It could be the revitalising Melbourne air. Or perhaps someone spiked the tournament Lucozade with some elixir of youth. Either way, this year’s Australian Open has been one for the aged – that’s right, aged. During the past fortnight, we’ve seen a quartet of thirtysomethings roll back their considerable years and show younger rivals that elder might really mean better. An all-Williams grand slam final – the first since 2009 – is astonishing enough. But the proper rub-your-eyes surprise happened on the men’s side. Eleven years after their first, and five years after their last, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will compete on the final Sunday of a major one more, and probably one last, time. For what we are about to receive, may the Tennis Gods make us truly thankful.
Ever since their opening skirmishes in the mid-noughties, Federer and Nadal have been the equal and opposite forces defining tennis in the popular imagination. Their five-set grand slam finals at Wimbledon (in 2007 and 2008) and the Australian Open (in 2009) are etched deeply in the annals of sporting history. Even today, after a half-decade of domination, Novak Djokovic is dismissed sniffily as the ‘third wheel’ – an arriviste who disrupted the most beloved rivalry in sport. If Federer-Nadal are the Beatles, Djokovic-Murray are Wings: the follow-up that never scaled the same heights. That’s why everyone’s so excited to see the original band reform and play the Rod Laver Arena for an unexpected encore.
There’s a good reason why Federer and Nadal are so surpassingly popular. All great sporting rivalries depend on contrasts in styles, and ‘Fedal’ has contrasts wherever you look. Roger is a right-hander with a single-handed backhand, Rafa a left-hander with a double-hander. But it’s more than that: each man stands for different, opposing ideals. Federer is less athlete, more artist. Like a ballerina he glides around the court, moving with a minimum of effort, firing winners at perfectly judged moments. When God was ladling out elegance, the Swiss got a triple helping. Which dovetails delightfully with Nadal, a warrior who opts for practicality before aesthetics. His game is based on brute force and scalding footspeed, and his will to win goes down to the very depths of his vitals.
And Rafa usually does win, at least in the matches that matter. Not for ten years has Federer beaten Nadal at a grand slam, and the Spaniard leads the overall head-to-head 23 wins to 11. Practically from their first meeting (which Nadal won, aged 17), the Spanish bull has been the indefatigable scourge of Federer’s dreams, treating the Swiss as his personal plaything. Nadal’s industrially topspun forehand makes Federer’s one-handed backhand look inadequate at best, obsolete at worst. Their matches often follow the same pattern. Typically Federer starts brightly, and might even snag the first set. But Nadal’s consistency and topspin and passing shots grind him down eventually, the last remnants of Swiss resistance dropping away one shanked backhand at a time.
Will we see the same thing play out on Sunday? It seems likely. Roger-Rafa is a movie we’ve watched before – we’ve worn out the tape – and while entertaining, it’s hardly likely to produce a plot-flip this late in the piece. To beat Nadal, Federer would need to buck history and beat a rival who, after two years of toil, is rejuvenated and seemingly back to his best. In Grigor Dimitrov, Rafa had the perfect warm-up for the final, too: the Bulgarian famously modelled his game after Federer’s.
If Federer – somehow – wins, it won’t be the proclamation of a new tennis order: he’s 35 years old. But it will be a resounding statement, a glorious final chapter in the best of careers, a confirmation that Federer is indeed the greatest of all the greatest. And maybe Fed fans have reason for hope. Nadal is 30 years old, his semi-final lasted five hours, and he has one fewer day to recover. There is madness in the Melbourne air, and perhaps one more surprise awaits us. Either way, it is certain to be an amazing occasion. Yesterday’s men are today’s finalists, and we should enjoy it while it lasts (which will hopefully be five sets).