“…Now, on Nadal’s ad side there’s a 16-stroke point. Nadal is serving a lot faster than he did in Paris, and this one is down the center. Federer floats a soft forehand high over the net, which he can get away with because Nadal never comes in behind his serve. The Spaniard now hits a characteritically heavy topspin forehand deep to Federer’s backhand; Federer comes back with an even heavier topspin backhand, almost a clay-court shot. It’s unexpected and backs Nadal up, slightly, and his response is a low hard short ball that lands just past the service line’s T on Federer’s forehand side. Against most other opponents, Federer could simply end the point on a ball like this, but one reason that Nadal gives him trouble is that he’s faster than the others, can get to stuff they can’t; and so Federer here just hits a flat , medium-hard cross-court forehand, going not for a winner but for a low, shallowly angled ball that forces Nadal up and out to the deuce side, his backhand. Nadal, on the run, backhands it hard down the line to Federer’s backhand, Federer slices it right back down the same line, slow and floaty with backspin, making Nadal come back to the same spot. Nadal slices the ball right back – three shots now all down the same line – and Federer slices the ball back to the same spot yet again, this one even slower and floatier, and Nadal gets planted and hits a big two-hander back down the same line – it’s like Nadal’s camped out now on his deuce side; he’s no longer moving all teh way back to the baseline’s centre between shots; Federer’s hypnotized him a little. Federer now hits a very hard, deep topspin backhand, the kind that hisses, to a point just slightly on the ad side of Nadal’s baseline, which Nadal gets to and forehands crosscourt; and Federer responds with an even harder, heavier cross-court backhand, baseline deep and moving so fast that Nadal has to hit the forehand off his backfoot and then scramble back to get back to centre as the shot lands maybe two feet short on Federer’s backhand side again. Federer steps up to the ball and now hits a totally different cross-court backhand, this one much shorter and sharper-angled, an angle no one would anticipate, and so heavy and blurred with topspin that it lands shallow and just inside the sideline and takes off hard after the bounce, and Nadal can’t move in to cut it off and can’t get to it laterally along the baseline, because of the angle and topspin – End of Point. It’s a spectacular winner, A Federer moment, but watching it live, you can see that it’s also a winner that Federer started setting up four or even five shots earlier. Everything after that first down-the-line slice was designed by the Swiss to maneuver Nadal and lull him and then disrupt his rhythm and balance and open up that last, unimaginable angle – an angle that would have been impossible without extreme topspin….”
This, of course, was 2006. Roger Federer won in 4 sets. But it highlights how things have changed. In that grand magnum opus of a final on Sunday, for the most part , it was Rafael Nadal in control. For much of those five hours, it was he that was maneuvering the pace and forcing issues. It was not just about somehow keeping the ball in play. This Sunday, he was just that much further than he was last year and just as he was making near impossible geometric threading-the-needle angles on court, so also was he making some deep inroads into what had seemed thus far to be a near impregnable mindset of the ice cool Swiss.
The fact that all this was happening in Roger Federer’s own den is what makes it all the more special. Lets get the stats out of the way. The last time the Fed had lost anywhere on Grass was 2002. He had a 65 match unbroken streak going into the finals at Wimbledon. 5 straight Championships. No sets dropped en route to this final. At the start of this year, with 12 Grand Slams, it seemed that the only real challenger he had was history itself. So complete has been his dominance that it seems almost incomprehensible that he never made it past the quarterfinals in the first 16 Grand Slams that he entered. (Of the next 21, he’s won 12, been a finalist 4 times and a semifinalist thrice.) Most importantly, in Roger Federer, Tennis has the kind of champion that the sport deserves.
Its ironical that Wimbledon’s Lawn Tennis Museum in a section about the history of the rackets used there has a climax which reads thus :
Today’s lightweight frames made of space-age materials like graphite, boron, titanium and ceramics, with larger heads – mid-size (90-95 square inches) and over-size(110 square inches) have totally transformed the character of the game. Nowadays it is powerful hitters who dominate with heavy topspin. Serve-and-volley players and those who rely on subtlety and touch have virtually disappeared.
The irony is amplified because this is, and has been Roger “Subtlety and Nuance” Federer’s decade. Tennis should be proud.
And on Sunday, so hard was the challenge, so determined the competitor, that the champion was virtually forced to win every point (ok – the majority of the points, but allow me the emotional overdose for its only been 36 hours) through extraordinary shots and he nearly did it !
Which brings us to Rafael Nadal. Hopefully now, we (amateur commentators) will stop equating him with muscle and power and speed and recognise him for that rarest quality that he shares with the greats of most sport. Aggression devoid of hostility. Oh and yes, some indefatigable determination. And this ability to be inspired by defeat. And stay grounded in victory. And that apart from all the technical attributes of the sport that enable somebody to so quickly transform a game from complete dominance on the clay of Rolland Garros to the, admittedly increasingly sunbaked and hence slower, grass of Wimbledon.
If this was a passing of the baton (and it is too early to say), then its in good hands.