Australian Open 2017: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal's clash a triumph of human spirit over Father Time

"We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield..." - Ulysses

Ulysses always fascinated me as a student of literature. To me, it answered the very question that existentialism would later grapple with. If there was a way to interview them, I'd have asked Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Fyodor Dostoyevsky why didn't they consider going through Alfred Tennyson's poem, instead of writing reams and reams of nonsense on the purpose of human existence.

Jokes apart, fascinating though I found the idea of human endeavor in a perpetual state of flux — always striving for betterment, seeking answers, finding new truths and not yielding — it sounded very idealistic. It seemed impossible that I'd see unfolding before my eyes the best of human enterprise that pushes boundaries, rewrites laws of physics and sets new bars.

Let's be cautious here. Human existence is a history of enterprise. But more often than not, 'enterprise' is a word that sits heavy on ageing shoulders. Ulysses's story needed telling and retelling because his was an endeavor untouched by age, un-bended by time, an iron will that grew stronger even as the body turned frail.

You see what I am getting at, don't you?

 Australian Open 2017: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadals clash a triumph of human spirit over Father Time

File photo of Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain. Reuters

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal's story needs telling and retelling not because they are among the all-time greats meeting in yet another Grand Slam final. That is a script a fortunate few like us, who have followed their careers, are well accustomed with. It needs to be told repeatedly because the idealism that Ulysses spoke of unfolds before our eyes on at the Australian Open on Sunday.

In a sport where athletes peak by their mid-twenties, age has caught up with both Federer and Nadal, turning their bodies frail, knees weak and wrists dodgy. But their iron will is William Blake's Tyger. Their strengths are diminished, but that "temper of heroic hearts" still beats in ambition.

At the peak of their careers, Federer normally glided through the draw, ghostlike, as his tee-shirt became just a shade darker; while Nadal, all sweaty, sinewy brutality, pounded his opponents into submission. Barely a set dropped before they clashed in the final. Now, five-setters have become more and more common as opponents ask searching questions. Even if they have the answers on court, they have fewer and fewer answers off it.

The Swiss master, 35, is coming off a six-month layoff with that 'knee thing' and Nadal, 30, was waylaid in the last half of 2016 by a recurring wrist problem. For a while, nearly everyone and their grandfathers thought that their boats have sailed into the sunset. It has now emerged that even they thought this fairytale meeting won't be possible.

Talking to reporters after taming compatriot Stan Wawrinka in a bruising five-setter (before Nadal kept his end of the bargain), Federer said that the thought of another Grand Slam final meeting with the Spaniard was unreal until very recently.

"I went to open his academy and I told him, ‘I wish we could do a charity match or something’, but I was on one leg and he had a wrist injury and we were playing some mini tennis with some juniors, but it was the best we could do. A few months later, we are maybe going into the final; I think it is very special for both of us... It would be unreal as both of us would never have thought that we would be here potentially playing in the final again," Federer said in his post-match interview.

Two veterans of the game, battle-weary, bruised and grappling with frustrating injuries were hoping to recreate the magic of their rivalry through a charity match, while hobbling on one leg with an injured wrist. The picture is both intensely sweet and tragic. Dad's army playing to the gallery as fans, friends and families watch in polite applause while peeling an orange or two.

And yet here they are, meeting each other in a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2011, when Nadal vanquished his great rival in four sets to match Bjorn Borg's sixth French Open title. For all their deep-seated mutual respect and shared wonder about each other's abilities, there will be no quarters given and none asked for at the Rod Laver Arena come Sunday.

Roger Federer reaches out his hand to Spain's Rafael Nadal during the opening ceremony of the Rafa Nadal tennis academy in Manacor, Spain. Reuters

Roger Federer reaches out his hand to Spain's Rafael Nadal during the opening ceremony of the Rafa Nadal tennis academy in Manacor, Spain. Reuters

My heart, as always, will be with Federer — the Leonardo Da Vinci of athletes. But let's just cast aside our partisanship and revel in the fact that we will witness two of the greatest athletes of all time at work, asking questions and answering those in ways only they can. Inadvertently, Federer and Nadal are also revealing why they rank among the greatest of greats.

Consider, for a moment, the question of retirement. Why do greats of the game retire? Is it because they have nothing more to offer overnight? Or is it to safeguard their legacy? On certain days, age may still achieve what youth can't. But most greats call it a day (think Andre Agassi) when they recognise a lack of motivation.

Is anything left for Federer and Nadal to prove? Do they lack fame, fortune or glory? Haven't they already done enough for their names to be immortalised in gold? How can they possibly persuade their rebelling bodies to listen to their minds one more time? What motivation, possibly, is left? Isn't it too much to constantly put their fading forces to test and risk falling into the oblivion of mediocrity?

Greats are what greats do. Federer and Nadal must seek, strive, find and not yield or sail peacefully into the sunset. Their fight is the greatest of fights. They have declared war against the ravages of clock, to show that human spirit can triumph over Father Time. It is irrelevant who wins on Sunday. Take a bow, gentlemen.

Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 22:46:34 IST