The Stuff of Legends: Federer and Nadal

There is something gladiatorial about Tennis. There are not many sports that pity man against man (or woman against woman) in a direct test of strength, endurance, skill and wit; that require fortitude of heart and mind as well as the bicep, in an arena with 15,000 people watching on. If the "gentleman's game" is modern day gladiatorial combat, more so than boxing, fencing or UFC, then Sunday's Wimbledon final saw the two greatest warriors fighting tooth and nail to the bitter end in a battle that is to become the stuff of Legend.

It was a classic match-up. For the third time in as many years the young pretender and King of Clay, was up against the established 5 time King of Centre court for the de facto coveted right to be called the best player in the world. It was a match of epic proportions, hailed by many as perhaps the greatest match of all time, let alone Wimbledon final, and was the longest Wimbledon men's singles final, rain delays not withstanding, at a whopping 4 hours and 48 minutes, with the last ball being struck in near darkness after 9pm.

For my part I was rather rooting for Rafael Nadal on Sunday. To my mind Roger Federer has started to believe his own legend and it has contributed in some degree to his current dethroning from the lofty number one spot. He walks out onto centre court without a coach, in his special designer jacket and golden Nike tick. It smacks of pride and for that reason alone he deserved to be beaten. It has all come too easily to him up until now, and in many ways he has rather taken his eye off the ball.

Many people have touted Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player who has ever lived. Andre Agassi, a legend in his own right, said that Federer was "the best he'd ever played against", after he was beaten in the 2005 US Open final, and even in victory the ever humble Nadal, the first man since Bjorn Borg to win back to back French Open and Wimbledon titles, eluded to Federer's greatness. Federer does have what it takes to be called the greatest, his record speaks for itself, 5 US Opens and 5 Wimbledons in a row is no trifling matter, but for all his supposed greatness it is only now that we will truly see whether Federer can really claim the crown of the greatest ever tennis player; it is only now that we will truly see what he is made of.

Frankly, Federer rarely looked like he believed he could win on Sunday. There were moments for sure and he fought desperately the whole way, but somehow, to me, it seemed like he believed deep down he didn't have what it took to beat Nadal anymore. Nadal has improved his game immensely and Federer knew that Nadal had steadily been getting closer to him on grass, last years final and Nadal victory at Queens this year shows Nadal how much he has improved on grass, and further away from him on the clay. At times, probably due to the thumping he received in Paris a month before, Federer simply looked scared.

Every hero needs a nemesis; Beowulf and Grendel, Achilles and Hector, Batman and the Joker, Ali and Frazier, Borg and McEnroe. It is nemeses that push heroes to greatness, that in some sense defines who they are. Where would Beowulf be without defeating Grendel? Would Troy still stand if it wasn't for Hector's rousing of Achilles? Where would Ali have been without those fights in Zaire or Manila? Where would Federer be without Nadal?

For sure without Nadal, Federer would have walked off with the "greatest-ever" crown a long time ago and completed the "Grand Slam" several years in a row, something no-one in the modern era has done (Sampras great as he was, could never handle the clay in Paris; Agassi is the only one to have completed the Grand Slam over a career, although not in a single year). Federer and Nadal have propelled each other to lofty new heights in tennis, that arguably the likes of which has never been seen before, as was witnessed in the brilliance of Sunday's final. Their games couldn't be more different, Federer has the raw ability, talent and brilliance, where as Nadal has immense power, speed and an iron will to win. Watching Federer every shot almost seems effortless as opposed to Nadal who is a workhorse, bristling with energy sending back all but the most brilliantly hit shots.

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;"
 - R.Kipling

It is now that Federer can achieve true greatness. It is now that he must truly test his mettle. He must find a way to overcome his nemesis, find a way to win, as Ali did against the seemingly invincible Foreman, and discover a belief that he can beat Nadal on any surface. If he walks out on tennis at this juncture, he will be doing the same as Bjorn Borg did after consecutive defeats to a lefty, not achieve his dreams or his full potential and the crown of greatest ever will quickly fall onto the shoulders of someone else. Possibly a young man from Majorca.

July 2008

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