A tearful Federer at Australian Open 2009
Between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, 31 of the last 34 Grand Slams have been won. There has, never before, been a period of such unparalleled dominance by three separate players, and a consequent intersecting of eras.
What is more interesting to see, though, is the way history has mirrored itself with these modern legends.
Roger Federer has won 3 out of 4 slams in a year twice- signaling his stranglehold over world tennis for a good five years. Then came Rafa, who- apart from the obligatory French Open- began to win the other slams after modeling his game on a machine built to beat the artistry of Roger. He went on to win 3 out of 4 slams in a year twice too, signaling the demise of Roger’s dominance.
But what happened in 2009 was noteworthy, and some would say, inevitable.
Every great Champion has a second coming. Agassi rose to 1 in the World after falling to the depths of 228 in 1998. Sampras won his last US Open in 2002 against all odds- and younger, more powerful and skilled players- more than two long after his previous tournament victory. He promptly retired. Happy ending.
Federer, as widely believed, was the greatest Champion of them all. Surely, things couldn’t end so abruptly for him at age 27- and constantly, it was always one player who stood between him and immortality. After a record-shattering 2008 year where Rafa won 3 slams including that elusive Wimbledon (before his rival won the French) and an Olympic Gold, many would think that Federer’s greatness would be cut short, halted, almost cruelly. He still didn’t have that French Open title, and with Rafa in the sport, many wondered if he would ever get back that top spot again. He was pushed to his limit with a heartbreaking 5-set loss in the 2009 Australian Open Final to his nemesis, his torturer.
French Open 2009, A Date With Destiny
But then, in April 2009, the clouds parted. Drops of destiny began to appear, out of nowhere. Few will remember the 2009 Hamburg Open Final- a clay court tournament that Rafa usually owned going into the French Open. Federer, after losing the first set 6-2, won the next two, and even bageled the mighty warrior on his own turf. It was a small, but important statement ahead of the French Open next month.
As if to justify that tiny lapse in concentration, a man named Robin Soderling became an angel for Roger Federer. The 4th round at Roland Garros will go down as one of the greatest upsets in Grand Slam History. Rafa was halted, his inevitable, dangerously quick path to immortality, disturbed. The next day, Federer was two sets down against Tommy Haas, an exit just two points away- and his only chance to win an elusive championship- in ashes. He rose, almost as if to remind himself that there was no Rafa this time, and nothing should stop him. After all, he was the second best clay court player of his generation. Few fans realize that Federer grew up playing on the clay of Basel, and had only switched to a single-handed backhand at age 13, after double-handing his way to many junior titles on his favorite surface. Europeans are born as naturals on clay, it is mainly a race about how adapts faster to the grueling season, and of course, priorities.
A Crown Snatched, 2009 French Open
Federer won the 2009 French Open, and then Wimbledon- in an improbable 5 set match against old rival Roddick, in which Federer was clearly second best. He embraced destiny, and his comeback was complete- with his ascent to the number 1 raking sealed. Many tennis enthusiasts, including Nadal fans, heaved a sigh of relief. One glance of Federer on court, and you’d immediately realize that his regal style and grace deserves far more than falling to a bogey surface, to a single player of his generation.
Federer’s chapter ended a year after that, as it should have, after he reached 16 Grand Slam titles. Nadal rose once again, still young, and it wasn’t a comeback- because he was always meant to take over the mantle. His hold-a-club style soon became the norm, and 2010 became his year once again- a year where he completed his Grand Slam by winning the US Open. Maybe it was fated that Federer, a good five years older than him, was meant to achieve the same thing before him.
2010 was, once again, Nadal’s year. 3 slams. Number One once again, but he still had a few miles to go before being able to carry the aura of a man who is confident of holding the rank for another few years.
Slowly, but steadily, he was reaching that level- where an entire generation could belong to him, like it did, to Federer. An entire era could be owned by him- Nadal’s era- because he was fast approaching Federer’s total of 16 titles.
But Tennis, thankfully, threw him a curve ball. A player named Novak Djokovic- the same Nole who was better known for his hilarious impersonations of all the top players on court, the Djoker, became the real deal. Legend will have it that he eliminated Gluten from his diet, and hence avoided those chronic breathing problems (4-14 against Nadal), but one got a sense that a gear had shifted. He had broken that code, similar to the cheat code so many of us resort to in video game sports, a sort of cruise control- a hallejujah moment that makes you wonder why you didn’t discover this formula earlier- and 2011 once again saw Rafa Nadal demoted to number 2 despite winning his favorite Slam.
2011. Novak Djokovic. 3 slams. Till the US Open in August, he had lost just two matches. Never before had any player dominated the ATP men’s circuit in such a consistently superhuman manner. The era of Nadal, which he so badly needed to enter that elite league of all-time greats quicker than anyone else in history, was halted again. This time, it wasn’t a comeback, but a player reborn.
Djokovic began to live upto that immense potential Federer had seen in him five years ago- and most importantly, he exorcised his own mental demons to overcome Nadal’s well-oiled machinery. He became the ultimate machine himself, he outNadaled Nadal in four consecutive Grand Slam finals (again, never done before), and made Nadal feel a lot like Federer did when he was halted in 2008.
Back to the top, US Open 2010
The Djoker, with THAT look in his eyes, began to make his own destiny. He made Nadal hurt, by becoming a modern, more expensive, hi-tech, reliable and more capable version of Nadal’s game. He was World Tennis’s latest product- in a brand new package, the latest version.
2011 belonged to one man. And he began 2012 in the same manner, in a serene state of calm, until the Australian Open Final- where he handed Nadal his most painful career loss. A 6-hour long 5-setter, a game of attrition and fitness and strength and conditioning, an episodical match that Nadal used to own. The unstoppable force had finally met his match, in the immovable object.
Nadal was broken, as was Federer exactly three years ago, on the same court. This time, he was the victim. The game he had fashioned so perfectly over so many painstaking injury-prone years, was now broken down by not Federer, but a player he used to destroy mentally, so often.
Time to resign himself to his fate, of coming second best in an era that should have been his? Time to do what Federer did, letting ONE single player on the tour have the upper hand in your battles, but that one single player could just go on to be the greatest of all time. Time to accept that your time is over, and maybe, you’re just not destined to beat a player? Federer did that, content with beating the other 900 players on tour. It was just a tiny blemish on his CV, but surely a blemish that disturbed Federer.
Another contender for the greatest of all time, 3 in five years? Unthinkable of, just a decade ago- when Tennis was relegated to Lleyton Hewitt’s relentless hacking of the ball.
But every great Champion has a second coming. The 2012 claycourt season was to be his final opportunity to correct a script that had gone frightfully wrong in 365 days. It was now or never, because another repeat of the 2011 claycourt season (3 claycourt final losses) would mean that he would be known as the player who was number 2 for a record 236 weeks, and not number 1 for 86 weeks. He would own the end of the Federer era and the beginning of the Djokovic era. He would be stuck on 10 Grand Slam titles, for a long period of time, much like Federer was stuck on 13.
And, almost on cue, the new and improved Nadal appeared. He demolished rumours of a mental block on his dear surface, and beat Novak in two consecutive claycourt finals at Rome and Monte Carlo. He entered the 2012 French Open as favorite, but simply could not underestimate Novak’s ability to push him to the brink. Sure, it was the red slow(est) clay of Roland Garros, even slower than previous years, but he had to do his job. He had to follow the script written for him, for the sake of Champions.
Terminator, Model 3XX, Double Boosters, License to Destroy
And he did. Ruthlessly. He wasn’t to be stopped. He overcame shaky moments against the World Number One, and stamped his authority over their head-to-head record once again.
Finally, respite. Relief. Victory. Redemption.
Only Federer would understand the extent to which Nadal had been pushed, and the sheer brute force it took for him to bulldoze his way back into form. They would be tied together, forever.
And just as another rivalry is beginning to blossom, though some would say it has been one for ages (Nadal leads Djokovic 19-14), it has been good for Tennis, for the fans, that Nadal was able to pull one over Djokovic finally.
After all, he is a confidence player. Come Wimbledon 2012, we will have an intriguing battle of momentum against speed.
Because Djokovic, who has temporarily been made to feel human again, now feels that it is his turn. It is his turn to make that comeback, though he hasn’t fallen yet. His dizzy standards may force him to play like a man possessed, a man intent on proving to the world that the Clay season would remain just that- a temporary stop in his march to dominance.
It could now be Djokovic’s turn to make that comeback. Surely, he will face bigger mountains to climb ahead, but for now, he must contend with the winds of change. There is nothing more dangerous than a Nadal entering the court- having won the match in his head already.
Djokovic wants to make him feel again. Nadal doesn’t want to lose again.
And Roger Federer.
Federer, almost 31, has 1 single Grand Slam victory left in him- though plenty of more semis and quarters. He has one miraculous final left in him.
And there’s nowhere better than home. The green grass of Wimbledon.
Let the games begin.