Very rarely does it happen in sports that spectators, despite their preferences for a particular player, end up applauding his opponent with equal fervour. Very rarely does the victor laud the vanquished as the “greatest champion ever” and tone down the exuberance of his own celebrations out of respect for the other’s feelings. Yet, this Sunday’s Australian Open Final between two of tennis’ greatest champions had it all and more. In a high octane drama that took fans to the very pinnacle of excitement, the greatest rivalry tennis has witnessed since the times of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, reached a glorious crescendo. True, Federer hardly looked his flawless best, true his forehand top spin lacked its usual sting, but the match was still a classic.
In a match where both players consistently broke the other’s serve, Nadal set the pace of the match by breaking Federer thrice in the first set .Having won the first set 7-5, Nadal seemed all set to take advantage of Federer’s erratic serves and nervous start. Great champions, however, rarely give up without a fight and Federer surely wasn’t going to give up on a chance to equal Pete Sampras’ record for the most number of grand slams. Starting the second set under pressure, he quickly wrested control from the young Spaniard to win the next set 6-3.
The next set was the most dramatic of them all, with neither player giving not an inch to his opponent. Like modern day gladiators they fought, stabbing and riposting with deadly finesse and supreme strength. Federer, however, still failed to take full advantage of a number of break-points and his first serve conversion rate still languished below 50 percent. In a set where Nadal received treatment for stiffness in his right thigh; having come into this match from a 5 hour 14 minute marathon with compatriot Fernando Verdasco; Federer was unsuccessful in capitalizing on his rival’s problem as Rafa the lionheart came back with salvos of thunderous winners and a breathtaking pass to take the set to a tie-break. Although Federer did conjure up a number of break points (six in two games), his inability to convert them cost him dearly as Rafa surged ahead 2-1 after winning the tie-break.
Roger Federer, however, shook his defeat in his last set off to begin the next set with an authoritative 2-0 lead. The seemingly indefatigable Spaniard began to look almost human, too tired to reach a number of cannily placed drop shots. Yet when the chips are down, is when one shows true character and Nadal showed bundles of it, producing scintillating baseline rallies to bring up 5 breakpoints in the 6th game, but like his opponent, was unable to convert it allowing the Swiss to level the set 3-3. This proved to be a turning point in the set, as Federer went on to win the set convincingly against an increasingly deflated Nadal to take the match to a fifth set. A feat that was last achieved in the Australian Open in 1988.
It was a last set that in its conclusion proved to be anti-climactic. Starting the set at a psychological disadvantage, battling fatigue and the searing Melbourne heat, Rafael Nadal proved that he truly deserves the title of being the number one ranked player in tennis. Showing maturity uncharacteristic of a 22 year old, he seemed to draw upon superhuman wells of resilience to display tremendous mental strength and physical resilience to reduce Federer’s game to an error ridden shadow of its former self. With Federer serving at 5-2 the writing on the wall was quite clear, the atmosphere heavy with the understanding that this was the passing of an era.
Roger Federer seemed completely out of sorts as he double faulted to give Nadal three championship points. After some intense rallying from both competitors, Nadal finally achieved what had seemed to many like the impossible. The king of clay had laid staked his claim to the throne of being a truly consummate player by winning his first hard court grand slam. The final score read 7-5 3-6 7-6(3) 3-6 6-2 after four hours and 23 minutes on court.
As Rafael Nadal lay down on his back staring heavenward, every member in the crowd stood up for an uproarious ovation. This is a rivalry of the proportions of a Hector and an Achilles. Had the poet Homer been alive today, he would surely have chronicled this epic battle. Two men; two of the greatest tennis stars, rivals on court, friends off it, both with utmost respect for each other. As Federer understandably broke down at the presentation ceremony; his efforts at his 14th Grand Slam title being stymied by his eternal nemisis; Nadal showed tremendous humility in defeat, a mark of a true champion by embracing him. Federer, on his part, said that Nadal “truly deserved this one” and couldn’t take away the opportunity for “having the last word”. With emotions running high, the fact was undeniable, Rafael Nadal had truly become the number one player, the old maketh way for the new, the pretender had now become the prince.