02 February 2009

Just seen Bob Dylan on a motorbike

The temptation is, as temptation always will be, there. So let's get it out of the way first.

This was like the Wimbledon final in reverse, Roger Federer starting strongly before somehow going backwards late on, or perhaps standing still while Rafael Nadal kept a steady pace. Someone on the BBC likened the first four sets to Ali-Frazier. Wimbledon was more like a duel on a life-raft.

Wimbledon was washed by the confluence of all sorts of strangeness and fascination. Rafa was on the rise, looking more likely to break definitively out of clay specialism than ever. The French Open final -- in which Federer, still suffering from the effects of glandular fever, rolled out the Frightened Kitten Defence in the face of Nadal's bombardment -- was just a month past. Federer lost the first two sets, the second after having been a break up. He was on the precipice, and we know what happened next. There were also the rain breaks, the gloaming, the camera flashes and Gwen Stefani managing to look more bored than anyone has ever done before and striking a comic contrast with every other soul watching.

What that match also had was a couple of special moments: a half-smile and a knowing nod that guided it past the velvet rope inside the other velvet rope. The rally at 7-7 in the fourth set tie-break which ended with Nadal's improbable winner, and Federer's even more extraordinary backhand passing shot on the very next point (while match point down), were what turned the match from hors catégorie to hors hors catégorie. (See the two shots in question here, from about 3:15.) For all of yesterday's consistent excellence -- How consistent! How excellent! -- there wasn't a pair reality-quaking doozies like that. Yes, it's partly symbolism. It is kind of silly to pick those few minutes out of almost five hours of play, especially when there were so many turning points and barely credible plays. But they were critical in truly feeling the gravity of the match, and even the entire Federer-Nadal rivalry -- they were like the moment it hits you that you are helplessly in love, or when you realise that you've just listened to 'I Am The Walrus' for the twentieth consecutive time and that the Beatles are the greatest band ever. Regardless of how sudden or gradual the process is, there is always that moment. The Australian Open final didn't quite have that.

But here's the thing: it doesn't matter. At least, in this context, in this great big scheme of things with Raf 'n' Rog silhouettes on it, it doesn't matter. It's not fair to compare this match with Wimbledon, not least because the blue sky and the birdsong and the sound of children's laughter are all meagre next to Wimbledon. For one thing, the Aussie final was great for its own sake, on any halfway sensible terms. For another, this has, by now -- since those two shots -- gone beyond each mere atomic match. Nadal-Federer has been elevated to a point where it's taken on its own identity. It's an entity of its own that is more than just a series of individual encounters. The two players bring out the best in each other and push each other further than anyone else can go. And because they occupy the top two places in the world rankings, their meetings are invariably in finals, which lifts it higher still. This is a story which is unfolding in all its intricacy as we watch.

With no disrespect to Nadal, Federer not having it all his own way anymore is the main part of the story. I think it's wonderful -- not, understand, that I begrudge Federer a single jot of his success (and if you do, reader, then perhaps we should start seeing other people). Nor have I ever been bored by the way in which Federer has amassed his success. It's just that the arrival of Nadal -- this alien invader, not just occasionally engaging in minor skirmishes on the outskirts of Federer's greatness but sending missiles into its heart -- added dimensions to the top of the men's game. The lack of competition for Federer was adequately compensated for by his style, but to see someone storming the barricades was still most welcome. Suddenly, there was some delicious tension. Instead of it just being a question of exactly how fabulously Federer was going to win, we now wondered whether he would win at all, and exactly what the new chaos would wreak.

There's something else, maybe more important and more glorious, which could be read into all this. Yesterday was a hinge. Federer could well have seen his best days recede into history (though remember that his next-to-best days are pretty fantastic). But he now has a chance to take his greatness to a level above even where it is now, that is more than just (!) a Samprassian record. Nadal is Federer's key to whatever the closest thing is to immortality in sport.** He has never had so persistent a foe, and if he can rise up and fight him, he will have surpassed even what we imagined him to be a couple of years ago. I don't think I'm even talking about winning, necessarily. As far as Fed-Nad goes, who wins is now only a part of the matter; it almost seems a shame to reduce it to a simple zero-or-one question. Not that it's unimportant; the beauty may be in the struggle but the struggle is for victory, after all. But I don't think that the identity of the victor is going to bring us any great revelation -- not in this rivalry, not anymore. The journey is where the truth lives now.

I'm damn sure that Federer isn't thinking about it these terms; it would take a strange athlete to do so. Honestly, I'm not even sure I totally believe what I've written. Hey, if you read this looking for cold hard certainty, I'm sorry. If you can hew some from out of the dust this rivalry is throwing up, then you're better at that type of thing than I am. All I know is that this is where my head is at right now. This is the best that sport has to offer today. Savour it and pray for more.

**It could also be argued that Federer is Nadal's key to whatever the closest thing is to immortality in sport. Certainly, Federer is the planet whose gravity Nadal has used to slingshot himself into greatness, at least as perceived by the spectator. As I said above, "The two players bring out the best in each other and push each other further than anyone else can go". But I've written more than enough already so I'll leave that thought with you...

UPDATE: The BBC on a similar wavelength, albeit in less hysterical fashion.


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