Two big men gathered on a small island in October.
Roger Federer went to Majorca to help his great friend and rival open his junior academy. Distant from the glare, the giants embraced. Hobbled and humbled, their bodies were dealing with their knee and wrist injuries and their pride was dealing with their No. 9 and No. 17 rankings.
They were to face each other in a gala exhibition. But the injured icons were reduced to hitting with local juniors.
Three months later, two of the greatest players this game has ever produced will battle in a flashback final like few others. Then again, a couple of other 30-somethings, Venus and Serena, play in the women’s final today.
This is a dream Slam for fans, and for a sport that keeps re-inventing itself.
Let’s be clear. Tennis has had many fabulous rivalries. Borg vs. McEnroe, McEnroe vs. Connors, Becker vs Edberg, Sampras vs Agassi, and Djokovic vs. Murray come to mind. Okay, but Federer vs. Nadal soars above them all. It’s not just that the duo has won 31 Slams, that their level of play is higher, and that they both have charismatic personalities that charm even cold hearts. Their on-court clash is a fascinating opposites attract mix. Mr. Ying says howdy to Mr. Yang. The right-handed poet who flows in perfect harmony will again face the magnetic left-handed brawler with the ferocious will. Roger has more Slams, and is said to be the greatest of all time, yet Rafa has dominated their rivalry. No wonder the battle for who is the GOAT – the greatest of all time – goes on.
Andy Roddick said, “Think about the historical significance of what that [Roger vs. Rafa] match would look like…One player [Rafa] at 14 slams, one player at 17 slams, Rafa wins, it’s 15-17, and the French Open is around the corner, it [their fabled rivalry] is back on. It’s literally game on for the most slams ever. If Roger wins, it’s 18-14. I don’t know that that divide gets made up. If that happens, it has to be the most important match in Australian Open history and possibly Grand Slam history.”
But the dream final came within five points of being a nightmare.
Enter Grigor Dimitrov, who is one the most blessed kids in tennis. He has a big, flowing game, and an imposing one-handed backhand that, after Wawrinka, Federer, Thiem and Gasquet, is one of the best in the game. He has hunky Hollywood good looks. For a while, a Russian named Sharapova was on his arm – and he’s already banked over $7 million.
But there always have been issues. Dimitrov, who won the US Open Junior Championship, was tagged as the next best thing. They called him “Prime Time,” and worse yet, “Baby Fed.”
Holland’s Betty Stove bristled when Bud Collins called her “Big Bad Betty.” Boris Becker dismissed the nickname “Boom Boom,” which evoked World War II.
“Baby Fed” is not a label you want.
Expectations for Dimitrov were stratospheric. He did reach the 2014 Wimbledon semis, but never broke through. Last year his ranking dipped to 40 and he had a hefty meltdown in Istanbul. But soon after he hired a new coach, Danny Vallverdu. He got back to basics, had a great off-season, attained a certain calm and won the Brisbane warm-up tourney.
Then, after battling through his Djokovic-free quarter, Dimitrov found himself in a most dicey spot. He alone was standing between a Roger-Rafa dream match-up for the ages.
One sensed that fans across the universe were pleading: “Grigor, don’t you dare rain on our Aussie parade.”
Yet Dimitrov promptly won the first two points of his semi. But no problem – Nadal quickly kicked in with a flood of devastating forehands, fine serves and adept volleys, to win the first set 6-3. The conventional wisdom was clear: tee up that dream final.
But there is reason Dimitrov is 10-0 this year, and deep into the second set the Bulgarian hit an inspired stab volley, and then, on his fifth set point, would claim the second set 7-5.
A 1:10 third set was riveting, as somehow the wily and shockingly error-prone veteran Nadal fought on and forced four mini-breaks to win in the critical third set tie-break 7-5 and go up two sets to one. Certainly now Rafa would prevail.
But Dimitrov soared. His returns landed at Rafa’s feet. His forehand was fierce. His backhands had power and variety. His overhead was unblinking. His fitness didn’t waver. Rafa failed to take out his legs. Grigor was the better player, and he collected the fourth set tie-break.
Bruising and unrelenting, the battle between the aging veteran and the mid-career wannabe had everything. There was a 13-stroke corner-to-corner yo-yo point, an uncanny overhead winner that a stumbling Dimitrov hit with his back to the net. Anyone trying to chart the momentum in this encounter would have to endure some hefty whiplash.
It was the best, or at least the most entertaining match of the Aussie Open, and it shouted loud one simple underlying question: could the error-prone Nadal, who clearly is not in top form, find a way to impose his will, his championship mettle, and show that he is still “Rafa?”
In the decisive fifth set it certainly didn’t seem that way.
Still explosive, and playing great defense, Dimitrov saved three break points in the first game and moved with surprising ease. Often he had Nadal reeling. He served big. His volleys were clutch. He had the edge and gained three critical break points. But this was only Grigor’s second Slam semi. Rafa has 14 Slam titles. He knows how to close – and deep into the deciding set he stroked a down-the-line backhand that allowed him to prevail 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 in a 4:56 marathon. Tennis fans around the world breathed again.
Our dream would come true. What Roddick claimed would be “the most important match in Australian Open history and possibly Grand Slam history” was on.
While Rafa confided that he needed some sleep, statisticians lept frantically to give us a deep dive into the numbers. They revealed that Nadal is up 23-11 in his overall rivalry with Roger. He has a 13-2 lead on clay courts, a 9-7 advantage on hard courts, and has an 11-2 record in Grand Slam matches.
From 2006 to 2008 the duo played in each of the French Open and Wimbledon finals, including the 2008 Wimbledon final that Rafa which is said to be the greatest match of all time. Federer won their recent match in Roger’s hometown of Basel in 2015 and Rafa triumphed in their last Slam final at the 2009 Aussie Open. He’s also won all three times they played in Melbourne.
But set aside all those stats. In rock and roll it was either the Beatles or the Stones. We recently had to chose Trump or Hillary. Dance had Astaire vs. Kelly. Boxing had Ali vs. Frazier. Tennis has the poet vs. the bounding blaster – Roger vs. Rafa.
Certainly the Saturday and Sunday finals will make for the most anticipated weekend in tennis history. And, so to speak, the whole world will be watching.
Additional reporting by Tanya Liesegang