When the Gods Battled

Surely they’re not human.

I mean, like seriously.

The phrase “roller-coaster of emotions” has been bandied about a lot lately and I always thought it was a bit much. But this Sunday changed all that. By the end, every ounce of emotion in my body was spent. It was literally like I had just stepped off a ride, I was even feeling weak in the knees and walking funny. The darkness of the screening room probably saved some of my blushes because I’m sure a tear or two sneaked through.

Sambit Bal absolutely nailed it:

It was the night to be swept away, to let your emotions go, to cheer and clap and swear, to feel dread and hope, to rejoice and to shed tears.

It was the night to feel the full force of a titanic sporting experience.

It was, above everything else, the night to be a Roger Federer fan. It was a blessing to be there.

Thank God I’m a Federer fan πŸ˜€

The match began at 2pm IST and you could tell as we settled down in our seats itself that we were in for a wild ride. The story going in itself could give you chills.

A rivalry that goes back further than a decade between one legend widely acclaimed as the greatest of all time and the other, his greatest challenger. Roger Federer could do it all in tennis, except, it seemed, beat Rafael Nadal. Grand Slams came and went but somehow whenever he played the Spaniard, it never worked out. I don’t remember who it was that said it but this quote summed it up perfectly:

Federer is the best player ever. Nadal is a close second and, by far, the best player of Federer.

(Fine (β—”_β—”) I’m biased I know. Deal with it πŸ˜› )

Like a key and a lock, their styles mashed perfectly. The southpaw’s superhuman athleticism complementing the aggressive ground strokes of the Swiss maestro.

At the beginning, it was a story of a wily upstart trying to upstage the seasoned pro with Federer dominating the early exchanges. The love affair between Nadal and clay was the only thing standing between Federer and complete dominance. And you can almost pinpoint the exact moment when the story took it’s next sharp turn, the 2008 Wimbledon final. After losing in the past two finals, Nadal finally won an Open aside from Roland Garros beating Federer in 5 sets in a 4 and a half hour epic. And then there was no looking back. From then on it always seemed to be a narrative of the veteran trying to keep up to the prince that stole his throne


The “balance of power” has shifted so often it’s like they are on a see-saw until the end of time. There have been no two other tennis players to divide and polarise opinion as much as these two. Since middle school there has always been a massive divide between the Nadal camp and Federer camp. It’s like they are two Gods, each with their own sect of followers. Growing up on the Fed side of things I remember the feeling of dread every time the French Open came around, all the while knowing I just had to bide my time for a few weeks for Wimbledon where I could throw all the barbs and jests back. Β 

Everyone knows how Nadal dominates the head-to-head between the two, Β and it stung every single time, especially during Grand Slams. Endless taunts of how Federer was “done” and how “it’s Nadal’s time now.” And we were always more than ready to throw back how Federer would actually outlast him because of how injury prone he was and the like. There were times when I was terrified that Nadal would break the all time Grand Slam count record and I remember welcoming the Djokovic dominance at the time because you know – “anyone but Nadal” πŸ˜›

But looking back now, especially the last year or two. I miss it. The intense rivalry. Yeah there were new players rising to the fore and NoJo did have some memorable battles against both Federer and Nadal. But it was not the same.

Six months back it looked like we had seen the last of the pair. Nadal was left licking the wounds of his latest scare and Federer was on the shelf for an indefinite period with surgery. Talk of how we might never see either of them dominated the internet. I was terrified because he was a God right? He was never injured. 65 consecutive grand slam appearances dating back to the year 2000. A six month layoff and that too a knee injury. Countless sports stars had had their careers cut short in this fashion. It couldn’t end this way could it?? 😦

Which is what made the past two weeks all the more special. A successful comeback story, for both men that too. Djokovic and Murray bowing out. It seemed like the stars had aligned themselves to give us one more installment. Wawrinka, Nishikori, Dimitrov, Berdych, Raonic. All great opponents but all fell. It seemed like fate that they were on different sides of the draw.

It has been five whole years since Federer last won a Slam and, of course, it had to be Nadal standing in his way. Honestly I was terrified. What with the finals and head-to-head hoodoo.

And what a match it was. Like a sine wave, each had the upper hand only to be pegged back. They traded breaks of serve and sets and before you knew it, we had a classic five setter on our hands.

When watching it’s almost like you can’t even stop to breathe. Every point, every game is a battle in itself.

I had a thought about the sport of tennis while watching. It’s almost fractal how tennis works. On a macro scale you have the rivalry between the two that has been back and forth for so long now, on a smaller scale you think of individual times they traded Wimbledon-French Open wins, even smaller how they were trading sets on a single break of serve, all the way down to every single point. Back and forth, back and forth, there almost can never be an ultimate winner. As soon as the point ends you start over, one game is done, move on to the next. One set, one match, one slam. Each has an impact on the next but it’s all one big fractal tapestry. The same patterns resonate across so many levels.

Image result for fractal sine wave

(Ok my friends can certify how I’m pretty crazy at times and I was pretty drained so this might be utter bullshit but do tell me what you think about this in the comments πŸ˜€ )

A first set break was enough to give Federer first blood but I remember thinking that Nadal was holding back at that point. It would make sense as well, Nadal never fades so the longer the match went, the more you favoured him to win. And sure enough, a slew of unforced errors cost Federer the second set.

This brings me to another point about the two. Often when I watch them play I think that more than the opponent winning a game it’s more a case that these guys lose it. They are Gods. The only way you beat a God is if they let you.

But the Swiss superstar came roaring back to take the third before again getting careless in the fourth set. One particular point stood out. Federer maneuvered Nadal into a corner and unleashed his trademark cross court backhand. I stood up to applaud what I thought was the winner only to see Nadal scamper across and somehow return that with a forehand winner!! WHAT EVEN!! That couldn’t have been possible. It was Federer’s backhand. Nobody is allowed to return that. That too with a winner :O

Then I was genuinely scared. It felt so familiar. The disappointment creeping in as the clock ticked on. An early break for Nadal piled on the misery and the other camp was ready to celebrate at that point itself. In fact a guy even walked in (ostensibly to watch just the last set (-_-) ) and immediately pronounced the match done and dusted. That made my blood boil. COME ON FED!! It’s time to roar once more!!!

And then the comeback was on, from 1-3 down to 5-3 up I could scarcely believe my eyes. This was new, it was totally against the script. It was the fifth set, it was Nadal, it was a Grand Slam Final, hell he even went down a break!! It was so surreal. The Nadal fans in shock, you could have cut the tension with a knife. But it’s not over till it’s over. Especially not in tennis. Remembering Rome from all those years ago, when Federer had dropped two championship points to hand the title to Nadal in the fifth set, brought even more butterflies to my stomach.

Image result for federer winning moment emotion

And then the moment when it finally happened!!! Pure, unadulterated ecstasy. Scream yourself hoarse and let the town know – Federer was champion again. You could see how much it meant on both men’s faces, this one was special. They were both written off but came back and fought all the way to the end.

Over the years I’ve grown a grudging respect for Nadal and can only imagine how shattered his fans would have been. I had all but prepared myself to face the same just half an hour prior. It’s funny, now the relations between the two camps seem much more amicable. Maybe it’s the changing times, maybe we grew up somewhere along the way I don’t know.

The only thing that’s for sure is that the world was privileged to see the two greatest gladiators, Gods among men, do battle one more time.

P.S. Notice how I NEVER mentioned “for the last time” πŸ˜› It’s not over. Not by a long shot. Bring on Roland Garros.




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