It feels wrong, I know, to mention Rafael Nadal right now, like someone standing up at that bit of the wedding where the priest asks the congregation if anyone knows of any reason why this union should not be blessed. I mean, you can do it, but you come across as a bit of a dickhead if you do. Roger Federer's praises have been sung since Sunday by one of the biggest choruses ever assembled, and it probably shook very heaven itself, so to bring Nadal into the discussion almost seems prosaic, or vulgar. But it bears doing.
I suggested after the Australian Open that the story of men's tennis in the immediate future would be how Federer dealt with his first usurper, the first and only player who knew The Secret; and whether, in doing this, he could touch the same, or higher, heights he had done in past, thus surpassing all his previous achievements. Federer's greatness has not been in question. Not even his status as the greatest of all time has been in question, at least not seriously enough for it to matter. People who watch much more tennis than me and have done for longer than I've been alive have been saying it for a while, and I ain't gainsaying that. The issue now is one of degree, of how superfabulous Federer is, and Nadal is at its heart. It will be in the head-on, high-stakes confrontations between the two (and pretty much all their confrontations are head-on and high-stakes) that this particular truth will reveal itself.
So Nadal's absence from the final week of the French Open — the first major since that epic in Melbourne — rendered the tournament somewhat bereft. A Federer-Nadal final would have taken on monstrous dimensions: Nadal's reputation as the master of clay and of Roland Garros, and as Federer's nemesis, versus Federer's quest for his fourteenth major title and a career Slam, and a chance to halt the Nadal juggernaut — or, to put it more simply, precisely and explosively, to beat Nadal in the French Open final. No Nadal meant that much of this intrigue disappeared.
Despite the consensus on Federer's place in history, this should not be shirked. Nadal is like a mountain — there. He can't be avoided. Federer effectively admitted as much after beating Robin Söderling. "I knew that the day Rafa wasn't in the final," he said, "I would be there and I would win." Federer's achievements are now in some part conditional on and must be read in the light of Nadal and Federer's struggle to overcome him. If he had played Nadal in the final, he would have had the occasion to do this to a huge extent — perhaps definitively. As it was, with Nadal already dispatched offstage (deservedly so, it should be restated), it became merely an opportunity for Federer to reaffirm his greatness.
Hang on — merely reaffirm his greatness?
I felt somewhat unmoved by the bare mathematics of Federer's win: the equalling of Pete Sampras' record, the completion of the full Slam set. It's as close to destiny as is possible in sport's disinterested, uninterested logic. Consider this: he has played in nineteen Grand Slam finals, of which he has won fourteen. Each of the five losses have been to Nadal. Now: imagine there's no Nadal (it's hard to do...but try). Even keeping in mind that history is an elusive bastard, it's not a stretch to believe that he would have long ago matched surpassed Sampras, that he would have long ago secured his career slam, that he would won at least one proper, full-on Grand Slam. Remembering that Nadal beat him in the semi-final of the 2005 French Open, Federer could have had — it's not such a wild supposition — twenty majors by now.
I know. Take a minute to catch your breath and recover what bits of your blown mind you can.
I realise I said above that we can't ignore Nadal. My point in presenting this counterfactual scenario is to highlight the sublimity of what Federer has done. He has been one "freak of nature from Mallorca" (to use Andre Agassi's description) away from those statistics that just made your eyeballs pop a couple of paragraphs ago. On some level, it was as if he has already achieved greatness that deserved those numbers, and that the numbers are just catching up. In a sense, Sunday didn't change anything, or reveal anything we didn't already know.
(By the way, I wish I could think of better words than "great" and "greatness" to describe the man, but though they are the most obvious, they are surely also the most apt.)
But perhaps such hypothetics and nebulous theology are best left to bloggers. The earthbound reality of Federer's triumph may have been philosophically symbolic (that is, if you follow my philosophical line on this), but symbols have significance. As the great (!) man himself said:
It's maybe my greatest victory — now and until the end of my career I can really play with my mind at peace, and no longer hear that I've never won Roland Garros.
And it's not as if, despite Federer's belief in his ability to win on seeing Nadal getting eliminated, it was easy. This was no procession; it was hard-earned. To quote (it's all the rage, dontcha know) commenter joao jorge:
...the story is not the winning of the tournament. It's the constant struggle of Federer to find his place in history. How, despite (and because) of Nadal's premature exit, every point he played carried an additional pressure. It was his shot at the title, and he did not fail.Maybe this, achieved though it may have been with Nadal on a physio's table in Barcelona, was just as meaningful as slaying the Nadal dragon. It always impresses me how keenly aware Federer is of his own place in the history of the game. It's remarkable that he is able to step outside the weirdness that rapidly gathers around such talent and appreciate where he truly stands. It's not vanity — it's due reward.
It's still frustrating that we didn't get the final we wanted, the confluence of the two mightiest rivers. I deeply hope that the rivalry flowers like it can, like no other has. But at this stage, it's almost silly, greedy, decadent to curse whatever one curses for our apparent misfortune. We are privileged to witness this. It doesn't really matter what transpires from here because, ultimately, history has already been written. Greatness has spoken. Roger Federer is merely reaffirming it. He is merely adding to infinity.