It was the 2005 French Open. My favorite tennis player, Roger Federer, looked in sight of his first Roland Garros title. It was to be the title that defined his legacy - all-round greatness and an unparalleled domination across all surfaces.
I had seen Federer live for the first time at the 2004 US Open. I had gone to Flushing Meadows, and watching Federer was the only purpose of the trip.
I watched the final live when he thoroughly dominated Lleyton Hewitt 6-0, 7-6, 6-0. While the commentators were moaning about the dullness of the affair, I had absolutely no complaints about the one-sided match; in fact, I enjoyed the 6-0 sets.
The ease and beauty with which Federer won was overwhelming. He was everything. He was God.
And then something happened in that 2005 French Open. He lost in the semifinals. Roger Federer lost. God himself lost.
It was a match I followed with only a passing interest, since I was quite confident he would win the French Open. The victor was a certain Rafael Nadal Parera (whom I had first seen live at the 2004 US Open itself, playing doubles. I was wandering around the side courts when ‘Rafa’ was about to start a doubles match. An informed spectator told me that he was going to be the next big thing in Spanish tennis. I saw a few games, clapped politely but nothing special caught my eye.)
When Nadal defeated Federer that French Open, it was more of disappointment for me than anything else. I was sad that the greatest one had missed this simple chance. Little did I know of what was to come.
The year rolled over. It was now 2006. Everyone had grown a year older, some a year wiser. But one thing remained constant - the dominance of Federer.
He was winning everything, and that too with ease and grace. As a Federer fan, it was a spectacularly happy period of life.
Don’t you just love it when ‘your’ team or ‘your’ player wins everything? The fan is probably happier than the players themselves. It’s a beautiful state to be in.
Then came the French Open.The holy grail for Federer. As expected, he reached the final without too much trouble. The person across the net? Unsurprisingly, it was again Nadal.
The match began and Federer, surprisingly, raced away with the first set 6-1. It was beautiful. But at the back of my mind, I knew not to get carried away, not to underestimate this Spanish guy.
Slowly, he started fighting back. Bit by bit, block by block, forehand by forehand, he started chipping away at Federer’s confidence. He started winning more points, more games, and eventually a couple of sets.
The worst thing was that you knew that he knew that he could beat Federer. That typical Federer aura wouldn’t come into play here. To Federer’s credit, he fought back in the 4th set to take it to a tie-break, but Nadal still prevailed 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6.
Why do I remember this match so clearly? What was special about a routine (as we know now after years of Nadal's dominance on clay) win for the Spaniard on clay?
It was because this was the day I became a Nadal fan. Something about his tenacity, his fight, his never-say-die spirit, his absolute disregard for aura was infectious.
He seemed a regular guy like each of us, his tennis wasn’t really attractive to watch, he didn’t have any special grace in his shots, for that matter he didn’t seem to have any God gifted talent at all. It all seemed just like blood, sweat and tears.
But he won. He knew how to put it all together. He knew how to get redemption in the end. He knew how to make it all worth it.
And he knew how to beat God. That, I now realize, was the clinching factor.