“If I go to a Slam I cannot win, I will stop.” So said Boris Becker once. It was a tacitly accepted rule among the greats. Go out on a high. If you cannot replicate your past glories, it is time to say goodbye. It was understood that there exists humiliation if one continues to exhibit their wares beyond the sell-by date.
But then there are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Anybody who watched them in their prime cannot argue that they are still the same. But, as the last two weeks have shown, they do not need to be. They have broken past the garrison town of ageing and decline to show us something we would not dare to expect. Federer and Nadal’s pronouncements during the Australian Open suggest their mind space was not distant from ours.
But, despite their apprehensions, there was a glimmer of hope. As Federer said in December, “The thing is Rafa’s always been unbelievable at comebacks. He’s one of the guys who’s done it the best and the most almost. Every time he came back, he was always in the mix again to win big tournaments and be really, really difficult to beat and be one of the favorites, even on his weaker surfaces. So I think maybe on this occasion, he’s going to lead the way for me, to show how it’s done.”
Indeed, Nadal has shown that the fight within him is aflutter again. But what of Federer? His six-month injury layoff sowed seeds of doubt in most observers’ minds. But there was also something worth noting. Including the ongoing Australian Open, the Swiss legend has reached semi-finals or better in the last five Slams. It is a record any top player would draw pride from. At the age of 35, though, it just stretches the bounds of wonder.
Perhaps, tennis coach Paul Annacone was on to something when he spoke to The New York Times ahead of the Australian Open. “I’ve always felt, and I think Pete (Sampras) proved it over a decade ago: Great players at the end of their career can play great. It’s just harder for them to play great for a whole season.” Indeed, after watching Federer play at the Hopman Cup in Perth, another renowned coach Roger Rasheed claimed, “If his body feels free then his tennis is still available to him.”
So it is, arguably in its fullest glory. Mats Wilander had once argued that with age, your worst game keeps getting worse. But you are still within a shout for a title, if your best game is still with you. Federer’s displays indicate that his touch and gentle movement are still very much attached to him.
Indeed, thanks to the faster courts at Australian Open this year, Federer has enjoyed a resurgence built up on aggressive play. It’s a style with which he continues to identify; spots far behind the baseline are unpalatable to him.
It is a consequence of the hard work put into fitness by Federer which allows him to play the way he loves. Speaking in 2013, after a successful return from fitness issues, he expanded on the benefits his supreme fitness has endowed upon him. “It (the hard work) allowed me to get to balls faster. It improved my defence, I became… quicker and more nimble on the court. That’s when my potential all of a sudden went into this league that I never thought possible.”
The current resurgence seems to be another evidence of that trend. Federer covers less distance than his counterparts thanks to his sense of space. He is, to borrow a German term generally used for footballers, a raumdeuter (space investigator). The result has been that, after a long time, his controversial statement from November 2013 seems to have more than a few grains of truth. He can argue once again that, except Nadal at Roland Garros, beating anybody is down to his own racquet.
But what of his greatest rival from Spain? Surely, he was done. After withdrawing from last year’s French Open, even his most ardent followers had begun to wonder whether they will see him compete at a high level again. But perhaps his insatiable appetite for stunning comebacks can once again be explained by the wise mind of Wilander, as quoted in Kevin Mitchell’s book Break Point.
“I would think, in a way, those problems were helping him to come back. They helped him stay focused, to want it again – and not changing coaches, like some players do. It’s, like, he has that safe place to go back to, his home town – and maybe because there’s pretty much nothing there, he concentrates on his tennis again. Otherwise he’s walking the beach, right? Ha! It’s an escape from all this.”
Wilander’s take may not sit well with those who only look for Nadal’s determination and fighting spirit but it would be foolhardy to dismiss the strength of his inner circle. Within this tightly-knit group, outsiders are rarely allowed a look in. This is why only somebody like Carlos Moya, who has been close to the Nadal family for a long time, could secure a place on the coaching team.
It is quite remarkable, though, that Nadal has found redemption on the hard court, a surface he loves to despise. After his mind-boggling comeback in 2013, the Spaniard had assailed the ATP for organising a significant chunk of tournaments on hard courts. “It is a harder one for the joints and for the knees, for the feet, for the ankles, for the back, for everything,” he said back then. But it is the transformation of Nadal’s playing style which has held him in good stead over the past two weeks.
While he still loves to cover a large area on the court, the former Australian Open champion now looks to position himself better rather than being forced to hit off-balance shots. Nadal’s ground strokes now seem to belong more to the tennis manual than before.
Then, there is the question of his serve. Nadal’s first serve is no longer as quick as it was when he won the Australian Open in 2009 but there’s a greater deal of variety now. Also, his kick second serve causes major problems for his opponent. Before the semi-final against Grigor Dimitrov, Nadal had won an astounding 67 percent of the points on his second serve in this tournament.
Then, there’s the underrated net play which came to the fore in the epic semi. On Friday, Nadal won 25 out of 29 points at the net (86 percent) with a majority of them arriving after the first serve. Such numbers testify to the 14-time Grand Slam winner’s desire to mould himself into a player who can take advantage of the conditions put in front of him. It’s a rare gift, as Federer knows well enough.
The critic Tom Bissell has claimed that “all great stylists eventually become prisoners of their style”. As the Giant Sand’s song Shiver goes, “Forget ageing well like some treasured splendour.” It is a luxury that is mostly unknown to us. But over the past two weeks, Federer and Nadal have shown themselves to be ahead of the curve.
The faster courts have brought Federer back to a manner of play he would like to be associated with. Nadal has stuck to what he knows best as well while making adjustments that ensure he is not even close to irrelevance. This is likely to be a short-lived flourish, one suspects. As well as the two have played, it would be quite unreasonable to expect them to continue at this level for an entire season.
But then, they have already done that in the past. Right now, it is about demonstrating that the gifts which give us Federer and Nadal are yet to desert them. In his delightful work On Late Style, the literary critic Edward Said expanded on the idea of ‘late style’ by saying that, “It has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them. What holds them in tension, as equal forces straining in opposite directions, is the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile.”
When Federer and Nadal step out on the Rod Laver Arena on Sunday, Said’s words will find their embodiment in the duel. The contest will not be like what we have known it to be. But, even while decaying with age, Federer and Nadal will rejuvenate some of their glorious works. They know it too well now that the pleasure is in the doing. On Sunday, it is a joy we should all partake in.
Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 19:18:52 IST