Even the men themselves didn’t think they would compete for a Grand Slam title again, but like in battles of the past Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal provided more wonderful sporting memories.Sport is often discarded. It rarely makes the front page, there’s often too much money, not enough honesty and, at the top level, increasingly out of touch with the people that make it great – the fans. Thankfully, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal still had some magic left to remind us, now more than ever, how important sport can be.
Football fans are often reminded of how fortunate they are to live in the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Two players with contrasting styles who have enriched and evolved the sport. Comparing Federer and Nadal as tennis’ equivalent would be remiss given the obvious differences between team and individual sports, but the pair have done what only the greatest athletes can: transcend sport.
Their best days are behind them though. This is Nadal’s first Grand Slam final since 2014, Federer’s since 2015 and the pair haven’t played each other in a major final since 2011. Fitting that at the start of a year where the world held its breath, two sportsmen gave us reason to smile, even if for a moment.
If Space Jam made a movie for tennis, these two would be in it. And it would be as nostalgic too. These two last met in a Grand Slam final in 2011, and the years haven’t been easy for either of them. Many feared that this final might struggle under the weight of previous encounters. Not a chance.
Federer’s backhand, as beautiful as ever, had Nadal running desperately in the first set as the possibility of disappointment disappeared. The Swiss’ ruthlessness had returned and with a break, Federer swept to the first set. It was one step, but given that Federer had never won a Grand Slam final against Nadal after losing the first set, it was a noteable one.
If Federer was coolness personified, then Nadal was determination. Right at the start of the second set, the Spaniard broke. Federer threatened, but only momentarily. Soon Nadal led 4-0. Later he won the set.
Federer stopped Nadal’s march in the third, saving three break points with remarkable composure in an opening game that lasted ten minutes. The rallies were endless, the concentration inconceivable. It was Federer’s best tennis in years and it came in the 6-1 set that was nearly lost at the start.
Federer had to take more risks to win, but what had worked once suddenly didn’t work anymore. In a move that typifies his career, Nadal returned from the brink. He broke and with a completely off balance shot at the end of another high-quality rally, the contest had swung once again. Federer could only applaud.
In perhaps the most comforting recalling of history in recent months, the match started to feel like their great final at Wimbledon in 2008. Nadal broke, Federer tried to do the same but Nadal’s resistance prevailed. Tension, unpredictability, endurance – it was everything you wanted from sport.
And in sport, there are always winners. Another chance to break back came and went. Federer’s body began to look 35. Nadal had never beaten Federer from two sets down, but surely now was his time?
In the sixth game, the match slowed. Suddenly, every point felt like a game. The change of pace gave Federer a chance and, incredibly, he was 4-3 up. Like the match, the finish remained elusive. Nadal saved three break points in the following game. Then came the longest rally (26) of the match as the quality blew viewers’ minds, melted social media, defied the science of the game.
Federer took the fifth break point and a game later, the title was his to serve for. He was standing on the edge, and so was everyone watching. It was most likely his last final. Three hours and 35 minutes later: championship point came and went – a reminder that touching distance isn’t there. Ace. Advantage. Challenge. In. Grand Slam number 18, aged 35.
Tennis between these two is perhaps the greatest sporting metaphor for life. Pain, endurance, emotion, victory, defeat, disappointment; Federer versus Nadal hits every high and low, and that’s perhaps what makes them so relatable and their contests so memorable.
“There are no draws in tennis, but if there were I would have been happy to share this trophy with you tonight,” Roger Federer said afterwards. Federer or Nadal, it was the the breathless display of all that sport can give us that was left and a moment like that was what the world desperately needed.