Federer showed his toughness at Wimbledon, but Nadal proved he is improving rapidly, writes
It’s barely 72 hours since their forehands spat and backhands hissed and courage collided. The pleasure of the final still loiters in the mind, but for writers this is not enough, we must fidget, question, interpret, we cannot leave anything alone, we wonder, what did this match mean, what did it tell us, what was its significance.
So then, let’s start here, with Federer’s prissiness. Any other fellow in a cream jacket, and trousers, and prim white bag, we would have nailed as pretentious, but this Swiss, he’s always been a classy, old-fashioned kind of guy.
But his style can also be misleading. You’d never think, inside this fussy, vain, courteous, five-language speaking, artistic-stroke playing Swiss breathes a resolute brute. It’s what we forget about Federer sometimes (as we did with Edberg), and what this testing final reminded us of. His refinement is only a cover, an elegant wrap; strip it away and there rests the tough, implacable competitor.
Of Federer’s 11 Grand Slam final wins, six came in three sets, four in four sets, but this sole five-setter, won in adversity, was essential to his legacy, proof that he is gentleman but also soldier.
What Federer also did, and really only he could, was in one match pay homage to an entire history of tennis. He saluted Bill Tilden’s generation with his attire, honoured Laver’s grand Australians with his manners, Connors with his spirit, McEnroe with his art, Borg with five Wimbledon wins, and when he twice was 15.40 in the fifth, and used serves to extricate himself from distress, one word flew across the mind: Sampras.
Men and competition
This match also told us something about men and competition. The beauty of this duel (the Spaniard remains ahead 8-5) is evident in an intensity so forceful that the umpire should stop saying ‘time’ after breaks and merely ring a boxing bell. Both men have yet to choreograph a Grand Slam masterpiece (this was a minor classic), but what is most telling is the way they treat each other.
There has been the odd mumble, and stare, and niggle, but respect is frequently articulated and compliments bestowed. Federer knows Nadal is coming for him, yet admiringly said: “He’s playing phenomenal tennis”; Nadal wants Federer’s head yet honours him: “Compared with Roger right now is not possible yet because he had 11 Grand Slams, me three”.
The quality of the rivalry has been enhanced by the quality of the rivals, men whose placing of grace alongside toughness is a worthy lesson in a sulky sporting world.
Patented dance move
What else did this match reveal? That Federer has patented a dance move called the grasscourt shuffle. If you surf the net and find footage of Federer playing on grass, preferably in slow motion, block out part of the picture so you can only see his feet. It is an education in the art of movement.
He takes small steps, rapidly, forward, then back, always in motion, anticipating, balanced, accelerating, stopping, reversing, a head-banded Fred Astaire in shorts. When he broke Nadal in the fifth, two of his telling blows were forehands: one hit while hustling forward, one hit after a shimmy backwards to give himself space. Both times, in a pressure situation, clarity of thought was fused with exquisite footwork.
Mostly, though, the final tell us this: Roger better be careful. Improvement in top-level athletes often comes in small, gradual instalments. But Nadal’s development has been considerable, and it has been quick. Flip back the mental notebook and Nadal was, for some, nothing but the repetitious clay-courter. It’s a label he’s pounded into pieces with a more stinging backhand, flatter forehand, consistent aggressiveness, smarter tactics. As Federer said: “He’s not only just a clay courter, he’s a good all-round player”.
Nadal is pushing Federer harder on grass than Federer is pushing him on clay. Part of the reason is the grass is slower and higher bouncing, suiting the baseliner and making it difficult for Federer to surge forward for the volley.
But part of the reason is that while Federer is possibly at his peak, Nadal is on the ascent. The radiant Swiss remains the master, but the student’s challenges outside clay are getting sterner.