‘Come September’ every year and curtains come down on the annual season of four Majors – each in games of golf and tennis; simultaneously, the season signals curtain raising and serious starting of English football Premier League, BY Sushil Kumar.
Finally, at the Flushing Meadows’ fourth and final Major (US Open 2017) finished with Rafael Nadal expectedly winning the final by beating Kevin Anderson 6/3,6/3 and 6/4 ; by doing that he split honours evenly with his friend cum foe Federer – both winning two Major titles each and with each winning his signature tournament where they hold vice like grip on glorious trophies- Federer on Wimbledon and Nadal on French Open ,with former winning eight times and latter ten times and very little likelihood of these records being rubbed off the record books. Both dominated and roared like young lions this year: Federer not losing a set in Wimbledon and Nadal just dropping a set in last four matches in US Open as if he was playing on his favourite surface of clay. It seemed that both godshad converted their earlier demonstrated feet of clay into solid steel.
Anderson had only reached one quarter final in 34 Majors in 10-year career and against Nadal he had won just one set in four meetings and he couldn’t increase that tally of sets won. Nadal had been in 108 finals of which 22 were Majors and had won 73 titles (93 by Federer) in contrast to Anderson winning only 3. Nadal had won ten French Opens, two Wimbledons and three on hard courts of US (2)/Australia (1). With this win, Nadal increased his tally to 16 Majors and with five years’ age advantage over Federer, there is no doubt that FedEx record is under constant threat and would be a major motivational factor for Nadal. When Nadal started out, most people including himself, considered him to be a clay court player like Thomas Muster or Guga/Gustavo Kuerten who dominated French Open; but Federer’s achievements inspired him to try win beyond clay courts to become eligible to be considered amongst tennis greats.
What made this years’ victories of Federer and Nadal so memorable relates to reassertion of dominance of these two in Majors and re-ignition of their renowned rivalry that produced some of the most memorable matches riveting and enthralling audiences across continents and countries.
Tennis world still relives memories and recounts timeless tales of rivalries between Borg and McEnroe and Sampras and Agassi. After all crowds celebrate ceaseless competitive spirit of contenders specially when they exhibit contrasting styles like baseline basis of Borg’s bigtime victories topped with icy reaction on one hand and serve and volley variety including verbal ones of John McEnroe. And they like high octane never say die spirited slugfest and not one sided domination and decimation in a duel that reduces a game to mere formality as was happening when Federer or Pete Sampras were unquestioned kings till Nadal and Agassi arrived on the stage.
Recall memorable matches that haven’t melted away from public memory- two successive epic finals that Borg and McEnroe played in Wimbledon and US Opens in 80/81 and a virtual replay in 2008 Wimbledon in which Nadal outlasted Federer in fading light and sunshine putting an invincible halo for history. Or that duel in Australian Open 2012 final between Nadal and Djokovic that remains the longest Major final match in history lasting five hours fifty-three minutes and that iconic image of Djokovic letting out a guttural groan and tearing off his shirt in celebration.
In first decade of this century , Federer’s pummeling of all players into submission so one sided that he was labelled as FedEx Federer ; and just when world concluded that this Federer Express would just run on and on and create a world milestone for maximum majors victory , came along Nadal to put brakes in Paris ; and when Nadal himself rolled on , it was thought likewise till Murray and Djokovic stepped up their standards to put brakes on his bull run and levelled up the playing field for the Fab Four to contest evenly and make last decade as one of the best eras of men’s tennis.
In the intervening years both Nadal and Federer went through their own share of physicalinjuries though Nadal suffered personal injuries as well (family separation). But, true to their calling they never gave up and came back stronger- Nadal in keeping with his combative personality took these as challenge; in contrast, the blooming of family tree through two sets of twins inspired Federer to add more titles to family jewels.
Nadal’s game is characterized by sheer physical prowess that puts his phenomenal muscular power behind balls and intensity of hitting is ceaseless irrespective of how many times ball bounces back into his court. Add the capacity to hit massive spin (side or top on top of power) that doesn’t deter the ball to reach the baseline on spots picked by Nadal specially when angles are altered at last minute by sheer deception leaving one incapable of covering one’s flanks. Ask Del Potrowhen he faced the combination of these elements when Nadal dropped just five games in next three sets after losing the first set in the semifinal and it seemed like Potro had incensed Nadal into unleashing what Potro was unprepared for.
If the brutal shots weren’t enough, Nadal’s unblinking gaze emitted from deep set eyes, face with frown, furrowed forehead, knitted eyebrows, fist pumps and jumping with pumping air can easily take out winds from anyone’s strong sails. He begins to behave both like a matador (bull fighter) as well as araging bull that charges on any ball that challenges his retrieval or return skills. And add gutturalgrunts for effect in prolonged baseline slugfest and you have quite a conquistador across the net that can unnerve anyone. And contrast that with contrasting childlike grin and graceful conduct when the match is over. His constant shrugging of shoulders in post-match interview is misplaced as these should be on the shoulders of the losers to shrug off their shock and helplessness.
What one witnesses in him is his indomitable will to win which is a perfect living testimony of the famous maxim- ‘the world is Will’; one hardly sees any wavering of any kind in his will to win; he doesn’t wilt; in fact, he is built like a bull to bull fight to the hilt to make others wither and wilt like a matador.
Nadal’s pure physical game puts pressure on his knees and wrists: knees due to sudden short spurts with twists and turns in 360 degrees/directions. This brutal style of play can brutalise anybody and any body specially on the hard courts of US. Combine that with pressure on wrists due to heavy top spin imparted by his particular jerky motion, and you have knees that have been knocked out and wrists requiring breaks.
His ritual before the serve, of shoving the absent strands of hair on each side of temples is a left over habit when he had long hair; his pulling the shorts with a tug to loosen the tight corners underneath is a trigger that releases the torque and unleashes pure musculature to power the serve that will reach extreme corners cornering the opponents into unforced errors.
At the peak of challenge posed by Nadal, Federer’s famous cool façade folded up at times when he crushed his racquets in disgust. But Nadal’s conduct on court has been impeccable.One will have to search to find whether he ever misbehaved with an opponent on court or uttered any expletive or broke his racket when things didn’t go his way. One reads in Nadal’s autobiography how his uncle and coach Toni Nadal had instilled in him the values of exemplary conduct on court. Even while crossing over the net, Nadal gives right of way to his opponent irrespective of the ranking of the opponent. One fine example is when even after losing the final in the 2014 Australian open to Wawrinka due to injury, heattributed his loss to opponent’s play as to do otherwise would have meant showing lack of respect to the opponent. Bravo Nadal Bravo as not many would have done that and if I were to teach tennis to my kids I shall always cite Nadal as an icon worth emulating.
Like Nadal does to most opponents not offering worthwhile opposition, he overwhelmed his childhood companion on tour Anderson who stood tall for the South African tennis this Sunday in Big Apple. He was done in by brutal physical game that only a conquistador like Nadal can play to conquer. Anderson had only one weapon- the serve to unsettle the opponent but in tennis you have to all round game and that too with guts and gumption. Like in golf one long drive champion like Jamie Sadlowski(hits over four hundred yards drive) can’t become a Major winner. One needs much more variety in arsenal to conquer. If serving were the only weapons players like Roscoe Tanner (served at 153 mph) would have won more majors than Australian Open in 1977; or Kevin Curren, Anderson’s country mate, would have won the majors as a single player but he didn’t and lost to an unseeded teenager boom boom Boris Becker in 1985 Wimbledon finals despite beating Edberg, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors en route to the finals.
The semifinal victory over Del Potro clearly showed champions’ infinite capacity to adjust and recalibrate the strategy mid game (Nadal openly admitted change of plan in post-match court side interview). What separates the champions is their capacity to bounce back from no hope situation with new ideas in head and quick execution in court. Its negative example is Madison Keys incapacity to recalibrate the strategy in ladies singles final and lose the match miserably to Sloane Stephens this year. Keys failure to unlock the Centre Court’s keys to success led to bursting in tears like of Jana Novotna in 1993 Wimbledon and Sabine Lisicki in 2013 Wimbledon and of Cilic this year’s Wimbledon.
As stated this year would be remembered for re-establishment of rivalry of Federer and Nadal and secondly for their winning after few years specially when both won with utter domination – Federer made Cilic cry like a child in the Wimbledon final and likewise Nadal made Del Potro forget power of his forehand in the semifinal and made serves of Anderson look easy specially when he held the record of serving the most aces on way to the final. Nadal and Federer showed this year what champions are made of and spectator sport like tennis has much to thank these two.