Monday, 2 February 2009

The Agony and The Ecstasy

(this article has been cross-posted here)

Trivia Fact: There is only one movie sequel that has won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

That's the thing with a masterpiece or a chef-d'Ĺ“uvre - it is almost always an isolated event. You don't find too many sequels that match up to the original. Except if you are Francis Ford Coppola, or one half of what promises to become the greatest rivalry that the tennis world has seen in decades: Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal.

Wimbledon 2008 left us breathless, gasping in awe at a level of tennis that belonged on another planet. Almost seven months later, it didn't seem as if that match had ended. Melbourne 2009 picked up right from where the previous epic ended.

For four glorious sets, Roger and Rafa enthralled and seduced us. The magical shot-maker against the man who just did not know how to give up a point; the touch artist against the counter-puncher; the man who could anticipate where every ball would land against the man who could reach the ball no matter where it landed.

And then it happened. The fifth set meltdown. The Federer who came out to play in the deciding set bore a passing resemblance to the man who had played the previous four sets, but that was about all that he had in common with the winner of 13 Grand Slam titles. The body language, the mis-timed strokes, the errors - they were all alien to watchers, commentators and probably the competitors too.

That Federer imploded is evident. That Nadal perhaps forced him to implode, is less obvious, but equally true.

Nadal might reside in Majorca, Spain - but for the past year his permanent address has been the mind of Roger Federer. Try as he might, Federer has been unable to overcome the mental block he faces while playing Nadal.

Most would tend to think that the seeds of self-doubt were sown at the French Open final in 2008, when Nadal annihilated Federer 6-1 6-3 6-0 [link to scorecard], and perhaps that is true, because since that defeat, Federer has not looked like the same player.

However, probing further back to the Wimbledon finals of 2007, might actually yield the answer. Nadal then, for all his clay court achievements, was still the overwhelming underdog for the championships. He lost that match, but not before giving Federer the biggest fight he has had while winning a Grand Slam. It is a testament to the quality of tennis that these two have played, that this match, which should by rights count as a classic, is now almost incidental. Federer won in a tense five setter 7-6 (9-7) 4-6 7-6 (3) 2-6 6-2.

The defining moment of the match came in the fifth set with the score at 3-2 and Nadal serving. The uber-cool, always unflappable Federer let out a primeval roar and pumped his fists when he broke Nadal. That was the moment when the world knew, that this was not just another Spaniard who would rule clay courts and perform decently elsewhere. This was someone special. And that was when Federer let the world know what it meant to him, and how difficult it was to overcome Nadal.

After that win, Federer had won three of the previous four Grand Slams, and had established himself as the man to beat. The only Slam he didn't win was won by Nadal.

The wheel has now turned a full circle - Nadal holds three of the past four Grand Slam crowns with Federer winning the only one Nadal didn't. Nadal is now the unquestioned number one.

When Federer was ascendant, Nadal took up the challenge, improved his game and came at him hard. If history repeats itself, then Federer now ought to bring some extra element to his game -whether mental or physical - and wrest back his place from the Spaniard.

The hurt, vulnerability and emotion that Federer displayed after the loss was a first. It could herald the start of a complete mental disintegration whenever he plays Nadal. It could, alternately, be the spur that he needs to re-elevate his game to the level, where it was once taken for granted that he would end up with a tally of majors that no one could hope to touch for decades.

Either way, tennis fans the world over are privileged. Life doesn't get better than watching both these players at their peak (except if you're also a cricket fan and cannot stop gloating about Australia's demise!).

Great champions have a way of bouncing back everytime they are written off. Roger Federer wouldn't want his legacy to end with this image.


Sumit alias Summi alias kopi alias copsi said...

a beautifully crafted piece should have been here at ACJ.anyway,traced it really a fan of yours now.

Saurabh Somani said...

@ sumit: thanks!

shakester said...

nice piece, saurabh. traced the graph nicely. I do hope its the start of some sort of (mental) fightback, and not a nail in the neltdown coffin.
sigh, june beckons.

Saurabh Somani said...

@shakester: thanks. and yes, june beckons indeed. let's hope redemption also beckons!

Tima said...

Hey Saurabh...that's a good piece i should say...well-written and moreover well compiled, and coming from a fellow- FedEx fan...u can take it as a compliment :-)

And just in case u r wondering who the hell this is...its Amit ( Raji's friend )....rings a bell? Thanks again mate for your hospitality and help during our stay at Pondi the previous weekend....let me know when u r in Bangalore...Cheers, Amit!

Anonymous said...

agree, agree and totally agree...
nadal is not going to make the fight back any easier. And the biggest irony is that the man is biggest fan of Federer himself. As it was reported, he cheered for Federer while watching the Wimbledon 2008 on tape for the first time last week ( that might be because he knew the result :P).
But truly said, the tennis matches are pure bliss when these two fight. Gosh, whoever wins or loses in the end, the ultimate winner is Tennis and the audience.