by: Ben Stevens
The word “dumbfounded” is not something you usually use with a positive connotation. Usually, it’s for something we can’t believe for the worst reasons, like when Mark Philippoussis was given his own dating show, or Dominic Thiem dyed his hair blonde, and yet, the best way to describe what happened on Sunday is exactly that: dumbfounding.
Even five days later, I’m still in shock. There was just no way that leading into the Australian Open could we’ve reasonably expected, well… that. Whether it was injuries, their form over the past few years or because of Novak Djokovic’s dominance in Melbourne, a resumption of their rivalry in the final seemed nothing more than a pipe dream, their ability to pick up where they left off in their Australian and Wimbledon finals of the late 2000’s even more so.
Yet that’s exactly what happened, and it’s led me to conclude that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are real-life superheroes.
In every possible sense, that final represented the best that tennis has to offer. It was the two greatest male players ever, men who had spent their careers redefining what was possible on a tennis court, each driven to their best by the other. Age didn’t matter. Nor did fatigue. Or history. It was as electric and hard-fought as ever, with a conclusion as epic as anything we had seen from in their entire rivalry, and it was in that conclusion that they became heroic.
Because while it may not look quite as remarkable on the scoreboard as “9-7”, in Federer’s come-from-behind 6-3 victory in the fifth both men became the embodiment of one simple, but rare thing: bravery. From Federer’s opening serve to Nadal’s final challenge, both players threw all pretence of a measured game out the window, and just went for broke instead – I mean, just look at the play-by-play for the final game of the match:
0-15: Nadal crosscourt backhand return winner
0-30: Federer barely misses the line on a would-be down-the-line backhand winner
15-30: Federer ace
15-40: Nadal crosscourt-dtl backhand combo sets up an easy putaway volley
30-40: Federer ace
Deuce: Federer inside-out forehand winner
Adv Federer: Nadal return error long
Deuce #2: Federer forehand misses long
Adv Federer: Federer ace
Game Federer: Federer short crosscourt forehand winner
To quote legendary American wordsmith Project Pat: good googly moogly. The crazy thing is, it was like that for the whole set. Federer painted lines, while Nadal hit the ball as hard as anyone’s ever hit it. When one of the myriad pressure points arose for either player (with the exception of one double fault from Nadal), the only option seemed to be all-out attack, making for some utterly breathtaking tennis. It didn’t matter that each ball struck in such a way could not just decide a major championship, but also either cement or redefine their rivalry, they simply went for it. As skilled as Federer and Nadal are, to do that takes immense bravery.
In the end, Federer ability to key-in on Nadal’s serve proved the difference, but his remark about “taking a draw, or even a loss” in his acceptance speech really was a fair reflection of the quality both men offered. In full disclosure, I am first and foremost a Federer fan – his strokeplay first catching my eye when I saw him as a 7-year-old at the 2000 Sydney Olympics – but by god, if Nadal isn’t my hero too after Sunday. I remember after he fended-off break points at 1-0 and 2-1 whispering to myself “he is so f***ing good”, and really how could any right-minded tennis fan be upset if he’d gone on to win? Without doubt, his relentlessness and shotmaking in that fifth was one of the greatest things I have ever seen on a tennis court, but Sunday just wasn’t his day.
Whether their rivalry has more to be written, we just don’t know, but if it is indeed the final chapter, it was the one that took them to superhero status. In a time of so much negativity in the world, there is something we can all admire in the skill, perseverance, humility and yes, bravery that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal displayed in the 2017 Australian Open final. Individually they are the greatest names in the sport, but together they are much bigger. They represent the best in all of us, and we are all the better for having witnessed it.