There will be more of this. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal looked too rejuvenated and played too brilliantly to let us believe that their performances at the year’s first Grand Slam in Melbourne offered no more than a glimpse of a fading era.
Andy Murray, certainly, and Novak Djokovic, probably, will interject and have their say once they recover from the shock of early round defeats at the Australian Open. Stan Wawrinka will hover in the wings, ready to grab center stage if his mood and his magnificent backhand find the door to that Top4 club left ajar. Juan Martin del Potro, resting his body in January but returning in February at Delray Beach, will surely ascend to the top ten and add some South American flair and power to the battle.
But it is hard to imagine that the senior members of the quartet that has dominated men’s tennis to an astounding degree since 2005 will not be back up there, winning titles and setting up more epic battles like the one we were privileged to witness on Rod Laver Arena.
The final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park was hyped to the hilt. It was the match everyone was talking about long before it actually materialized as reality and expectations reached ridiculous levels. Except that, when it all came to pass, it exceeded anyone’s imaginings.
The extent to which this epic final helped boost the popularity of the game worldwide will be born out in the coming months as the game’s peripheral fans are ever more captivated by a personal saga that has drawn two of the world’s greatest ever athletes into each other’s orbits for the past twelve years.
The Swiss and the Spaniard, the right hander and the converted left hander, the flightily gifted gazelle and the grounded warrior, the father of four and the betrothed bachelor, one from a landlocked nation and the other from an island – these are different people until they arrive at their place of work and know each other’s business so well that a spark of magic erupts.
The competition is intense and could not be more keenly fought but, no matter what the cynics might, say I fully believed Federer when he said afterwards, on court, that he would have been happy to settle for a draw had the scoring system allowed it. The respect they have for each other, even in moments of triumph or defeat, lends credence to that.
Federer and Nadal are, therefore, the two finest examples of sporting chivalry that this uneasy, divided world has to offer. And tennis is so fortunate to have them. So much of sport today highlights conflicts between individuals and teams and that is inevitable. Combat is conflict. It’s what makes sport exciting and the media feed off it, grabbing at every morsel, every look, every gesture to magnify what so many of us consider to be the essence of sporting excitement.
But is it? Isn’t what we witnessed on Rod Laver Arena between these two fervently combative but elegantly chivalrous athletes the true essence of sporting endeavor? Does anyone think for a second that the screaming pitch of wild excitement which burst out of that packed stadium could have been heightened had Roger or Rafa been at each other’s throats?
I submit that the idea of sport needing to have a hero and a devil to make it tick has been laid to rest. Apart from boxing, which requires physical assault, there are few sports in the world that are more one-on-one and in-your face than tennis.
Yet, after a few false starts, even two sisters have proved that love and respect can live with a genuine desire to win, even if it requires Serena beating Venus whom she loves and admires more than anyone else in the world.
Tennis can be played that way and long may it continue. Venus, to whom returning to a Grand Slam final for the first time in seven years at the age of 36 while suffering from Sjogrens Syndrome, was a personal triumph of some magnitude, said a few things about sport following her semi-final victory over Coco Vandewegh that bear repeating.
“What I will say about sport….why I think people love sport so much….is because you see everything in a line. In that moment, there is no do-over, there’s no re-take, there is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it. You can’t. You either do it or you don’t. People relate to the champion. They also relate to the person who didn’t win because we all have those moments in our life.”
This remarkable champion, the recipient, like her sister, of wise, careful and inspirational parenting, went on to ask herself, out loud whether it is an athlete’s job to inspire.
“Inherently, what I think athletes do at a top level inspires people, but each person takes that responsibility differently,” she said, replying to her own question.
There was inspiration a plenty throughout this Australian Open, one of the best Grand Slams I can remember – and there have been a few. Primarily, I think, it served – or should serve – as an inspiration for the future generation who discovered that youthful skills were not sufficient to get the better of players who had been around long enough to understand what the game demands.
Denis Istomin, Mischa Zverev, Andreas Seppi, Dan Evans, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and Coco Vandeweghe offered inspiration as much, in their way, as the four giants of the game who reached the men’s and women’s finals. They showed what experience and sheer hard work can produce, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as Lucic-Baroni will attest.
The feast of succulent and spicy tennis that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal laid out for us at Melbourne Park, graced by the presence of the man for whom the stadium is named, left us sated that night. But we will be hungry for more and, providing their bodies are able, they will invite us to dine out on their skills again. World sport has no finer cuisine.