Only real tennis fans will understand what this blog post is about. Although fans of other sports might draw parallels with other comeback fairy tales. So I don’t need to say, though I will because it’s a thrill even to write it, Roger Federer just beat Rafa Nadal in five seesaw sets to win the 2017 Australian Open 14 years after his first Grand Slam win at Wimbledon.
This is remarkable in so many ways. First, it’s about both of them, not just the victor of this match. Should anyone have bet good money on these two being the contestants, they could probably now buy themselves a yacht from which to wave at the many players who live in Monte Carlo.
Federer is 35. He’s barely hit a ball for six months, following knee surgery after an injury sustained while running bath for his daughters. But for several years now many had already been writing him off. The stamina, confidence and perfection seemed to all be dented. Even though his body remained remarkably injury-free, his soul seemed not to quite believe and his energy not to quite outlast other serious contenders. We all thought how we’d miss him when he, surely before long now, retired to one or several of his luxury homes with his wife and against-the-odds two sets of twins.
Nadal is younger at 30. But, at least until this weird start to this tennis year, even 30 would have been considered an age where you were pretty lucky to still be near the top. And, unlike Federer, there’s rarely been a run of months where Nadal has not been nursing a strained body part – no surprise given his brutal approach to combat.
If Federer is the ballet dancer whose eternal grace seemed threatened only by anno Domini, Nadal is the boxer who somehow had the belief knocked out of him somewhere along the way – perhaps the sadder of the two processes to witness.
This contrast of styles and human stories – as well as the breathtaking talent of both – is why I think most fans so much wanted this ‘dream final’. The mouthwatering combination of the pure theatre we knew we’d experience and the utter unlikeliness that this event would ever take place. And, surely now, the impossiblity of it ever happening again.
For me, as no doubt for many others, it also took me back to where I was when I watched another classic duel between them. As my father lay in his nursing home bed in the summer of 2008, with the sun fading over the fruit trees outside his window, I sat with him watching Nadal prevail in five thrilling sets. My father was Spanish. He was also a huge tennis fan and for many years a commentator at Wimbledon for the BBC World Service.
When Rafa won, I leapt in the air and said “Dad, Dad, a Spaniard has won Wimbledon again!” (the first since Santana in 1966). It was a moment I felt sure would thrill him and one I so desperately wanted to share with him. But he looked blankly at me and managed a weak smile. I think he’d probably slept through much of the match and I’d barely noticed. It was a bitter sweet moment. We both knew he wouldn’t see another Wimbledon.
So I think today was also about ageing. About capturing something of the past and finding comfort that it could be returned to – even if fleetingly.
For a split second, the two white tables brought on for the trophy ceremony appeared like two stretchers ready to carry away the memory of these two great champions for ever. It was a pleasure to see Federer shed tears again, as he had done so memorably after his first Wimbledon win. And to see his expression as he held the trophy high, as if he thought he’d never again feel the weight of it in his arms. All great sporting moments are about human beings. But this will be a hard one to follow.