Strokes of Genius review: Chronicling the celebrated Rafa-Roger rivalry

The 90-minute documentary is a perfect tribute to an almost two-decade-old rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Roger Federer congratulates Rafael Nadal after Nadal defeated him in the Wimbledon final of 2008. John McEnroe termed that contest "the greatest tennis match ever." - GETTY IMAGES

Grace is one of the first qualities one associates with Roger Federer. His ballerina-smooth movements on the court, that elegant single-handed backhand that he so fashionably sports and his soft-spoken courteous nature simply ooze grace. And of course, he has an ice-cool head that rarely loses the plot.

His modern-day rival Rafael Nadal can be considered the right opposite – a brute. Donning flashy coloured clothes and a ripped muscular physique, he’s a fighter. Every third shot is followed by a grunt and he appears to throw all of his body weight into each stroke he plays. He’s feisty, bold and chases the ball down on every single point, almost like his life was to depend on it.

The contrasts are plenty, but there may just be one tiny common feature – they both have to battle those locks of hair that fall over their ever-present bandanas.

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The two gentlemen in question, one from the icy Alps of Switzerland and the other from the island of Mallorca, have been at the helm of the sport for nearly two decades. Federer won the Wimbledon for five consecutive years from 2003 to establish himself as one of the best grass-court players, while Nadal came into his own on his favoured Parisian clay courts – where he won four successive French Open crowns from 2005. The two of them shared the hardcourt Slams between them, and with others when they were feeling generous, but neither was able to lift the title on the other’s turf.

'The greatest tennis match ever'

Until that rainy afternoon in London on July 6 2008, that is. It was the third consecutive year that the two were meeting in the Wimbledon final. Federer was eager to become the first player in the Open Era to win six Wimbledon titles in a row, while Nadal was hungry to achieve the rare French Open-Wimbledon double.

What followed was an absolute masterclass, as John McEnroe says in the documentary Strokes of Genius, “I’ve seen a lot of tennis matches, I’ve commentated a lot, watched a lot and played a lot. If you add everything together, there is no question in my mind overall – the 2008 match between Rafa and Roger was the greatest tennis match ever.” The documentary, streaming now on Discovery Plus, is based on the book Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played by L. Jon Wertheim.

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Nadal would go on to prove that he wasn’t just an expert on clay as he triumphed over Federer in five excruciating sets in a rain-marred final. Federer returned the favour the following year by winning the French Open, and thus, the rivalry grew.

With excellent use of highlight reels and archival footage, it delves into the scenes surrounding the match and the varied approaches the two players have taken to the sport with inputs from their coaches and family. It traces their journey to the top and the kind of rivalry they share, likening it to the rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, and Christ Evert and Martina Navratilova shared back in the day.

'Polar opposites'

But the underlying factor was this – they could be the fiercest of rivals, but the competition simply brought out the best in them. As Evert says, “The key to a great rivalry is contrast. And you could not have more polar opposites.”

The documentary has seamlessly woven highlights from the match with snippets from the past and gives the viewer an insight into the minds of champions. The engrossing background score makes for a gripping watch.

The 90-odd minute long documentary is a perfect tribute to an almost two-decade-old rivalry between two of the sport’s greatest players. It emphasises the fact that rivals on the court can admire each other and be happy for each other and not necessary bear hate for one another. The documentary comes at an appropriate time, merely weeks after Nadal equalled Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slams titles - a feat that earned Rafael a place in history, but more importantly, earned him praise from his dear friend, Roger.

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