It was pitted as the greatest Grand Slam match of all time. It was built as the greatest Grand Slam final of all time. They even said it had the talent, history, and persona to be the greatest match in history.
The build-up was lionized. Rightly so, it had to be. Records were on the line. So was pride. Comebacks had to be vindicated and withdrawals needed to be justified. The chance to become the greatest player in Brad Gilbert’s list of the best tennis players in history was a greedy incentive as well.
Then again, Brad who?
Nothing else mattered that day. Nothing else could come even remotely close. Presidents could have resigned and aliens could have landed, but nothing would have made the world stop from what it was doing and take notice. Because all eyes were at the Rod Laver Arena where two of the greatest tennis players to have ever graced the court were set to lock horns in yet another engrossing battle.
It was the ninth time that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were playing in a Grand Slam final. The first time since the 2011 French Open final and the first time at the Australian Open since the 2009 epic. Nadal was looking to become the first man in the open era to win all four Grand Slams twice. Federer, on the flip side, was looking to be the first man in history to win 5 titles at more than two Grand Slams.
The amount of numbers being flashed on screen was painfully perplexing. The magnanimity with which those numbers were being talked about didn’t help either. This match was that big. It was Federer versus Nadal afterall. The same Federer and Nadal who tore hearts and bored holes in logic when they wrested each other deep into dusk at the 2008 Wimbledon final – The greatest tennis match in history.
Federer, playing his unprecedented 28th Grand Slam final, was cooler than the icy -30 degree celsius winds back home in Switzerland. So cool that during the pre-match photo he had the nerve to ask the mascot whether he was feeling nervous getting his photo clicked? The audacity of that man!
“Are you nervous,” asks Federer?
Umpire James Keothavong looks shocked. The mascot looks bewildered. Federer just smiles. That’s the confidence he has heading into this match. Six months out of action and just one warm-up tournament before Melbourne hasn’t dampened his spirit one bit. If someone gave him a bongo and put him on camera at this very instant, there’s a 90% chance that he would not back away from beating the life out of those things in the same manner in which he beat men half his age en-route to the final.
That’s what makes Federer more than just a player that people support and want to win. It makes him a player that people see themselves in. It makes him a player who connects with them to levels that weren’t palpable before he stepped on the court. This is who he is. This is what he stands for.
He knows that this match could be his last chance ever at a Grand Slam title. This match could be his last shot ever at beating Nadal in a Grand Slam final. Ah Nadal, the arch nemesis. The palladium to my Iron Man. The kryptonite to my Superman. The outside-off ball to my Virat Kohli. The same Nadal who made Federer cry at this very venue after this very match 8 years ago. The same Nadal who hasn’t been able to win another Australian Open title ever since that doomed night in January.
This is Nadal’s 21st Grand Slam final. He’s won 14 of them. He seems to have been stuck there for ages now. Since 2014 actually. Another title would take him above the great Pete Sampras. The same Sampras who couldn’t win on clay and kept winning on grass. The same clay on which Nadal made his legacy and the same grass where Federer has his only Grand Slams final wins (2) against Nadal. Come to think about it, it’s really wondrous how things fall perfectly into place when history comes into play.
“Time,” says the chair umpire.
There’s pin drop silence. Time starts to tick away as the players move to take their positions behind the base line. Tick tick tick. Every second can be heard. All watches synchronized. Time seems to have slowed down. The match hasn’t even started yet. Tick tick tick. Nadal looks up, bounces the ball. Federer looks ready. Then again, he was born ready. He looks possessed. Full passion, full spirit. Finally, Rafa makes a sound. He serves. And that marks the start of a special match. A match that would be talked about 30 years from now. Make that 50. No, make that 100.
This is it. No turning back now. It’s real!
They say greatness doesn’t age. They said right. Federer is 35, Nadal is 30. And they’re still producing greatness out there. This isn’t 2007 anymore. It’s 2017. Yes, time has lapsed. Yes, people have grown. Yes, people move on. Yes, people forget things. But everyone remembers the last time they saw these two stalwarts battle it out on a hard court in a Grand Slam final.
“God, it's killing me,” sniveled Federer that day. He couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t too. There’s nothing more disheartening than too see someone you respect and idolize break apart right in front of your own eyes. Tonight, he would be crying again. Definitely. But it could be for a different reason. Or maybe not.
4-0 down in the second set and Federer is down a double break. He’s already won the first in exemplary manner. Routine stuff for him. Nadal’s just another player out there tonight. Federer’s aggression is ridiculous. Ridiculous for 35-year old father of two sets of twins. But Nadal is in no mood to let this go that easy. He’s roared back in dominating manner. Carlos Moya, the latest addition to the Nadal camp, looks disturbed though. He’s been on the receiving end of Federer’s wrath one too many times. 7 times if memory serves me right. He knows that one can’t take Federer lightly. Not tonight, not any night.
With a chance to take the second set as a bagel, Nadal starts serving to go 5-0 up. But Federer produces some magic that has made him who he is today. 0-30 down Nadal gifts Federer a juicy backhand winner with the court wide open. It’s like gifting a shark a titillating piece of meat in open water. All that needs to be done is to bury the teeth deep inside the flesh and taste the goodness of purity. Only Federer nets his backhand and sends painful shrieks out every household in the world. Meh! Just one of those days.
Nadal takes the second set. He had to win one. Then Federer takes the third. Just a matter of time before the king would finally ascend back to his thrown, I think. Nadal has never beaten Federer after being two sets down. Surely he can’t rewrite history tonight. Especially with so much already on the line.
But then, Nadal takes the fourth set to take this match into a decider. This is getting too close for comfort now. We’re going the distance. And there’s nothing more in this world that can take this away from me now. When you start tweeting about every point, you know greatness is in action. And that’s exactly what these two legends are.
Nadal breaks Federer in the first game of the fifth set. This after the Swiss maestro took an extended medical time-out after the fourth. Damn! How did this happen? This strategy worked wonders against Wawrinka in the semifinal. What went wrong today? Ivan ljubicic is tensed. Federer fans would hope that the sweat on his bald and shiny head would maybe reflect light and cause a distraction for Nadal. Hey, anything at this point to make Federer win. All is fair, right?
But that doesn’t happen. Nadal races to a 3-0 lead. He can smell it. It’s that close for him. Mirka Federer looks unimpressed. She’s calm as a mountain here. She’s been through too many of these nerve-wrecking moments to lose her composure. She knows what’s about to happen. She smiles, she’s ready!
Down 3-1 in the decider, with his legs rickety and already treated twice by the doctors, Federer decides to rally on. Swaying along the edge of disaster, he produces pristine winners that changes the course of the match. His forehand has been a disaster tonight. But he’s made up for that with his legendary backhands. A backhand so flawless that it makes people reach for cushions to keep under their jaws, which would otherwise break after dropping down with mesmerizing awe.
It’s match point now for Federer. Scratch that. It’s championship point. Nadal’s already saved a couple of them. Damn his defiance. But the Spanish matador’s only delaying the inevitable. It’s just a matter of time before the truth hits everyone. Federer serves. That serve that’s troubled thousands. Nadal returns. Federer’s already at the net. Serve and volley 101. He volleys the ball for a crushing winner. He raises his hand in disbelief. The crowd starts to go wild. I almost throw the remote in jubilation. But wait. What’s happening? Nadal’s challenged the call. Hawkeye time. He’s still trying to delay the inevitable.
Damn, his defiance!
Federer was a break down when the world lost hope, but he believed. Everyone thought that he had left the arena, but he stuck around. Everyone had written him off after the fourth set, but he seemed to be writing his own script. Everyone thought that he didn’t have it in him to reach another Grand Slam final, let alone winning one. But, he came, he saw, he fought, and then finally he got that ‘Number 18.’
"Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws. If there were, I would have been happy to accept one and share it with Rafa,” said Federer during his victory ceremony.
Sorry Roger! No turning back now. It’s real.