Rod Laver arena witnesses the dying of the blinding Nadal-Federer light
That’s the thing about great rivalries: it takes years to nurture them but their end is always sudden
Roger Federer feels the pressure on his way to semi-final defeat against great rival Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Photograph: Made Nagiepa/EPA
“Eeeugh” was the instinctive comment of John Lloyd when he was treated to a close-up of Rafael Nadal’s blister in the early stages of yesterday’s Australian Open semi-final against Roger Federer.
It won’t ever challenge Kenneth Wolstenholme for all-time great sporting broadcasts but it definitely captured the general sentiment in the arena.
The Spaniard had played through the sauna-like conditions of the tournament with a calloused palm which gradually became a blister and yesterday, early in the second set against his great opponent, the wound was bright red and raw and it was difficult to imagine how he would continue to hold the racket tightly enough to generate the ferocious pace and spin with which he hits a tennis ball.
For Federer devotees around the globe, the small, nasty sore suggested that maybe the gods were concocting a path for the Swiss to somehow overcome the lengthening odds and scramble through to another Grand Slam Final. For Nadal fans, it was just further proof of the man’s indomitable will.
Tennis is shaped by its rivalries. Among those in the Rod Laver arena yesterday morning was Pete Sampras, so indelibly associated with that time when Beverly Hills, 90210 and Alanis Morissette were inescapable and nobody was convinced the world wide web would catch on that it is a always a surprise to see him pop up in the contemporary era.
The tense struggles and absolute respect between Nadal and Federer has been the enduring story of men’s tennis for the past decade and yesterday’s meeting in Melbourne was their 33rd meeting.
You can’t see Pete Sampras without immediately thinking of Andre Agassi. Similarly, whenever John McEnroe pops up at Wimbledon you instantly think about Bjorn Borg and their interminable jousts at Wimbledon when they turned the centre court into a dust bowl. Borg and McEnroe only played one another 14 times in major tournaments yet they seemed to define their era as much as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.
As many people know, it rained for over a thousand consecutive days in Ireland in the late 1980s; Met Éireann records will contest this but people who lived through it know better. And in July, the rain often spread the whole way to London SW 17, so instead of a perfunctory second rounder between Mikael Pernfors and Mats Wilander, you got to see a replay of the McEnroe and Borg.
The tennis circuit had Jimmy Connors’ wonderful scowl to look forward to but he always seemed a bit lost once McEnroe retired and even though we had the sudden fury and manic aggression with which Boris Becker arrived, fully formed and intent on eating the world at the age of 17, and even though Sampras and Agassi fascinated, it was hard to believe that tennis could ever again produce a rivalry like McEnroe and Borg.
Those lucky enough to be in the Rod Laver arena in Melbourne yesterday got to witness what may well be the closing act in the rivalry that has matched that earlier one and held the tennis world spellbound for the last 10 years.
It is not as if the Nadal-Federer duel is particularly even: yesterday’s win for the Spaniard leaves him with a 23-10 overall standing against the Swiss – even if 15 of those games were played on clay courts, on which Nadal is all but invincible.
But the appeal of watching the pair playing tennis has more to do with the fact that when Federer was approaching the supreme height of his powers, moving with such lightness and ease on the court and playing killer shot after killer shot without, it seemed, even breaking sweat, it was hard to figure out who could stop him in his tracks.
Federer didn’t look so much born to redefine tennis as genetically engineered to do so. The red shirts which he favoured stayed pressed and dry even on those rare occasions when he was taken to five sets.
He never lost his temper and rarely expressed emotion after points won or lost.
Tennis fashion was his only visible eccentricity – the bandannas he wears to keep the hair from his eyes and the odd off-white boating jackets he showed up in for the 2006 Wimbledon tournament, as if inspired by Brideshead Revisited. Commenting on the jacket in a famous essay, Federer as Religious Experience) written for the New York Times that summer, David Foster Wallace noted “On Federer, and probably on him alone, it didn’t look absurd with shorts and sneakers”.
Then came Nadal; left-handed to Federer’s right-handed, immensely powerful and always the aggressor, his face contorted with effort and his shirt drenched even after the warm-ups. It was as if he was a direct response to Federer. If Federer looked as if he loftily floated above the realm of brutal physical effort then Nadal seemed to throw his very soul into every shot he struck.
And he has suffered for his art down the years, with various career-threatening injuries; Federer seems so agile and perfectly balanced he never placed enough stress on any one part of his body to injure it.
When they played their Wimbledon final in 2008, a contest that lasted just 10 minutes short of five hours and finished on a fifth-set 9-7 win to Nadal, it instantly edged out all previous matches for quality, drama and enduring, nail-biting magic.
The English tournament marked Federer’s last Grand Slam win, in 2012, and it seems unlikely he will better his record of 17 major titles.
On Sunday, Nadal will almost certainly claim his 14th major title as he closes in on Federer’s overall haul.
Even as Nadal eased by Federer with his bewilderingly powerful passing shots, the match still contained a series of thrilling rallies with unexpected and near impossible exchanges which made the crowd gasp. Federer can still produce uncanny winning shots and can still break Nadal’s serve but not when he needs to and not as often.
They may wind up on the same court again but there was a sense of an ending about his departure from the Rod Laver arena and a valedictory note about Nadal’s ever-gracious comments afterwards as well. That is the thing about great rivalries. It takes years to nurture them but their end is always sudden.