A RESURGENT RAFA IMPOSED PAIN ON A DIMINISHED FEDERER
It’s a hot. The desert night sizzles. Still, the vast stadium is packed, 16,000 strong.
Simply put, It’s one reason you adore this sport.
Electricity, buzz, contrasts and a rivalry like few others in any sport, anywhere, anytime. Roger Federer – the magnificent sports God, cool and graceful – is the best player to ever pick up a tennis racket.
But here’s the anomaly, an outlier. The guy had a (10-18) losing record to his prime rival. No wonder every time Roger and Rafa Nadal collide, it’s Ali vs Fraser, Wilt vs. Russell, Chrissie vs. Navratilova. But never before had two players come on court with more Slam titles between them (28.) Still, this was the first time the duo had ever met in a quarterfinal.
Rafa, the charismatic man-child, Nadal who yes has been sidelined for … (well it seems like forever.) In contrast, Federer, never sneezes, or at least it seems that way. Rafa, muscular and physical, is a lefty bull with a animalistic magneticism that charms as much as it amazes. Single and in mid-career he moves and defends with ferocity.
Roger is an aging man with a good marriage and a bad back. He’s our maestro, a sublime artist. Picasso with power. He owns grace. But time doesn’t care and the man is 31 and we don’t know whether this is the beginning of the end, simply showing the first signs of twilight in career that has astounded. Then again, he may just be going through a patch with an unhappy back.
Even to sports gods, bad backs can be quite the bother. And in the first set, as Rafa flashes his raw power, Roger bends. Twice he labors to hold serve and then, after two volley errors and a searing backhand winner from the Spaniard, he is broken to go down 3-4.
“Come on Rog,” the crowd implores. “You can do it.”
But Rafa, gimpe knees and all, is a relentless vortex. His forehand explodes, then pins. His focus never wavers. He moves with speed, a laser intention. Defending one moment, on the offensive the next – he is surgical, opening the court with his power forehand, closing with the confidence of a super sales
man on a roll. And after 46 minutes of flash brilliance, Rafa unleashes a not that fast, but perfectly placed 106 MPH serve which melts Roger’s backhand. Oh, have we seen this before: Nadalian power neutering his Roger’s gorgeous, but vulnerable one-handed backhand.
While on a changeover the loudspeakers blare Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Do the Twist. On court there was another twist. The man from Majorca was giving the aging master a master class in the power game and even when Federer mounted an unafraid assault, Rafa responds with a laser forehand that shouts, “I’m in charge.”
The scoreboard agreed, showing that the Spaniard winning six of seven games as he soared to a 6-3, 3-0 lead. The uneasy, then stunned, throng shrieked encouragement as they asked, “could the great champion suffer a truly dismal knock-out” at the fearsome hands of a younger foe in his prime?
Then, before you could murmur, “Federer forever,” Nadal broke serve twice to start the second set.
Even his lost points were minor wonders of defense, strength and eye hand co-ordination. But Federer, a man of Alpine will whose game management has long been celebrated, managed to stop the bleeding, when he broke back and held his serve, to reach 2-3 in the second set. The crowd roared. A great rivalry deserves a great match and no other match had ever featured two players with as many Slam titles as these two on this night.
But Rafa is relentless in punishing his foes backhand. Time and again Roger’s groundies found the net or the alleys. Simple forehand volley became curious misadventures.
“This is crazy,” says one fan.
But yesterday’s crazy, may be tomorrow’s order.
When a simple Federer backhand limply fell into the net, the great Federer removed his headband and shook his considerable hair.
All of tennis knew Rafa’s 1:24 6-4, 6-2 would shake up the game as fans and media asked, “is Roger, Roger?”
This was a dismal night for The Mighty Fed. But masters fade slowly. And, presuming his back heals, Federer almost certainly has many days of wonder ahead of him, day in which he will dazzle and amaze.