It lay dormant for a few years, but the biggest question in tennis never truly went away. What might just be sport’s most involved debate is a live issue once more. Perhaps fleetingly, but Sunday's final of the Australian Open will be all the more special for that.
It has been a sporting rivalry to define an era, and it isn't finished. Not quite yet. Roger Federer says he is expecting an “epic battle” when, against all expectation, he resumes the fight of his life against Rafael Nadal on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday. Few matches in the grand, sweeping history of tennis have commanded as much attention as this. It is as if Muhammad Ali and Joe Fraizer had given us a fourth fight in their classic rivalry after the Thrilla in Manila, or if Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe had contested another Olympics after Moscow in 1980. The most iconic sporting rivalry of the past 15 years has at least one more twist.
In one of the most celebrated scenes of Mad Men, the moment the show “became a genuine, certified cultural event”, advertising creative director Don Draper stands in front of a room of Kodak executives and sells their own product, a slide projector, back to them. “Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent,” he says. “Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”
The past fortnight in Melbourne has been nothing if not a festival of nostalgia. The re-emergence of serve-and-volley in the men’s draw was unexpected and elicited delight from old-timers like John McEnroe. But above all it was the composition of the two finals, which involve four players in Federer, Nadal and Venus and Serena Williams who have 60 Grand Slam titles between them, which has so stirred the senses. This has never happened before.
The Australian Open has been a time machine, tugging on emotions deeper than mere memory, but Draper’s starting place is wrong. It is not pain from an old wound sparking this nostalgia. We are not pining for what once was but celebrating what is now: the stunning performances both men have given to reach this point; the array of shots we feel an intimate immediacy with. This is not a legends match: it's the final of the first Grand Slam of 2017 and both men are here on merit.
It is the nature of things that the most recent iteration is always the most important. But this is certainly true of Sunday’s match. If Federer wins he may well be untouchable in the pantheon with 18 Grand Slams to his name. If Nadal wins, he moves to 15, within two of his great rival and with the French Open on the horizon. The big question looming over all of tennis is back: Federer or Nadal?
For many fans who have seen this rivalry shape their emotional engagement with, and understanding of, sport it is enough that they will play each other again on the biggest stage. Only three months ago it seemed a distant proposition.
It was a balmy autumn afternoon in Manacor, Mallorca - October 19 to be precise. Just three days earlier, Andy Murray had won his 10th straight match as the ATP Tour swung through China, triumphing in Beijing and Shanghai to edge ever closer to unseating world number one Novak Djokovic. But the two most decorated men in the history of tennis were nearly 8,000 miles away from the action, opening Nadal’s new academy.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal shake hands in October
Image credit: Eurosport
It was an afternoon of winning smiles, warm handshakes and generous compliments. “It's very important for all of us to have you here,” beamed Nadal, as he addressed his once fatal rival. “You represent the values and example for kids at our academy.” Federer, ever the charmer, told Nadal: “I'm super happy to be here. I know where I'll send my kids if they want to learn how to play tennis.”
A touching scene, but one which felt like a sideshow to the main action with the two men having both dropped out of the world’s top four for the first time in 13 years. Worse, the demands of playing a gentle three-setter were deemed off limits. “We were talking about playing an exhibition match,” said Nadal after beating Grigor Dimitrov on Friday in Australia, “but he had a knee injury and I had the wrist so we just played a few shots together with the kids.” Federer concurs: “I was on one leg and he had wrist problems, we could only play mini-tennis with the kids. I thought it would be great if we could talk about playing a charity match. Look where we are now.”
So, how did we get here?
Nadal was home in plenty of time for his grand unveiling in Mallorca thanks to a loss in the second round of ATP Shanghai to Viktor Troicki. It was the last match he played in 2016 as a wrist injury ruled him out of the ATP Finals in London, just the latest fitness setback in two-and-a-half years of torment stretching back to the last time he went further than the quarter-final of a Grand Slam, winning the French Open for a ninth time in 2014. He pulled out of the French Open last year, withdrew from Wimbledon and then lost to Lucas Pouille in the fourth round of the US Open. It was his worst calendar year in terms of results since his first, back in 2004.
Federer’s withdrawal from the spotlight was even more dramatic. A defeat to Milos Raonic in the semi-finals at Wimbledon in June was his last appearance of the year. In July, he announced on Facebook that he would miss the remainder of the season, including the Rio Olympics, to nurse a knee injury. “The love I have for tennis, the competition, tournaments and of course you, the fans remains intact,” he wrote, even as tennis supporters feared the worst. “I am as motivated as ever and plan to put all my energy towards coming back strong, healthy and in shape to play attacking tennis in 2017.”
Both men had a lengthy recuperation. Federer went fishing and chased his children around the house. And while Nadal at least had a run-out in Brisbane to limber up for the Australian Open, The Swiss merely used the Hopman Cup as preparation. Neither man was in great shape for Melbourne and they were lumbered with a combined seeding of 26 for a tournament that was supposed to be dominated by the rivalry of the day: Murray v Djokovic.
These reduced horizons were evident when, after dropping a set to Jurgen Melzer in the first round of the Australian Open before coming through, a typically demure Federer told viewers:
It's been a long road and I made it. I'm in the draw which is a beautiful thing. I hope I can stick around a bit. Any match is a good match. Even if I would have lost today it would be a good because I am back on the court.
Noah Rubin and Tomas Berdych were picked off in three sets before Federer ran into proper resistance, beating Kei Nishikori in five sets in a real statement of intent as he felled the world number five. In the quarter-finals, Federer dismissed Mischa Zverev, the man who knocked out world number one Andy Murray, with almost contemptuous ease. Whereas Murray had struggled against the German’s serve and volley, Federer drew on all his experience to outmanouvere his opponent. “This is why we love Federer,” said Miles Maclagan in the Eurosport studio, highlighting the speed of thought the Swiss was exhibiting. He was back.
Studio analysis: This is why we love Federer
Nadal, meanwhile, had made short work of Florian Mayer and Marcos Baghdatis in rounds one and two. Another Zverev brother, wunderkind Alexander, went in five sets and then world number six Gael Monfils was dispatched in four. Sizeable scalps, but it was a 6-4 7-6(7) 6-4 win over Milos Raonic, by then the highest ranked man left in the draw, in the quarter-finals, which had Greg Rusedski purring.
Rusedski: Nadal can go all the way - the whole package is back
I think he’s got a shot (of going all the way). He’s playing the best tennis I’ve seen him play in probably the past two or three years. It’s amazing how much lighter, how well he is moving so well around the court and also adding that weight onto his racket. It looks as though he is getting a little more penetration through the ball, the backhand is deeper, he is serving well and is tactically so astute. And the other thing which I am liking, he never seems to be losing concentration. Over the past two years we’ve seen him dip in and out of matches, we didn’t know if that was mental or physical, but the whole package is back.
The stage was set for two grandiose semi-finals which showcased two of the all-time greats at something approaching their best, and captured the essence of both artists.
Michelangelo and Leonardo
Switzerland's Roger Federer (R) and Spain's Rafael Nadal look on during a photo call at the Roland Garros stadium June 2, 2005
Image credit: Reuters
In 1504, a competition was devised by the government of Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, to try and establish who the most proficient artist of the age was. Two of humanity's most revered works had only recently been presented in the city, almost side by side - Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s statue of David - and the two titans were commissioned to take part in a formal competition, decorating the walls of the civic palace’s great hall. Theirs was a bitter rivalry - Michelangelo had once insulted his contemporary in the street - but here they were, working away on two opposite walls, Leonardo painting the Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo the Battle of Cascina, the two talents of the age rejoined in artistic war.
Sadly, Michelangelo was called away to Rome before he could complete his work so it will probably be recorded as a fifth set which never quite reached a tie-break, but it is tempting to draw parallels between those two great rivals - two of the greatest artists we has unearthed, hurled together in fierce competition in their prime years - and the two men contesting Sunday’s final. Nadal is like the man who sculpted David, chipping and chiseling away incessantly with his trusty tool until a beautiful vision emerges. Federer is Leonardo, the artist who paints with super-intelligent strokes, his work a mixture of the mystic and the magnificent.
It was as if the two semi-finals in Melbourne were designed to give the global audience a reminder of what makes Federer, Federer, and Nadal, Nadal, ahead of their reunion in the final. On Thursday, Federer came through in five sets against Stan Wawrinka, 7-5 6-3 1-6 4-6 6-3, with some sumptuous strokes on display. “He's an amazing player to watch and to see,” said Wawrinka. “He's flying on the court. He's playing amazing tennis.” Wawrinka called Federer “the best player ever” and said he “can do anything he wants on the court” after a magisterial performance full of the kind of gorgeous shots we have gorged on ever since Federer’s breakthrough. The big forehand which can find any corner of the court; the dashing single-handed backhand which collects maximum points for artistic impression; the lithe net play; the stunning variety and ingenuity of his whole repertoire.
Highlights as Federer reaches his sixth Australian Open final
Twenty-four hours later, Nadal was bludgeoning shots from the baseline in a brutal battle against Grigor Dimitrov, his 6-3 5-7 7-6(5) 6-7(4) 6-4 victory coming in at five hours, a true labour of love for the Spaniard, who just kept on sharpening his tools and hacking away at the block in front of him. It recalled two of his classic matches in Melbourne: a five-set win over four hours against Federer in the 2009 final and his six-hour, five-set defeat at the hands of Djokovic three years later. Nadal was relentless, chiseling away at Dimitrov with his spin-heavy, booming shots off both sides; those percussive baseline strokes which extend his opponents to the farthest flung extremities of the court.
HIGHLIGHTS: Rafa Nadal wins five-set epic against Grigor Dimitrov
Federer is a man who inspires poetry and florid prose, he has even, courtesy of a classic piece by American novelist David Foster Wallace, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, inspired a mini-genre of his own. To be in attendance as he dethroned Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 was to be left in no doubt as to his nascent, lyrical genius. Nadal does not appeal to the same repositories of the brain, his is a style more rooted in physicality and power, but it is no less impactful for that. They are two men of contrasting style, one a painter and one a sculptor.
The very distinct signatures of two of our greatest tennis artists were painted all over those semi-finals. Will Sunday’s final be the last time they are ushered into the grandest of all halls and commanded to paint their defining frescos in direct opposition to each other?
The Anatomy of a Rivalry
Nadal poses with the Wimbledon title in near darkness in 2008
Image credit: AFP
There is a paradox at the heart of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. With 17 Grand Slam titles to Nadal’s 14, Federer is widely regarded as the best player to ever pick up a racket, yet his head-to-head record against the Spaniard is woefully inadequate for a player commanding such a status. Nadal leads 23-11 overall, 6-2 in Grand Slam finals and is three for three at the Australian Open. Federer may be the best ever, but on this evidence Nadal is demonstrably better. It is a tension which tugs away at the heart of the dynamic.
Grand Slam final
Federer had already won four Grand Slam titles before the pair first met in a final, Nadal beginning his ownership of the French Open with a win at Roland Garros in 2006. For two years they traded triumphs on their favourite surfaces, Nadal winning two finals on the clay of Roland Garros in 2006 and 2007 and Federer enforcing his dominance on Wimbeldon’s grass just weeks later. But then, in 2008, the turning point, and possibly the greatest match between the two men.
After Nadal had again beaten him in the French Open final, Federer’s imperial, five-year dominance of Wimbledon was shattered. At nearly five hours, Nadal’s 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7 victory was one of the most engrossing sporting contests of all time.
“There’s a new man at the helm of men’s tennis,” said the commentator as Nadal crumpled to the floor in shock and delight and flashbulbs lit up his pristine white vest as dusk fully settled in. Less than 12 months later he had beaten Federer in the final of the Australian Open and then, in 2011, at Roland Garros again.
Nadal is a problem Federer has always struggled to solve. After beating Wawrinka in the Australian Open semi-finals, the Swiss gave an intriguing insight into his early failures against the insurgent talent Nadal, although he refused to elaborate in his post-match press conference for fear of revealing too much to his opponent. "Rafa has presented me with the biggest challenge in the game," Federer said. "I played him too many times on clay early on in my career. That has something to do with how I played him on different surfaces." He continued:
He’s got shots that no other player has. When you have that, you are unique and special. Plus he’s got the grit. He’s got the mental and physical ability to sustain a super high level of play for years and for hours and for weeks. He's proven that time and time again. He's come back from many injuries, time and time again. He made it seem easy - and it’s not. I think he’s been tremendous for the game. I have a lot of respect for him on many levels.
Whatever the reason for the imbalance, there is no argument that in their head-to-head battles, Nadal’s supremacy cannot be questioned. Crucially, though. he remains three Grand Slam titles behind Federer. The specifics are Nadal’s, the wider context is Federer’s. That is part of what makes Sunday’s meeting so significant.
Supremacy or Usurption?
Roger Federer - Rafael Nadal - Australian Open 2017
Image credit: Eurosport
When he walks out onto the Rod Laver Arena on Sunday, Roger Federer will be the oldest man to appear in a Grand Slam final since another Australian great, Ken Rosewall, who was only 54 days short of his 40th birthday when he took on Jimmy Connors in the final of the 1974 US Open, and lost. The Swiss has only won one Grand Slam title in six years, Wimbledon in 2012, and even if the past fortnight has borne witness to a life-affirming flourish of brilliance, at 35 his time is surely running out
Prior to the opening Slam of 2017, meanwhile, Nadal had not reached so much as a semi-final for over two years. But at 30, he has time on his side, at least compared to Federer. A win on Sunday coupled with a 10th Roland Garros crown in June would put him on 16 Grand Slam titles, just one short of Federer’s mark, which once seemed immortal. Federer may have to win in Melbourne if he is to protect his position as the greatest player to play the game.
“I’ll leave it all out here in Australia, even if I can’t walk for five months,” Federer said after beating Wawrinka. He may have to expend every last ounce of energy as he renews hostilities with the rival who has taken more out of him than any other player. A rival who is coming for his crown. A rival, and a friend, who still wants to answer the biggest question in sport.