This won’t be a match report, it can’t be, the situation demands something else entirely. You can get match reports anywhere else on the net but you won’t get one from me, not today. This match affected me personally and I realize as I’m writing this that it wasn’t for the shots that were played. The match as far as tennis goes is almost a blur at this point. I’m going through a mixed bag of intense emotions and I hope by writing this piece I can perhaps have some catharsis and clarity.
The match was already epic even before the sun rose yesterday.
- Epic Factor 1: The greatest tennis rivalry was about to take center stage almost a year from the last time they met at the same venue.
- Epic Factor 2: This was only the 2nd time they were meeting before the SFs. They met in the 3rd round in their first ever meeting at Miami almost 9 years ago in March 2004. Other than that, except for their one round-robin match at the 2011 world tour finals, they have always met at the SFs or finals, that’s how storied their rivalry is.
- Epic Factor 3: This was to be their 29th meeting; Nadal led the H2H at 18-10 though 12 of those 18 wins have come on clay – although let’s remember, 2 of Roger’s 10 wins were on clay too, the only player other than Novak to have defeated Rafa twice on clay.
- Epic Factor 4: They were both coming in with injuries, with Nadal’s knees and Federer’s back both suspect.
- Epic Factor 5: From the moment the draw was announced at Indian Wells the buzz has been about this match and for a while even the media (save a few) forgot to gush over the “new order” of Novak and Andy. Just goes to show that when these two champions are front and center, that “new order” still cannot hold a candle to the this intense rivalry of friendship, respect and tennis greatness.
- Epic Factor 6: This match brought a combined 28 Grand Slams onto court (and 42 combined masters titles, 21 each), the most ever in the history of tennis.
- Epic Factor 7: This is just for Federer fans and applied to every single match Roger played this tourney; if he were to lose, it would be the last time we would see him till Madrid on May 6th. He was about to take a well-deserved 7 weeks off, for vacation and then some much needed practice and recuperation. So every match seemed to have additional significance and each win was extra precious, guaranteeing us of seeing him one more time.
Thus by the time these two champions finally arrived on court, it almost felt the tennis universe would implode onto itself. The crowd at Indian Wells cheered their lungs out and fans like me all over the world, defied time-zones and tuned in via TV or stream, already overwhelmed with nervousness and excitement all over social media. With all that hype, I’m now wondering what would have happened had Roger simply withdrawn injured. He wasn’t able to practice earlier in the day. He had gotten through his previous match with gut, sweat and toil and didn’t have enough time to let his back recuperate. As we later saw on court when the match got underway, though he started well, soon, his movement became severely limited. By the second set he didn’t run for balls or bend for drop-shots. Clearly he was in pain, so then I thought, even though he didn’t withdraw in advance, why didn’t he retire from the match? And therein lies the reason why I created a blog dedicated to this man.
He didn’t withdraw because out of the 290 tournaments (including Davis Cup Play-offs) he took part in before this one, he had withdrawn only twice. He didn’t retire from the match because out of the 1,092 he had played till then, he hadn’t retired EVER. He didn’t withdraw or retire because he thought of the fans, the ticket-holders, the tournament, the sport of tennis, gamesmanship and out of respect to his opponent. He didn’t withdraw or retire because he’s Roger Federer.
The entire duration of the match, he played without giving anything away. He didn’t call a trainer on court or take a medical time out (though I wanted him to). But you could tell by his sluggish movement and how he grunted on his serve and shots (Federer grunting is rare) that he was in severe discomfort. He kept fighting in the first set but by the second there was just no gas left in the tank. Combine that with his opponent playing aggressive brilliant tennis of his own and you get a lopsided match. Towards the end, everybody was urging him on, the crowd at the stadium, my entire twitter feed and it seemed even Rafa. I can’t even remember the last time I saw such a subdued Rafa on court. No celebrations or “vamoses” after a point or even a set won. He knew what we all knew; this was not Roger at 100%. And Rafa displayed true class all the way till the end. When they came at the net, he asked him how his back was and Roger replied ‘It’s ok’ and that look on Rafa’s face said it all. Rafa showed respect by not drawing blood from a wounded Roger and applauded along with everyone as Roger left the court.
The gentlemanly behavior and sportsmanship they showed carried over into their interviews. “I don’t think Roger was 100 per cent,” said Nadal. He continued, “The second set was strange. Roger didn’t fight as usual. Probably he had some problems and he didn’t feel enough comfortable to keep fighting.” When asked about their H2H he said “If I think that I am better than him because I beat him 19 against 10, I will be very stupid and very arrogant. This is not the case.” “You miss these moments this whole time, but play against Roger in any moment in any situation is special.”
In Roger’s interview he downplayed the back issue stating he had the same problem in his match against Stan as well. He didn’t wish to elaborate further “because I don’t like to undermine his [Rafa’s] performance, either.” He concluded “I’m happy to be out there and able to compete, but it’s [the back problem] obviously a small issue. That doesn’t work against guys like Rafa, obviously.”
Then I realized I didn’t really feel cheated out of this match because as far as I am concerned a Federer-Nadal i.e. Fedal match has transcended the set-points, the championships, titles and mind-boggling statistics a long time ago. At this point I enjoy the rivalry itself. As McEnroe said “[It] brings out the best in both, their styles are different, they look at it differently, they dress differently, but they play together so magnificently they made each other better.” As one commentator put it yesterday, “when these two play, you really don’t care how the match turned out, it’s just great to see them on court playing at the same time.” I know many Federer fans disagree with this but not I. When the match ended I wasn’t left feeling sad like I did at the Australian Open or worse at Dubai. Nor did I feel helpless like I did after Rotterdam. It was altogether a different kind of emotion. One caused by witnessing something much more than tennis. What I saw on that court was mutual respect, dignity, strength, conviction, humility, modesty, concern and friendship. As wrong as this might sound to some fans, I am happy that this loss happened to Rafa and not Berdych for example. I feel only Rafa could’ve managed this loss with the respect and care that was needed.
I have a confession to make here. I used to be a big Sampras fan and when Sampras retired I left tennis for a few years. The baseline rallies of Hewitt and co. did not appeal to me so I didn’t pay much attention to the Maestro’s meteoric rise. In fact, for a while I didn’t like him on the principle that he ousted Sampras from Wimbledon in 2001. But soon he was all but unavoidable so I reluctantly tuned in. As I saw him floating across the court I recognized touches of the old era of coming to the net mixed with baseline power rallies and some shots that I had never even seen before. Roger Federer was something old, something new and something entirely magical and was creating a brand of tennis all his own; one that could mesmerize but never be emulated. Roger single-handedly brought me back to tennis, for which I will always be eternally grateful.
And Roger’s mutual respect and affection for Rafa made me a fan of the rivalry despite how gut-wrenching it could/can be. There is a saying in my country that you can’t clap with one hand and that is what I feel this rivalry did. Rafa made the clap complete; together they re-wrote tennis history and their friendship and sportsmanship changed how the tennis world operated. Gone were the days of McEnroe, Lendl and Connors hating each other or Sampras and Agassi trading barbs. Roger and Rafa achieved that delicious balance of intense competition on court and friendship off court and the two worlds never collided. And nowadays you hardly find bad behavior amongst the rest of the ATP and if there is, then they are severely chastised by tennis fans. Roger and Rafa should be given their due credit for this trend.
So when the match ended, I now realize that what I felt was one part sadness with Roger’s loss and more importantly the pain he was in, one part happiness at being able to finally see a Fedal match, and one part pride in being able to call myself a Roger Federer fan. And I rediscovered my reason for starting this blog in the first place. I was inspired not by just a tennis player but by a man who is a perfect role model in life as well; how he behaves on-court and off, how he handles wins, losses, rivals, fans and family and how he continues to find motivation after already having achieved so much. So I will end this long piece with a thank you – Thank you Roger for continuing to inspire me in tennis and in life.