The greatest of rivalries in any form of sports often redefine the name of the game and the standard with which it is played. Like, when we speak of boxing, we consciously or subconsciously think of Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier mending each other out. We think of chess and we imagine Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky sitting opposite to one another with sparkling concentration on their chess board. And then there are others like Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in Formula One; Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in tennis (this may have changed though), and so on.
In today’s sports arena there is another one of those great rivalry shaping up. Time seems to have been kind to all of us for providing us with one of that rare stuff in the form of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. A Roger-Rafa contest is arguably considered to be the most exciting match up. There is not another that even comes close. Ever since they came to the scene they have created an intriguing story of their own.
For the record, I am not here to tell if Federer and Nadal’s rivalry is the greatest or their rivalry stands top in a “The 100 Greatest Sports Rivalries” list. I am not going to discuss statistics either. What I want to do is to remind ourselves how this Roger-Rafa saga is capturing everybody’s imagination. Maybe it’s also appropriate because the French Open and the Wimbledon Championships are just around the corner, and people are already anticipating they’ll yet again meet in a final match in atleast one of the two .
Every time Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet on court, they produce such electrifying and exhilarating tennis that they leave everybody numb. It’s wondrous, and sometimes even frightening, to watch these two work against each other like immortals from Neverland. They have met many times and each time they come up with a magic of a match. What we saw last year at the Wimbledon’s final is something we may not witness again in a long time to come. That match, labelled as the greatest ever tennis match by many tennis pundits, shook all other legendary records that existed in tennis in terms of quality, intensity and crowd pulling capacity. At the end of that match it would be fair on my part to say the match was won by the beauty of the human spirit and culture.
Early this year again at the Australian Open they produced another breathtaking encounter. I sometimes wonder how they are able to come up with their best galore when standing against one another. I don’t think they themselves understand it.
It’s also kind of strange how they match up each other considering the differences in their playing style. Federer is a flyer- an elegant, smooth, imperturbable assassin with great finesse. Nadal on the other hand has energy that redefines youth and power; one whose charge, dynamism and display on court looks like he just had a dozen Red Bulls. The beauty of their match up is that it is not based on egotistical rivalry like in many other sporting rivalries but on their on-court display of sheer raw sporting competitiveness. Their respect for each other’s game is phenomenal.
Today if we are to define Federer and Nadal as individuals, their definition will never be complete without a mention of the other. As one famous ESPN sports journalist, Jeff MacGregor puts it:
“Each is less without the other, though the other may destroy him. The legacy of one must now become the legacy of the other. Trapped, they define each other.”
It is not about the result and the scoreline that matters when the two of them plays. Had results and scoreline been what defined their rivalry, there would have been two extremely polarised camps of Nadal followers and Federer freaks. The Nadal base would have certainly exclaimed, “Rivalry! What rivalry! Nadal is ahead 13-6 in career head-to-head. Excuse us, but there is no rivalry.” Likewise, Federer fans would’ve said “Well, Federer has 13 Grand Slam titles, while Nadal has only 6. Where is the competition?” Then they would have rested their cases and the story would have still continued. But that is not the point. It doesn’t even matter who wins more at the end of both their careers. What matters is their majestic rivalry and sportsmanship that has redefined tennis in ways their predecessors (including McEnroe and Borg) haven’t been able to. They’ve drawn millions fans and ordinaries to the sport that were indifferent before.
Federer in a few years time will retire from professional tennis and Nadal would be left alone. Nadal may go on to achieve all those unachievable records and better many of Federer’s numbers. The fact remains that soon afterwards we won’t be able to see any more Roger-Rafa matches and experience the excitement that comes with it. That is the sad part. So for now, without being judgemental of who is better than whom, let’s just enjoy the last of their few remaining matches. We don’t know when another rivalry like theirs would come.