Wimbledon 2018: Anderson and Del Potro remind us once again just how difficult it is to beat Federer and Nadal
The destinies and legacies of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will forever be intertwined, and with good reason. For one thing, they've played each other a LOT of times, and on famously epic scales - heaven knows we've been given enough reminders by Wimbledon's social media handles that last week was the 10th anniversary of their 2008 battle. But there's more to it than that.
Federer and Nadal have jointly, in their own starkly contrasting ways, contributed to the evolution and popularity of tennis. They have achieved more success than anyone in the history of tennis, and have invented new ways to win points, games, sets and matches. They have pushed the boundaries of human skill and endurance, transcending the realms of what we thought was possible in sport.
In that context, it's not hard to see why it is always such a daunting prospect for any player to compete against them. You don't just go up against a player; you go up against history, and all the nerves and baggage that come with attempting that sort of thing.
So we should probably consider ourselves fortunate that the 2018 Wimbledon quarterfinals brought all of the pomp and splendor of Fedal to the fore. For one blindingly brilliant afternoon, it all came together - everything that makes the two so great, and everything that makes their opponents' gladiatorial attempts at dethroning them so awe-inspiring.
At the end of it all, only one of the legends was still standing. And that's probably just as well, or else how would history know that Fedal did encounter opposition of the fiercest kind? It was resistance so mental, so out-of-the-world, that sports fans all over the globe briefly took their noses out of the "It's coming home" chants to talk and tweet about Wimbledon.
Kevin Anderson was match point down against Federer at 4-5, 30-40 in the third set, and at that stage it looked like another routine win for the grasscourt maestro. But when Anderson won that point with a searing inside-out forehand that Federer couldn't get back in play, he let out a huge roar and pumped his fist dramatically.
We were watching the match in office, and my colleagues and I sneered at the passion being displayed by the South African. "He is down two sets to love and only just avoided a straight sets thrashing; what is he so gung-ho about?", we laughed.
If only we had known. Anderson proceeded to use that match point save as a moment of inspiration, and started playing better tennis than I've ever seen him play, or thought he was capable of. The big serves came raining down, the thunderous forehand found all the corners, and even the backhand was solid as a rock. Federer didn't know what had hit him - and all of us watching didn't either.
Fast forward a couple of hours, to the moment when Nadal was up three set points against Juan Martin del Potro in the second set tiebreaker. By all accounts, these three points were virtual match points - it was hard to imagine the Argentine coming back from a two sets to love deficit, despite what we had just seen from Anderson on the adjacent court.
Del Potro found a couple of big serves to get back to 6-5, but Nadal still had the set on his racquet; all he needed was one solid serve. And then, horror of horrors, the Spaniard made a double fault. With the finish line in sight, the 17-time Slam champion had choked - and that was all the invitation Del Potro and his fearsome forehand needed to steal the set, and subsequently go up two sets to one.
Is it possible for GOAT players to choke? Yes of course it is; we've seen both Federer and Nadal, and also Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar and Lin Dan choke numerous times. But what sets these players apart is how they react to their mental stumbles.
To be fair, Federer didn't exactly choke yesterday. There was not much he could have done with the backhand pass on match point other than get it over the net and hope that Anderson missed the volley. But he would've known that a straight sets win was there for the taking, and starting all over again in the fourth and fifth sets had to be tough.
So what did he do in response? What he does best, of course: serve his way out of trouble. It's up for debate whether Federer's greatest weapon is his serve or his forehand, but with one of them misbehaving on the day, the Swiss turned his entire attention to the other.
Game after game went by in the fifth set with Federer looking like the inferior player but still hanging on for dear life. He found the lines with his first serve, turned up the pace on his second, and looked to finish points as quickly as possible.
Any extended rally seemed destined to go the way of the steadier Anderson, so Federer took every return as early as he could in his attempt to find a winner. A 0-30 hole was wiped out with a backhand down the line winner; a 15-30 pickle was erased with a booming serve out wide.
Taking risks is second nature to Federer, and on a day when Anderson was 'in the zone', taking risks was paradoxically Federer's safest path to escape.
Nadal on his part had a fair bit of escaping to do in the face of Del Potro's renewed intensity mid-way through the match. The Spaniard has lost more than his fair share of five-setters in the recent past, and at the start of the fourth set yesterday he looked in danger of being blown off the court by the Argentine.
But just like Federer, Nadal too chose the moment of adversity to start doing what he does best: not miss. He knew he couldn't match Del Potro's power, so he buckled down and starting hitting his forehand with depth but plenty of margin, in the process maneuvering his opponent all around the court.
Del Potro continued unloading on the occasional forehand blast, but he was now having to hit a lot more backhands than he would've liked. He was also, thanks to Nadal's liberal use of the drop shot, having to run to the net a lot more times than he had the energy for.
The Spaniard has always had an underrated volley, but yesterday we saw that he has an underrated drop shot too. It was the tennis version of 'killing me softly' that ultimately doused the Del Potro challenge.
A challenge that would not be doused though was Anderson's. I said above that Federer didn't exactly choke, and I'll add to that by saying Federer didn't exactly play badly overall either. Sure he played a couple of bad service games in the third and fourth sets, and yeah his forehand seemed to be on vacation. But he was quite good in the other aspects; he just ran into an opponent who, like Nadal, was not missing.
It's one thing to be Nadal and not miss though; it's quite another to be a 6'8" giant and not miss. There was just no returning those flat baseline missiles that Anderson uncorked, especially since he kept uncorking them point after point without a hint of nerves.
Could Federer have done anything differently? He could have tried attacking more in the forecourt; he came to the net 39 times in the match, which is relatively low for him in a grasscourt five-setter. He could have also, like Nadal, tried the drop shot a few more times; Anderson is not known for his footwork in the forecourt, and making him hit a few more volleys might have put a seed of doubt in his mind.
But that was another aspect of the Fedal story that had to make an appearance on this complete, everything-coming-together kind of day: Federer is nothing if not stubborn about playing the game his way.
Sure, that quality has helped him to quite a few titles, but it has also occasionally led to his doom. He tried rallying with Anderson, presumably in the hope that Anderson's tendency to break down would eventually take center-stage. But when that didn't work he refused to alter his game plan.
Federer's stubbornness is one of the things that make his match-ups against that other hero of the day, Del Potro, simultaneously thrilling and exasperating. Even against Del Potro you often see the Swiss trying to extend the forehand-to-forehand exchanges, in the hope that Del Potro will miss. But the Argentine rarely does, and yesterday, surprisingly, Anderson didn't either.
It was, without a doubt, a performance for the ages. We knew that beating Federer at Wimbledon, that too after being two sets to love down, would take something special. But Anderson had to be nearly flawless for the better part of three sets to get the job done, and even then the scoreline was a fairly ridiculous 2-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, 13-11.
As countless other tennis players will attest, flawless tennis happens only about once or twice in a decade. The last such performance I can remember was Marin Cilic's thunderous take-down of Federer in the 2014 US Open semifinal.
"It's disappointing, no doubt about it," Federer said after the match. "But he was solid. He got what he needed when he had to. Credit to him for hanging around really that long."
Hanging around that long. Anderson did more than just hang around, but you can see what Federer meant - he didn't expect Anderson to be that accurate with his electric serves and groundstrokes for as long as he did. None of us watching expected him to either.
What we did expect, at least later in the day, was for Nadal to fight till his dying breath once the fifth set started. Del Potro looked gassed but that's how he always looks; everyone knew he was still just a rocket forehand away from taking control of the match. So Nadal, as is his wont, went into warrior mode and unleashed the beast within.
The Nadal version of the beast, of course, is the one that scrambles all over the court with the speed of a gazelle, refusing to grant even an inch to the opponent.
Facing an umpteenth break point at 4-3 in the fifth, Nadal somehow got to an inside-out forehand blast from Del Potro and sent it back just over the net. The shot didn't have much on it, and the Argentine had a seemingly easy forehand to get back on serve. But Del Potro shanked it into the stands, and Nadal let out an earth-shaking 'Vamos!'.
To a casual observer that may have seemed like an inappropriate reaction to a bad miss by his opponent. But in the context of where the match was placed, that get by Nadal was a game-changer.
Del Potro gave it his all, but it still wasn't enough. Perhaps symbolically, the match ended with him flat on the ground, after yet another tumble on the turf allowed Nadal to put away a volley into the open court.
The Argentine remained there for nearly a minute, and you wondered whether the match had taken so much out of him that he had lost the will to live.
"I wanted to stay there all night long," he said after the match.
Nadal being Nadal, he crossed over to the other side of the net, at which point Del Potro finally got to his feet. The two then buried each other in an almighty bear-hug, giving social media its picture of the day.
One of the many things that made this match such a classic was that Del Potro matched Nadal's fight till the very end. What he couldn't do, was match Nadal's court intelligence. The Spaniard kept trying to find new ways to stay in the match, and kept posing questions of Del Potro's seemingly unflinching power. Ultimately, the Argentine ran out of answers.
Chalk that up as yet another dimension of the Fedal phenomenon: the sheer intellect with which both of them play tennis. It's not all bazooka serves and forehands with these two; it's also nuance and subtlety and all that intangible stuff that separates the greats from the geniuses.
Of course, this is nothing new when it comes to Federer; he is famous all over the world for his cerebral game. But on this day, he couldn't figure out the right strategy to beat an opponent playing lights out tennis. And Nadal, the good friend that he is, kept the Fedal flag flying high by finding a way - perhaps the only way - to defuse his opponent's jaw-dropping power.
There are days when sport is about the player who's not the legend; the one who overcomes all the odds to somehow slay the Goliath. But yesterday at the Championships was as much about the legends as it was about the underdogs, irrespective of the results. It was about Anderson and Del Potro and the near-perfect tennis they played, but it was also about Fedal and the sheer gravitas they unfailingly bring to the court.
Federer's skill, artistry and risk-taking abandon, and Nadal's speed, grit and never-say-die attitude - all of those things were in full magnificent view on this second Wednesday of Wimbledon 2018. And with so little time left in their careers, it's unlikely we'll ever see all of it on a single day again.
That is probably why no praise can be high enough for what Anderson and Del Potro achieved yesterday. They gave us a rare afternoon when two GOATs used every last drop of their resources to try and stave off a couple of flame-throwers playing the best tennis of their lives.
In other words, they gave us an afternoon to preserve in memory till the end of time.