Disclaimer: I originally planned on just writing a couple lines and posting some pictures, but it ended up turning into a lot more than that. So, if you are interested in reading 2,000 words about tennis, please enjoy. Otherwise feel free to skip to the photos and video. …ahem…
Last weekend I flew down to Melbourne to see my friend Matty, hit up the Crown Casino (at one time the biggest casino in the southern hemisphere) and go to the Australian Open.
I had been to the US Open several times before, but always during the first week. The first week of a tennis grand slam is pretty cool because there are matches playing on all of the little courts, and you can walk right up to any court you like and watch all day long. Men’s singles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles- it’s an orgy of world class tennis. I had hoped to go to the first week of the Aussie Open, but it didn’t work out, and the only time that worked was the finals weekend. So, I ponied up some cash for the men’s final, half expecting to see a single lackluster match like Djokovic vs Tsonga (the ’08 final), or a one sided affair like ’07 when Federer swept Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets. When you see just one match, you’re a lot less likely to get your money’s worth.
Of course, anybody who buys tickets to a grand slam final these days dreams of one particular matchup. As Federer and Nadal cruised through the early rounds I could start to feel it. There were a few scares, like when Federer fought back from two sets down to beat Berdych or the unbelievable semifinal when Nadal somehow outlasted fellow Spaniard Verdasco in a 5 hour epic. After Nadal pulled it out, the stage was set for the 7th Federer vs Nadal grand slam final in the last 5 years.
A big part of what makes sports so great is rivalries. And when it comes to team sports, usually you fall into one camp or another before you are old enough to decide for yourself. My dad was a Yankee fan, my older brother was a Yankee fan, and I was going to Yankee games before I could walk, so when the Red Sox play the Yankees I’m rooting for the pinstripes. It’s as simple as that and I don’t think twice about it. But in tennis, you get to choose. You HAVE to choose. McEnroe or Connors, Sampras or Agassi. How you pick is up to you- personality, hair style, hotter girlfriend, better net game- there are no rules. But in rivalries you have to take sides. And right now, there is no better rivalry in all of sports than Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal.
As much as I respect Federer, I’ve always been a Nadal guy. I think some of it comes down to happenstance. Roger started winning during a bit of a down period in tennis- right as the Sampras/Agassi era was dying. He was classy, soft spoken, and dominant. From ’04 through ’07, Federer won an incredible 11 out of 16 total grand slams. It was fun to see him rack up the numbers, a la Tiger Woods, but part of me wanted to see him lose. I wanted to see someone wipe that crowd pleasing smile right off his face. But it never happened.
Even when Nadal came up and beat him in the ’06 French Open final, Federer didn’t seem bothered. He thought to himself, “It’s all right, Nadal was born to play on clay, he can have the French.” He wasn’t remotely worried that this guy would be a threat to his legacy. Like every other tennis fan on the planet, I thought the same thing. Up to that point, Nadal was an incredible 14-0 on the slow red clay of the French Open, but he had never made it past the fourth round of any other grand slam. Furthermore, the fact that Nadal was a Spaniard made it all too easy to dismiss him as a clay court specialist: fellow Spaniards Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero had all won French Opens in the last 15 years, but none of them won any other slam. There was no reason to think Nadal would be any different.
But then, something crazy happened. In July of 2006, on the slick grass of Wimbledon, Nadal made a run. He got all the way to the final- the first Spaniard to make it that far at Wimbledon since 1966. Where the hell did that come from? I remember the final clearly. I got up early on Sunday morning in the sweltering heat of my crummy brooklyn apartment, and fixed the rabbit ears (no joke) to get the best reception possible. The picture was still a little snowy, and I watched as a jittery Nadal got blanked in the first set. From there on out, the match was a joy to watch. Wimbledon is known for having very short points- the ball doesn’t bounce very high off the grass, so long rallies are rare- but in this match, every point seemed to last three or four incredible shots beyond what anyone expected. I was hooked. It was shocking to watch somebody who could keep up with Federer on grass, where he had been nothing short of unstoppable. Nadal played great in the match, but that wasn’t enough to keep Roger from cruising to his fourth straight Wimbledon title. All with that same smile on his face.
The next 12 months was more of the same. Federer won the US Open and the Australian, while Nadal took the French, further cementing his status as a clay court guy. The two of them faced off again in the Wimbledon final of ’07 when it finally happened: In the fourth set, Federer lost a critical point on a video replay challenge by Nadal, and the classy Roger Federer lost his cool, berating the umpire and bemoaning his bad luck. I specifically remember Federer getting pissed off in this match and to my delight, YouTube has the proof to back me up. Check it out:
At long last, someone had gotten to the unflappable Roger Federer! Now, Roger might have gotten screwed on that call, but against anyone else it wouldn’t have bothered him. Nadal was a threat and Federer knew it. Nadal had pushed Roger to a place that nobody else could. This was the moment I had been waiting for.
Despite that resounding wiping of Federer’s smile, Roger showed great toughness by rallying to win the match in five sets for his fifth straight Wimbledon championship. He won the US Open that year too. Nadal won the ’08 French (he is currently 28-0 lifetime at Roland Garros), easily sweeping Federer in the final, 6-1 6-3 6-0. Heading into last year’s Wimbledon, I openly predicted that Nadal would break through and win his first title on the grass. He proved me right- barely. Nadal edged Federer in the greatest match of my lifetime, taking the fifth set 8-6 as darkness descended on London. Federer had won 41 straight matches at Wimbledon up to that point, but now it was Nadal’s turn. In tennis’s greatest rivalry, Nadal took a decisive lead. Lest anyone think that Federer was washed up, he won his fifth straight US Open last September for his 13th grand slam. Which brings us up to last weekend’s Australian final.
Surprisingly, despite Nadal’s great success on the French clay and Wimbledon grass, he had never even made it to a final in either the US Open or the Australian Open – the two hard court slams. Federer, on the other hand, had won an incredible 8 out of the last 10 overall titles at these two events, but he was beating guys like Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick- never Nadal. Had both Nadal and Federer been fresh coming into the final, it would have been a tossup in my mind, with maybe a slight edge to Nadal. But Nadal was coming off that endless semifinal against Verdasco two nights earlier, in which he was genuinely up against the ropes for most of the match, and I had to question both his legs and his sharpness. I expected Federer to win, and Vegas agreed by installing Nadal as a modest 3-2 underdog.
We filed into Rod Laver Arena and the atmosphere was buzzing. The match began with back to back breaks and the crowd was into it. It looked to me that early on, Federer was trying to keep the points a little bit longer to test Nadal’s legs coming off the long semifinal. But Nadal punished that strategy with his strong ground strokes and he looked to be the stronger player throughout most of the match. Nadal took the first set, then Federer evened it up. The third set was when Federer had his chance. He blew no fewer than SIX break points in the third set, and Nadal ended up taking it in a critical tiebreaker. It looked like Federer might be done, but he won the fourth set, sending the crowd went into a tizzy. I couldn’t believe I got to see a Nadal Federer five set final! Everybody was excited, and I started looking at my watch, trying to figure out just how long the match might go- the first four sets took nearly four hours all together.
In the end, the fifth set was a bit of an anticlimax. Nadal broke Federer twice, and that was it. Although I was rooting for Nadal, I was secretly hoping that the fifth set would get to 14-12 or something crazy, just to trump last year’s Wimbledon final. But I was happy to see Nadal win. At this point there is absolutely no question who the man is in tennis. And remember this- Nadal has a legitimate chance to become the first player to win all four slams in a single year since Rod Laver did it back in 1969.
I felt sorry for Federer, who would have tied Sampras’s record of 14 grand slams had he won. The moment when he broke down trying to give his post match speech was a rare glimpse into how great athletes can feel when they come up short. There is no question at this point that Nadal is biting into his legacy a little bit, but this gives Federer a great opportunity for an epic comeback. Federer seems like he’s been around for ever, but he’s only 27. Sampras won his last slam at 31, and Agassi won his last at 32. That gives Federer a few more solid years. If Roger ever wins a French open, he would be probably be considered the greatest tennis player ever. Right now though, it’s starting to look like the Spaniard across the net may some day take that title for himself.
(note: video coming soon)