Tennis, so the received wisdom goes, is no country for old men. It is emphatically not the kindest place for a 35-year-old father-of-four who has spent six months out after slipping on a bathroom floor. But Roger Federer, the deftest sorcerer his sport has known, conjured perhaps his greatest trick of all here in Melbourne on Sunday by bending time to his will.
His duel in the Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal justified all the lavish pre-match packaging, unfolding in five sets of bruising, see-sawing drama that showcased every facet of the modern game’s defining rivalry. When the end came, courtesy of a Hawk-Eye decision that upheld one last Federer winner and delivered him a record 18th Grand Slam title, he bounced up and down like an exuberant teenager, while every man, woman and child inside Rod Laver Arena rose to salute his feat.
Throw the pair of them together, though, and the result is somehow symphonic, a mutually reinforcing display of extremes. Cast your mind back to their masterpiece at Wimbledon 2008, and you remember not only how differently they played, but how different they looked: Federer the aristocrat in residence, an embodiment of Middle European haute couture, and Nadal a kind of Mediterranean Jack Sparrow in whites, all shaggy hair and sleeveless muscle top. Almost nine years later, the power of that contrast lives on.
Nadal had every right to be desolate in defeat. Instead, he just seemed mildly peeved, casting off the disappointment of the moment to pay the richest tribute to his conqueror. “Roger deserved it a little bit more than me,” he said, breaking into that megawatt smile that he always saves for the post-match pleasantries. It is a feature of their relationship that, for all the extraordinary intensity of their contests, they act towards each other wholly without venom or spite. Nadal, not for the first time, showed up that old saw of “show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser” for the nonsense it is.
Late on Sunday, Federer was still grasping what it all meant. He was continuing to give interviews at 3am Melbourne time, partying like the world’s most abstemious rock star. The embrace with his wife, Mirka, was both touching and prolonged. She, like everybody else, had wondered whether he had another of these moments in him or if he would just slip quietly into the twilight of paternal bliss.
Not that he expected to grasp the trophy in his first tournament back, of course. On that score, Federer has shocked even himself, scotching any suggestion that his powers were fading with this cathartic triumph over Nadal, both his nemesis and his priceless foil. Off court, there is a hardly a patch of common ground: Federer is the suave, multilingual pin-up, while Nadal is the model home boy, never happier than when kicking back with his family on a Balearic beach. On the court, however, they create a mesmerising symbiosis where their legend resides.
Time will tell if their reunion here was a fleeting epilogue or the resumption of another chapter. There is sadness in the fact that the Roger and Rafa show cannot last forever, but profound pleasure in that happened again at all. Tennis, indeed sport, is incalculably richer for its return.
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Source: The Telegraph