Age is Just a Number: The Renaissance of Roger Federer
Photo courtesy of The Bleacher Report
In the wee hours of the morning of Sunday January 29th, Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena was ablaze with noisy and appreciative spectators, as well as two legends dueling on a blue tennis court. The entire tennis world, and dare I say sporting world, was awe-struck with the Australian Open Final matchup of the two patriarchs of tennis, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Since both men have battled through injuries and inevitable aging in the last year, both were candid about their surprise at even reaching the Final. In yet another example of Federer’s timeless class, after winning the Final, he sheepishly said that he would have been happy to have lost to, or tied with, Nadal on that blue court in Melbourne. Always consummate professionals, before and after the final, Roger and Rafael heaped praise on each other, illustrating that these two legends not only have one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports, but also are friends and models of sportsmanship.
In a topsy-turvy match filled with momentum changes, both men could string together dominating games and sets. Much to the delight of the boisterous spectators in the stadium and around the world though, each time Nadal won a set, Federer would come back and win the next, and vice versa. Ultimately, Nadal clawed his way back and won the fourth set 6-3, forcing a deciding fifth set. Both players took injury timeouts, providing evidence that though they were still capable of skillful tennis, age was still taking its toll on their bodies. At the beginning of the fifth set, the pair proved that they could still play tennis like twenty-five year olds despite both being in their thirties. In the fifth, Nadal came out firing, winning the first three games with zeal. At this point, many were willing to crown Nadal the champion once again, continuing his dominance over Federer. Just as that idea crept into the minds of the spectators, Federer came alive and fought back, on the back of powerful and well-placed backhands, and perfectly timed serves. In what many would argue was the best point of the fifth set, if not the entire match, at 4-3 deuce, Federer leading, the pair fired groundstroke after groundstroke at each other in a 26-shot rally that oohed and awed the lucky fans. It ended with Federer reaching out and swatting at the ball with his famed Wilson signature racquet and hitting a forehand winner. The crowd was giddy over this unbelievable rally, so late in a five-set match. The commentator on TV, almost unable to comprehend or coherently respond to such a rally, simply yelled, “ridiculous!” as Federer turned towards his Player’s Box and raised a defiant fist into the air.
From then on, there was no stopping the Swiss Maestro as he took the next two games to win his eighteenth Grand Slam. The rest of the match was not without nerves or drama – on Federer’s second match point, he hit a looping forehand to the back corner of the court extending beyond Nadal’s reach. Just as the crowd began to explode, Nadal raised an ambivalent hand in the air to challenge the In-call. The Australian Open Men’s Final would be decided by Hawk-eye replay technology. Federer anxiously bounced a ball on the court a couple of times while Nadal put his hands on his hips with a subtle expression of defeat on his face. As the replay showed the ball to be in on the jumbo screens around the stadium, everyone in the stadium erupted and the TV commentators threw out superlatives describing the age-defying victory of Roger Federer. Federer raised his arms to the sky, screamed, leapt in the air and began to choke up. Meeting at the net, both players shook hands and hugged – respectful, dignified, role models until the end. Federer then returned to the center of the court, took a knee, tapped the ground with his racquet as he bowed his head in sheer gratitude for this moment, then rose once more and acknowledged the crowd that had supported him endlessly.
At this point in time, it is hard to ascertain what the significance of this match and these circumstances will end up being. Since Nadal and Federer are certainly not getting any younger, impending retirement from the game remains possible around every corner. What is definitive, though, is that this match will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, and this rivalry will continue to serve as the barometer to which all other rivalries are tested against. For now, Federer has extended his Grand Slam lead over Nadal to 18-14 and he has established himself as the greatest male tennis player of all time. He showed in this tournament that he is still capable of magic and teased the tennis world into believing that age really is just a number. Hopefully Roger’s renaissance will continue.