Can an event reach such a high level of mystique that it’s not just difficult, but impossible, for it to live up to the expectations? The Dark Knight Rises immediately comes to mind; no matter what Christopher Nolan had done with that movie, it was destined to be a disappointment. How could a performance like Heath Ledger’s Joker possibly be matched?
It’s tempting to bracket Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal in that same category. Ever since that 2008 Wimbledon final, we expect a spellbinding epic every time these two take the court. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing in a Grand Slam final, a Masters quarterfinal or an off-season exhibition tournament; when it’s a Fedal match, nothing less than a never-seen-before spectacle of jaw-dropping tennis will do.
Perhaps that’s why the clash between the legends in the Delhi leg of the IPTL was destined to be a let-down, no matter what the circumstances. Delhi is very far away from London, and for the fans expecting to witness a high-quality battle of live-or-let-die shotmaking, there could only be disappointment in store. How could something as special as that 2008 evening ever be replicated, that too in far-flung India?
As a Federer fan I didn’t travel to Delhi with too many hopes of a positive result; Nadal owns his Swiss rival on pretty much every court in the world, and Federer was bound to be rusty and flat after a flight that landed less than 20 hours before the match. But this was one of the few circumstances in the historic rivalry where the result didn’t matter much; where there was very little at stake.
This was, in other words, the perfect platform for Federer and Nadal to display their genius without a care in the world. It was the promise of a free-flowing extravaganza filled with cute sleights of hand and wickedly spinning groundstroke bombs. And that promise was enticing enough that it drove thousands to brave the biting Delhi cold and arrive at the Indira Gandhi stadium in full fan battle attire.
Did the actual match disappoint? Yes, of course it did. Federer’s forehand was nowhere to be seen all evening, and his serve only made sporadic appearances. Nadal, meanwhile, was having none of that ‘it’s-only-an-exhibition-match’ nonsense, as he pummeled the Swiss’ backhand to glory. While the singles set between the two men had to be decided in a shootout, there’s no doubting who the better player on the evening was.
It was business as usual for Nadal, who seems to have carried his late season form into the IPTL. His backhand in particular was very sharp, and while the forehand did leak a few 2015-style errors, it was solid when he needed it most.
Federer on the other hand looked a little punch-drunk – whether it was because of the sound of the crowds chanting his name throatily, or the jet-lag from a hectic flight, or a reminder of how uncomfortable it is to hit backhand after backhand against Nadal, the World No. 3 simply couldn’t get going at any point. He was arguably the worst player on show in the men’s doubles set too – he was the only one to get broken.
But will anyone really remember the quality of the tennis when they look back upon this duel? The Fedal rivalry is a bit of a paradox in itself; the expectations always reach a fever-pitch before any match they play, the theatre they produce almost never matches those expectations, but every new battle only adds to the legend of the rivalry.
Those sitting in the stands in Delhi yesterday went back home in the knowledge that they saw the two greatest players of all time going head-to-head right before their eyes. They will say that they watched Nadal hit a forehand spinning so viciously that it almost brought the Swiss great to his knees. They will remember that they witnessed a Federer volley so delicate that even the superhuman Spaniard couldn’t chase it down.
Federer vs Nadal is, there’s no better way to say this, tennis encapsulated in all its glory. Even if one or both men are playing at a subpar level, they still represent nearly the whole gamut of tennis skill and acumen. And everything that they do is magnified when you watch them in the flesh.
The effortlessness of the Federer forehand, the intensity of the Nadal sprint, the power of the Federer serve, the unswerving consistency of the Nadal backhand – we take all of this for granted while watching on TV. It’s only when you watch Federer and Nadal live and compare their game with the way that everyone else plays, that you realize how truly unique they both are.
The crowd duly showed their apprecation for all of it, of course. When Federer first walked on to the court for a warm-up, every little turn of the head he made drew gasps and screams of delirium from the audience. When Nadal joined in the practice session, the first thing he did was hug the Swiss ace, and that predictably brought the roof down.
The wild and occasionally unreasonable cheers continued well into the match too. The first time Federer served to Nadal in the doubles set, the screams threatened to drown out the sound of the ball hitting the racquet. And when Federer levelled the singles set at 5-5 with a series of crisp winners, the cops in the stands went apoplectic trying to get everyone to sit in their seats.
But the biggest treat of the day was unfortunately witnessed by only a handful of people. After the on-court action was done and dusted, Federer and Nadal walked into the press conference together, much to the surprise of many of the mediapersons. As we all tried to gather our thoughts, Federer and Nadal took it upon themselves to break the ice, throwing in a series of wisecracks and one-liners that had everyone in splits.
“How much pressure was on you to play a match which everyone had turned up to watch? We don’t get to see legends everyday,” went one reporter. To which Federer responded oh-so-modestly, “Go ahead, Rafa.”
Another reporter asked a question at exactly the same time a few fans outside the press room spotted the two legends, which expectedly caused her voice to be drowned out amid the shouts and cheers. Without missing a beat Federer quipped, “They hear you speaking, and they go crazy!”
But the most guffaw-worthy moment of the day belonged to Nadal. One of the reporters wanted to know from Federer when he and Nadal would play a match at the US Open, as though the Swiss had a crystal ball into which he could gaze on demand. Federer started to answer the question in all seriousness, saying, “The blame’s on me; I messed up one time. He was waiting in the final; I had match point, it was on my racquet, on serve, but –”
Nadal, showing off his trademark sense of impeccable timing, chose that exact moment to mutter audibly under his breath, “Actually, it was twice.”
The whole room erupted with laughter, but it was Federer who probably laughed the loudest. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Fedal so special. The two may have scripted some of the most fabulous chapters in tennis history, and they may be intense rivals on the court as well as in the GOAT sweepstakes. But the obvious warmth in their off-court relationship, the tremendous mutual respect they share, and the ease with which they can join hands to produce entertainment of the highest order, will probably never be seen in the sport again.
If the Delhi leg of the IPTL taught me anything, it is this: It’s okay to have unrealistic expectations of every Fedal encounter, because the one constant in the tennis world is that these two legends always deliver in one form or the other.