Facing Facts And Feeling Fine
The story of Fedal XXVII began on Twitter. P.J. and I briefly DM-ed each other before Thursday’s Australian Open semifinal (notice that you can’t spell “semifinal” without “seminal,” for that is what the moment was…) between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If Grandpa McSquishy Pants won, P.J. would do the write-up. If Rafa rose to the occasion and did the voodoo that 2009 in Melbourne once knew, it was agreed that I would handle this task.
Well, here I am.
This is a Federer fan blog, for those of you on the outside looking in (if you’re a first-time Picket Fencer, welcome; just know that Federese is spoken in these here parts…). Therefore, this community once again feels the sting of a semifinal loss against a great rival. However, I’ve always written – here and on other online haunts such as Peter Bodo’s TennisWorld – that there’s room enough for Rafa fans in a Fed appreciation society, and vice versa. Ever since their first major semifinal – on that electric June evening in Paris in 2005 – this most fascinating of sports rivalries has polarized and fragmented tennis fans across the world. Yet, on the occasion of their second semifinal meeting in a major – six and a half long years later – the appropriate instinct is to emphasize how great these men have been – together – for the sport and, by extension, our lives. Thursday’s 3-hour, 42-minute battle royale should evoke such a sentiment in every continent and heart.
Yes, the pain of loss is fresh for Planet Federer, but that sick, sad feeling ought to subside and give way to an appreciation of both Our Roger – deficient but gallant – and the Vamos Brigade’s dashing hero, who found some more of that 2009-style mojo at Rod Laver Arena. This well-worn rivalry has become so entrenched in the public mind that its various memes and narratives have become almost impossible to detach from, its tension points intractable and insoluble. Yet, it’s my humble opinion that as Federer climbs into his 30s and Rafa begins to face the march toward his late 20s and – with it – the loss of the footspeed on which he depends, it’s so important for Roger and Rafa fans to come to terms with these legendary champions, their soaring virtues, and their small yet present weaknesses.
The bottom line is that after Thursday’s match, Federer fans need to face some facts… and feel fine about it all. There are plenty of truths to be told in the careers of Roger and Rafa. The ones that don’t favor Wogie McFed don’t have to be denied or avoided, and they don’t have to be cast in a negative light. In fact, the more respect Mr. Nadal receives, the more the happy glow of praise reflects on Mr. Federer himself.
You don’t have to like it, fellow Fed fans. I don’t. However, it’s simply a fact of life that when Roger and Rafa play in the majors, the Spaniard is the better big-point player. Make no mistake, Federer won plenty of big points on Thursday; Roger saved triple break point in the third set and dug out of a few 15-40 deficits at other points in the match, including 2-all in the fourth. Federer won the tense first-set tiebreak; held serve at 4-5 and 5-6 in the third when logic suggested that Nadal would break to win the set before a tiebreak; and created break point opportunities until the very end.
There was just one problem with all the big points Federer did win in this battle of champions: They weren’t as numerous as the points Nadal won. In a match littered with errors but defined primarily by the artistic excellence and always-emergent creativity of these two marvels, Nadal had the final say. It is perfectly fair to say that the breakdown of Federer’s forehand cost Roger the match, but one can’t make that comment in isolation; in tennis, the opponent on the other side of the net is part of the dialogue, and on Thursday, Nadal played a part in making Federer’s money shot hit far too much tape and net.
The shot that lingers in the memory from the 2009 Australian Open final was Rafa’s forehand pass in the first set, with Federer serving at 4-2, 30-15. Federer did everything right — playing with aggression and decisiveness, he ultimately stuck a shot to the ad corner with textbook crispness and precision. Rafa, though, running like a demon well behind the baseline, used his long strides and bolo-whip action to call forth a mighty passing shot that Federer couldn’t touch. It’s possible to say that Federer thought the point was over, but then again, how can any human being be conditioned to expect not just a ball coming back, but with a ridiculous hooking spin just inside the sideline? There was no answer for Rafa’s passing shot three years ago. Nadal is that rarest of men who can absorb a peRFect-10 kind of point from Roger Federer and stamp a big fat “11” on a package marked “return to sender,” or more technically, “return past sender.” Those displays of otherworldly brilliance have managed to unsettle Fed just enough to make a difference when it really counts. In the spirit of disrupting a person’s mental comfort zone, there’s simply no need to overthink the matter: Federer loses to Nadal not because of the game plan, but because his shots don’t hold up for the duration. He doesn’t lose because of tactics, but because of execution. He doesn’t lose because he fails to hit tremendous shots – Federer would have owned a good 35 more winners on Thursday if he had been playing anyone other than Rafa – but because Nadal forces him to hit four or five more weapons-grade groundstrokes on a majority of points. Federer finished so many of those points by hitting “only” three.
It’s human nature to be unnerved – as the athlete in the arena or as a devoted fan of that very athlete – when all the things that led to your success and happiness over the years are thrown back at you by an opponent who was born and molded to beat you or make you miserable. Remember all the times when Fed would block back a 135-mile-per-hour Andy Roddick serve, hitting that floated stab return which would land on or just inside the baseline at Centre Court Wimbledon, thereby resetting the point and taking away Roddick’s one big hammer?
Well, that’s what Nadal has done so often to Federer, and with Roger on the verge of making a stirring comeback deep in the fourth set on Thursday, it happened once more, with (anguished) feeling for Fed and his followers.
You saw the play unfold, but it has to be noted for the record: Down 4-5 and having already been counted out by thousands of people on Twitter (I follow only a few thousand; surely, the 20 Fed doubters on my feed could be multiplied…) and perhaps millions around the globe, Federer – cracking the backhand that kept him in this match – earned a break point for 5-all. With one more point, Federer could have put himself in position to take the fourth set to a tiebreak, thereby earning a very realistic shot at one set for a spot in Sunday night’s final. On this break point, Federer didn’t flinch the way he so often has in the past against Nadal (including the 2009 Australian Open final). He played a picture peRFect point, whipping his groundies with authority and then steaming a forehand to the ad corner… the same corner at the same end of the Laver Arena court where Rafa hit that passing shot at 4-2, 30-15, three years ago. This time, though, Nadal didn’t uncork a thermonuclear response. Instead, he hit a defensive lob that soared into the sky. The moonshot didn’t seem likely to stay in the court, given that it flew off Rafa’s racquet, but after 11:15 p.m. at night in Melbourne, the ball wasn’t flying as much as it did at 7:45 p.m., when the match was only three minutes old and Roger was hitting through the court. The ball hung in the air for an eternity but lacked the starch it needed to sail long. It dropped right on the baseline, and in that moment, Federer’s mind had to be in unison with the collective thoughts of his fans: “SH*T!!!!!!!!”
Wanting to do something substantial after putting Rafa on the ropes, Fed went with the overhead from the baseline as he normally does. What wasn’t normal, though, was the combination of pressure and frustration that comes from knowing that an opponent perfectly equipped to beat him – to counter each and every one of his strengths, to beat him at his strongest points – had withstood his very best. Federer has seen Rafa pass him; he’s seen Rafa block balls back, especially on clay; he’s seen Nadal hit mind-boggling shots with impossible angles from unheard-of spots behind the baseline and wide of the doubles alley… spots Nadal used with scary regularity on Thursday night. (By my count, Nadal hit at least five of the 25 best passing shots he has EVER hit in THIS ONE MATCH. Think about that for a bit…) Yet, no matter how often Fed sees Rafa play to the height of defensive genius, it is still hard to accept the notion that your best shotmaking can be stopped by better defense. A real dose of mental weariness crept into Fed’s overhead, and a tame soft-slice version of the overhead – not the emphatic slice overhead Fed hits so well – swerved wide. Nadal, preposterously still serving, closed out the match two points later, and his block-back lob retrieval represented his final escape from peril.
There is simply no point of comparison with the way Rafael Nadal Parera defends a tennis court. Novak Djokovic is worthy of being in the discussion, but he’s very clearly the number two man in the room as far as defense is concerned. (Federer remains a brilliant defender in his own right, and in his 2005-2007 prime, he was every bit as formidable as Djokovic is now.) When Nadal and Djokovic play, they stretch the notions of what defense can be, but that’s because the two-handed backhanders are willing to trade strokes in a male mating ritual version of tennis, two young bucks knocking antlers in an open field. With Federer’s one-hander creating breathtaking brushstrokes of virtuosity at every turn, it’s different for Nadal — Rafa has to respond to Roger’s ability to take the ball a lot earlier and create a more daring angle. If a Nadal-Djokovic tennis meal is meat-and-potatoes two-hand-backhanding at its gritty, grinding best, the Fedal dinner is a succulent stir-fry of colors, oils and spices colliding in a wok and bursting with zesty flavor.
The fact – and it is a fact – that Rafa usually blunts and parries Federer’s finest offerings is the true testament to the quality of the Mallorcan. Federer played an imperfect yet still mesmerizingly entertaining match on Thursday – his highlight reel was anything but sparse – only to run into an opponent who had more answers in the crucible of crunch time.
What are we left with after Fedal XXVII? We’re left with simple truths – some of which go acknowledged and some of which remain hidden. The thing to appreciate about these two men and this rivalry is that there’s room for both truths, both stories, both resumes, to exist side by side.
There’s room for Roger’s offense – supplemented by terrific defense – and Rafa’s defense, which is accompanied by an always-underrated offense.
There’s room to acknowledge that Federer came up short while also seeing that he attacked points and pursued victory with the fullness that was so nakedly absent from the 2007 French Open final, when he refused to go after Nadal’s second serves and hit one tame second ball after another into the net. There’s room to acknowledge that while Federer still fails to win the biggest points against Nadal, he no longer goes meekly into that good night.
There’s room to acknowledge that Federer was the inferior man on Thursday while just as quickly pointing out that Roger is 4.8 years older than Nadal, playing the best 30-year-old tennis since Andre Agassi and retaining so much of the instinctual genius that makes him a fan favorite the world over. There’s room to acknowledge that Federer’s tennis at 30 is likely to eclipse anything Rafa or Djokovic are going to muster.
There’s also room to acknowledge that while Federer has left trophies on the table against Nadal, it is just as true – if not more so – that Nadal has always existed in a mental comfort zone against Federer for reasons that transcend the forehand-to-backhand dynamic. As Rafa said in post-match interviews late Thursday night, seeing Federer set own a standard of extraordinary achievement gave Rafa something to aspire to and shoot for. Rafa has always been the hunter in this rivalry, the man who could measure his evolution as a professional by his performances against Roger. By having that target in front of him throughout his career – in a way Federer could never replicate (not even with his idol, Pete Sampras, who left the scene before Federer hit the big time) – Nadal accessed the deepest wells of concentration and belief, wells that are not about to run dry. One can acknowledge Federer’s frailties against Nadal and yet see, paradoxically, that Roger’s career and all of its virtues are the very things which gave his Spanish friend and rival so much motivational fuel for the long haul, fuel for a decade and not just an 18-month spurt that so many tennis players enjoy but then lose hold of just as rapidly.
One can acknowledge that Rafa is now 3-2 against Fed in majors on non-clay surfaces, but there’s also room to realize that Nadal did not play Fed in hardcourt majors when the Swiss was at his peak. One can acknowledge that Federer’s major dominance extends across all surfaces, but there’s also room to realize that when Federer was Rafa’s age (25.5 years), he had only one French Open final under his belt, which means that Rafa still has time to burnish his hardcourt major credentials.
In the end, I think of this when I think of Nadal’s pursuit of Federer’s records: It is so easy and instinctive from a Fed fan’s perspective to want to make the argument that diminishes Rafa and enhances Federer, but really, why not give Nadal all the credit in the world and flip the script in the process? Praising the Mallorcan for being the one man to stand against Federer only ADDS to Roger’s reputation instead of detracting from it. If Federer’s achievements and skills were not that imposing in the first place, Rafael Nadal would not have emptied his insides and spilled his soul to become the man and player he is today. If Federer’s quality is what we think it is – the most beautiful tennis the world has ever seen, even at age 30, when Pete Sampras was sliding to No. 10 in the rankings (when men’s tennis was comparatively weak) – then Nadal’s ability to pick Fed apart becomes that much more impressive. If Fed’s old man tennis should be treated as the gem it is, Rafa’s 25-year-old prime – which should be better than Federer’s 30-year-old game – can be given its due as well.
For Roger Federer to be throwing down THIS kind of tennis at age 30, reaching his 30th major semifinal (he’s likely to pass Jimmy Connors for first on the all-time list before the year’s done…) and being the “old man” in the Big Four, should be seen as a very special affirmation of a champion’s enduring legacy. In tennis, though, the cycles of time are short and the person on the other side of the net is never excluded from the conversation. Rafael Nadal – thanks in large part to Roger Federer – is better than his Swiss buddy in the present tense. Accepting that fact might seem to be the heart of darkness and the admittance of defeat for a self-respecting Federista, given that we all prefer Roger’s way of going about his business and playing the sport of tennis. However, acknowledging Nadal’s lofty place in the pantheon – as Fedal clashes become more precious and rare on the big stage, in the shadows of Father Time – is the true way to magnify what our Swiss hero means to us.
Rudyard Kipling would agree, no?