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Thanks for 20, Roger. Could We Have Some More?

Bhavya Dore (bhavya.dore@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

As a late convert to Federer fandom, my main concern is to keep Nadal at bay.


By Yann Caradec [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Tennis fans bandied about many numbers after Roger Federer won the Australian Open on 28 January. Twenty, for his total grand slam wins, six for the number of Australian Opens, 36 and something, for his age. I was only thinking of one number: four. Four slams ahead of Rafael Nadal in the all-time tally. Four little pieces of hardware more than his perennial rival and fellow contender for the title of Greatest Of All Time, or GOAT.

Federer fans can now try and maintain 120/80 blood pressure and a resting heart rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute until May-end. Then, when the French Open arrives, bringing us the very real possibility of Nadal winning his 17th slam we can return to a basal state of nervous energy. If he takes it, we will be at 20–17. Still ahead, but cocking skittish glances in the rear-view mirror.

Federer’s 20th came in five sets with the attendant mid-match drama of a possible capitulation. The first serve was sketchy at times, Marin Čilić was white-hot at others. After an effortless run to the finals, Federer seemed intermittently vulnerable, never completely inhabiting the part of the returning monarch. But there were also those ultra-Federer moments sprinkled throughout. The floating footwork, the intuitive angles, and then that outrageous forehand pick-up from sea-level serving notice that he can still invent shots at will. So far, so GOAT. 

But is it GOAT enough? Can Nadal close the gap? Call me crazy, but 20 feels like a temporary bulwark, not a final flourish. I can already picture Svengali Uncle Toni plotting his nephew’s next moves. I shudder to live out my days in a world where Nadal has scaled Mt 20 or Mt whatever-Federer-ends-on.

If all of this sounds particularly ungrateful in the face of achievement, it’s only because Federer does not just inspire rhapsodies and religious experiences, but also large amounts of greed. Yes, he is old, and yes, few have won more at this age, but the R-word makes my ears bleed. Sorry your highness, we have been spoilt, and we will be needing a few more slams.

Zealous Convert

Truth be told, I am only a latter-day convert to the Church of Roger. For the longest time, I rooted for whichever hapless sacrificial victim had to be martyred that day. I chafed at his invincibility, his stupid early-phase ponytail, his improbable dissection of the court. Then the anti-Federer arrived, wearing capris, sleeveless shirts and the hungry eyes of a young upstart.

Nadal threw into sharp contrast all of Federer’s weapons with his southern paw, his swirling topspin forehand and his ability to lather himself across the court, up and down, side to side, collecting balls and sending them back like a particularly eager Labrador. He won and he won and he won, and in so doing shrunk Federer from apex predator to gormless prey. The sorting hat had spoken. I picked a side.

I do not know how most Federer fans operate, but I feel like I have spent a lifetime bumping up against Nadal fans in close quarters and as a result been reduced to a constant state of painful and pleasurable tension. The thrill of a Federer victory is only enriched by the chemical stimulation of trash-talking a Nadal fan. Sure, Nadal seems like a real mensch and I even kind of like him, but fanship is a zero-sum game.

Last year was especially boisterous and banterous, since “Fedal” split the winnings with two slams apiece. Despite injury mishaps and lay-offs, the two gents swiftly came to reclaim their place in the grand slam pantheon after a brief downgrade to lesser-deity status. In the golden age 2.0 we saw them return to the top spots in the rankings, with some old weapons, some new ones, and some very ripe and rude fan exchanges. I spent as much time basking in the reflective afterglow of the Norman Brooks Challenge cup as in the thankless retreating position when Nadal fans gloated in June and September.

Last year started with 17 to 14 slams each, and no one thought those numbers would change soon. But suddenly we went from 17–14 to 18–14 to 18–15 to 19–15 to 19–16. This resulted in a rollercoaster of crowing through the year, with the volume on either side being turned up after every slam.

On Sunday, riding high on endorphins I messaged my Nadal-loving friend who was in deep mourning (said friend had already despondently announced when Nadal crashed out in the quarters: “congrats on 20” and that he was drafting his “resignation letter—from life”). “My advice to you,” I wrote, souped up on cockiness, “is stop trying to catch Rodge now. Focus on keeping off Djoko at the other end.” Them were fighting words. A few grim hours later, he replied: “Bru, chill it. Please consider the years still on our side. Sometime in a distant future, I’ll be having the
last laugh.”

This was a sobering thought, and promptly propelled me into the final stage of emotion in a Federer victory, after disbelief, relief, delight and invincibility: anxiety. Nadal fans might have been momentarily down, but were very much still in the game.

Of course, the most incredible thing is that as much as the fans hate each other or love to hate each other, the men themselves seem to be in the midst of a love-in. Last fortnight, Federer publicly commiserated with an injured Nadal and told us about his late-night get-well-soon text. The Laver Cup was an especially egregious example of the backslapping and fist-bumping bro-show when the two teamed up in “the doubles pairing we’ve been awaiting for a tennis lifetime.” Barring their initial clumsiness in the doubles format, they rustled up some terrific chemistry, posted selfies and revelled in the ceasefire. Perhaps PDA (public display of affection) was the ultimate antidote to a lifelong rivalry.

Sure, their resurgence has come amidst the debris of a depleted, injured field. And soon enough, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka or other assorted civilians are bound to show up to the party and start winning. My position being: as long as someone is shutting out Nadal. History is shaping up quite nicely without his continuing attempts to wrestle it to the ground. Now then, onwards to 21.

 

Updated On : 12th Feb, 2018

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