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.