By The Spotter
When after ten agonising years, Roger Federer got one over his long-term old rival Rafael Nadal in the fifth set of a major final, Federer’s boundless, child-like joy of jumping up and down on the spot and the accompanying tears of joy were not just because of the improbability of winning at the age of thirty-five as a comparatively lowly seventeenth seed, or as a celebration of the ultimate comeback after long injury lay-off. Hugely significant though these points may be, that display of emotion was quite probably for something even bigger; the banishment of a dark spectre from the mind in the form of an unrelenting beast of a baseliner from Manacor, Spain.
Indeed, television commentator and ex British Davis Cup player Mark Petchey referred to it during the match, in mentioning Federer’s ‘psychological scars’ when trying to previously outlast Rafael Nadal in Grand Slam Finals before last Sunday evening’s encounter. Given that Nadal has virtually made the French Open his birthright with an incredible nine titles, the two finals Petchey probably had in mind were Wimbledon ‘08 and The Australian Open in ‘09.
Nadal’s epic five-set victory in that 2008 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final (along with Borg-McEnroe in 1980 the best-ever at the home of grass), was Federer’s first Grand Slam final defeat and announced the young pretender to his undisputed crown. Even more, there arrived finally someone who mixed raw power with occasional touches of real dexterity and was indefatigable enough to hike across the court from side to side and overcome the ethereal-type play of the Swiss maestro- the player with the serve and volley and one-handed back hand game; like some kind of cultured throwback to the days of wooden racquets.
The one defeat that ate Federer up much more than any other came after that Wimbledon defeat; the following January in the Australian Open Final of 2009. On a tension-filled evening where the crowd got so quiet at times that it replicated the atmosphere of the unforgettable 2015 Cricket World Cup semi-final on Eden Park, Federer reconfigured his approach to include duelling from the baseline with the Spanish lion, but finally wilted 2-6 in the deciding fifth set.
The scene of the broken Federer in complete abjectness uttering ‘It’s killing me’ and the humbly, over-apologetic Nadal in return giving their speeches at the trophy presentation will live in the memory forever of all those who saw it. Federer’s tears showed just how formidable an obstacle and unrelenting and brilliant the then 22 year-old Nadal really was- already a player destined to become one of the greatest of all time.
It is a safe bet to assume that along with his first Wimbledon title in 2003, his Melbourne 2017 win is likely to rate as the sweetest of the Fed’s legendary career. Least of all for holding his poise and nerve in a fifth set decider versus Rafa- his bête noir. Psychological beast tamed and lion of an opponent along with it.
Footnote: Is 2017 going to be the year of the veterans across many sports? (2016 of course being the year of the drought breakers).