the creative process, like how does that perfect lyric, note or brushstroke come to be. Yesterday at the Rod Laver Arena, watching Federer and Nadal exchange 26 high quality strokes in a rally for the ages was like watching two of your favorite impressionist painters (mine are Van Gogh and Monet, for the record) landing brush strokes upon brush strokes as a part of the painting emerge. Like two rappers free styling with unparalleled intensity, the creative genius emerged one tiny piece at a time. If you are thinking I am getting hyperbolic, remember that watching creativity in action is messy. So for every shot placed, angled or whipped to perfection that we saw there also were the misfires (the “howlers with the howitzers” as the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay described it) but if you have ever written something and scratched it off or rolled the paper into a ball and dumped it into the bin, or used the backspace key, you know it is part of the process; these make the masterpiece as much as the actual things that were left in. In sport the only thing is it all unfolds in real time as Venus Williams so beautifully reminded us earlier in the tournament.
Nadal v Federer clashes have always been exceptionally creative, maybe because of their contrasting styles, and like how the conflict between Paul McCartney and John Lennon left its unique and immutable creative stamp on so many Beatles songs, their clashes have done the same for tennis. Wimbledon 2008 will remain the pinnacle, like two musicians waked in, and on the fly composed and played note for note a perfect symphony and left. But Australian Open 2017, where they raised their games for each other again, their fallibility allowed us, the audience that extra time to glimpse into the process of how these two cook up such outrageousness on the tennis court evoking beauty and ferocity of the levels of a Borg v McEnroe in their prime (albeit with fewer cuss words and way less screaming at the umpires).
And while the history, rivalry and the other context will remain in making this final special, why I will cherish it for ever is for being given the opportunity to watch geniuses at work, foibles and all, and being reminded that not all superheroes wear capes – some wear a bandanna and carry a tennis racquet.