A tale of two great rivals

Sooner than later, Roger Federer must find a way past Rafael Nadal. For, so long as Nadal remains an insuperable obstacle in the path of Federer, Mount Sampras will continue to be a peak too far, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Sport is a cruel business and its caprices can often reduce the most seemingly invincible of champions to sobbing emotional wrecks with a shockingly ironic sense of timing — on the cusp of a great moment, just when they seem set to embrace surpassing glory and greatness.

Even the true giants of sport are not insulated from sport’s fiendishness as millions of tennis fans might have realised on the first Sunday of February when Roger Federer broke down after receiving his runner-up trophy from the great Rod Laver at Melbourne Park.

This was the same man who, a little over half an hour earlier, had stood on the brink of history, a set away from joining the peerless Pete Sampras at the Grand Slam summit. Yet, in the blink of an eye, with his apparently fragile mind playing dirty tricks, there he was, sobbing inconsolably on the grand stage with the whole world watching.

As cruel ironies go in sport, this one might take some matching! Arguably the most gifted player in the history of the sport, Federer lost his internal equanimity and found his game coming apart just when he needed to raise it for the much-sought brush with immortality.

In the event, the player we saw beaten — yet again — by Rafael Nadal was mortal, all too mortal, reminding us once again that every great champion who ever lived has to necessarily deal with intimations of athletic mortality and survive sport’s caprices on the path to ultimate glory.

While it has been obvious for some time now that Nadal has a definite mental edge in Grand Slam finals against Federer, never in the past had the Swiss maestro caved in the way he did in the first set in Melbourne. If sport is an arena for self-discovery, then this is one version of himself that the great man would hate to own up.

Of course, all paths to glory run through messy byways but it is now going to take a lot out of Federer to put himself back on the right track leading up to Mount Sampras — so devastating was that loss on a starry Melbourne night.

“God, it’s killing me,” said Federer after his third straight loss to the muscular Spaniard in Grand Slam finals.

Surely, these two supremely talented players will meet again in title matches at Slams as one of the greatest friendly rivalries in modern sport continues to unfold. In tennis itself, few rivalries have been quite as entertaining while elevating Grand Slam finals to levels rarely matched.

This writer began his career in the high noon of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe era and has witnessed several epic duels between equals — Boris Becker versus Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras against Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert, Steffi Graf against Monica Seles.

Yet, there seems to be something especially heart-warming about the Federer-Nadal occasions, highlighted as it were, in Melbourne, by that extraordinary moment when Nadal put his arm around a sobbing Federer and offered a few friendly words of consolation.

“I am sorry for today. I really know how you feel,” Nadal said, turning to Federer, after receiving the winner’s trophy.

More than 30 years ago, the greatest street fighter the game has known, Jimmy Connors, felt no remorse after beating Borg or McEnroe. But champions involved in all great rivalries do show tremendous mutual respect even if they fail to say anything in public.

McEnroe, in fact, never quite reconciled to tennis without Borg after the Swede’s abrupt departure following the 1981 U.S. Open.

“I had this special feeling when I played him. Something was missing after Bjorn quit,” said McEnroe. “Our matches were always special and we brought out the best in each other.”

Perhaps never more than in the 1980 Wimbledon final which featured one of the greatest and most dramatic tiebreaks (fourth set) ever witnessed in a Grand Slam final. It took 28 years to better that epic and the ones who did that were Federer and Nadal, in the 2008 final — it was a contest of such high quality and intensity that even these two extraordinary champions might never again produce anything quite like it.

Borg was every fan’s Good Guy and McEnroe was the foul-mouthed Bad Guy. It was the perfect contrast. Black and white, night and day, superbrat against the strong, silent, almost stoic Swede — fans found the match-up simply irresistible.

While they may not have shared a drink or a meal when they were active players, Borg and McEnroe have since become close friends. They spent a lot of time together in the BBC broadcast booth during Wimbledon last summer, talking about the good old days.

Perhaps some time soon, Sampras and Agassi might get to do that too. In terms of longevity, their rivalry was ever greater than that of Borg and McEnroe. They played each other in five Grand Slam finals, Sampras winning all but one of them.

But their best match wasn’t a final. It was the quarterfinal clash of the 2001 U.S. Open that Sampras won 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. That was one for the ages as the two great competitors went at each other, neither player losing serve even once.

The following year, Sampras beat Agassi in four sets to win his 14th Grand Slam title and never played again. It was the seven-time Wimbledon champion’s 20th victory over his friend and archrival in 34 meetings.

Federer and Nadal have so far played each other 19 times with the Spaniard leading 13-6 and the last time the Swiss genius got past the Spaniard was in November 2007. Even if their matches have not been lopsided, there has been only one winner in recent times.

And now that Nadal has mastered every single surface — clay, grass and hardcourt — on which Grand Slam matches are played, it seems increasingly likely that Federer might not be able to get past Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles if he continues to end up on the wrong end of the scoreline against the man from Majorca.

Sooner than later, Federer must find a way past the world No. 1. For, so long as Nadal remains an insuperable obstacle in the path of Federer, Mount Sampras will continue to be a peak too far.

* * * Nadal-Federer in the majors 2009

Australian Open Final: Rafael Nadal bt Roger Federer 7–5, 3–6, 7–6 (3), 3–6, 6–2

2008

Wimbledon Final: Rafael Nadal bt Roger Federer 6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5), 6–7 (8), 9–7

French Open Final: Rafael Nadal bt Roger Federer 6–1, 6–3, 6–0

2007

Wimbledon Final: Roger Federer bt Rafael Nadal 7–6 (7), 4–6, 7–6 (3), 2–6, 6–2

French Open Final: Rafael Nadal bt Roger Federer 6–3, 4–6, 6–3, 6–4

2006

Wimbledon Final: Roger Federer bt Rafael Nadal 6–0, 7–6 (5), 6–7 (2), 6–3

French Open Final: Rafael Nadal bt Roger Federer 1–6, 6–1, 6–4, 7–6 (4)

2005

French Open Semifinal: Rafael Nadal bt Roger Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3

OVERALL HEAD-TO-HEAD Nadal leads Federer 13-6