Why I won't be watching the Federer vs Nadal final at the 2017 Australian Open
The Federer-Nadal rivalry is about to be rekindled, but that isn't necessarily the best thing in the world for the health of their fans.
A fan's state of mind one day before a Fedal clash typically alternates between "I hate tennis", "Can't believe how lucky we are" and "I don't want to live anymore".
In no universe is that healthy or productive in any way. But it's a mark of the impact that sport can have on people, and of the greatness of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, that we're willing to give up just about anything to witness one more encounter between the two.
What's at stake in the first Slam final of 2017? Life itself, if you ask me. But if you were to ask the two protagonists themselves, they'd play down the significance of the result, choosing instead to focus on how special the occasion is.
After his semifinal win over Stan Wawrinka, Federer couldn’t help but purr in anticipation of the blockbuster final. “I’m happy that we’ve had some epic battles over the years and of course it would be unreal to play him here.”
Nadal wasn’t much different. “Both of us I think worked very hard to be where we are. It’s great that, again, we are in a moment like this and we going to have a chance again to enjoy a moment like this,” he said while looking ahead to the match.
If only the rest of the tennis world was as even-keeled as these two champions.
On the face of it, this is indeed a special occasion, and something to be savoured. God knows we've waited long enough for the 'dream final' – five years to be precise. And considering both of them are coming back after potentially career-ending layoffs – Federer's necessitated by injury and Nadal's by lack of confidence – the fact that they've reached the summit is worthy of celebration on its own.
But when has a Fedal match ever been less than a life-or-death matter? Ever since they first locked horns – back in 2004 – their rivalry has transcended the sport and come to represent something greater than forehands and backhands and winners and unforced errors.
For Federer, each loss to Nadal has eroded his legacy just that tiny bit, and added a fresh seed of doubt in his mind about his ability to conquer his biggest obstacle. For Nadal, each victory over Federer has added weight to his GOAT claims, and ensured that his identity will forever be entwined with his great rival's fortunes.
It might sound churlish to say that neither player would've been where he is today without the influence of his arch-rival, but it's hard to justify how that isn't irrevocably true. Perhaps more than any other pair of rivals in the history of sport, Federer and Nadal have created a joint legacy that has come to define the entire game of tennis.
Think that's overreaching? Just take a look around – social media has been overflowing with tributes about the two legends since last week, and there has been quite a lot of hyperventilating over their progress through the draw. Scores of people are claiming that the prospect of this latest Fedal battle has made them 'fall in love with tennis again'.
For us lifelong tennis fans it is nice to see the sport getting so much attention. But it's also a sobering reminder of just how privileged we are to be living in this era. All this brouhaha is lined with a touch of sadness; it has made us realize that once Federer and Nadal retire from the sport, the most magical part of tennis will be lost forever.
Yes, we'll still have Djokovic and Murray, and maybe later Zverev and Thiem. And for all we know, one of them will go on to be even more successful than Federer and Nadal, settling the GOAT debate once and for all.
But will there ever again be a player who not just saves break points at 3-4 in the fifth set despite being physically overmatched by a younger opponent, but makes a habit of doing that? Will there ever be another player who makes a hard-hitting top-tenner like Tomas Berdych look like a recreational hack?
Most importantly, will there ever be TWO such players competing at the same time, stunning the world with their brilliance within hours of each other stepping on the court, and then turning around and bringing that same ethereal intensity into their head-to-head matches?
It's often been one-sided, and has occasionally produced less-than-stellar tennis. But for sheer gravitas, for the cliched-but-true contrast of styles, and for the unique ability to bring the sporting world together, Federer vs Nadal stands on its own exalted pedestal.
I never like to say 'never', but I doubt there will ever be another Fedal in our lifetime. Note that I don't say there will never be another Federer, or that there'll never be another Nadal. Both of those things are perfectly possible; just look at how far along Baby Federer has come.
But to think that there'll be another rivalry as reality-defying and time-stopping as Federer vs Nadal? It might be likelier to find life on Mars.
I have vowed to refrain from watching the match tomorrow, because I'm not sadomasochistic enough to put myself through unbearable torture yet again. For once, I want the analyst in me to be dwarfed by the fan; I want to spare myself the pain of seeing my idol suffer yet another heartbreaking loss.
But as the world tunes in for Episode 35 of the epic rivalry, and the noise reaches a new crescendo with every passing point, I don't know if I'll be able to stick to my resolution. The rivalry was always special, but now that it has been rekindled after so many years, it’s bound to take over everyone and everything. And that’s going to be hard to escape from.
Over the last decade and a half, Fedal has been beautiful, thrilling, magical and spine-tingling, but it has also been painful, frustrating, depressing, and suicide-inducing. I'm not sure if it will be one of those things tomorrow, or all of them, but I do know that at the end of it, we'll all be asking for more.
Clearly, we haven't learned anything in the last 13 years. But then again, what's sport without a little glorious sadomasochism?