Being ill can sometimes have some small advantages. Yesterday I spent the afternoon in bed, totally engrossed in L. Jon Wertheim’s latest publication, ‘Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played’, a 300-page emotive, dramatic and detailed investigation of last year’s Wimbledon 2008 Final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
With Wertheim, an esteemed and popular tennis journalist, being present at the epic final, only eight rows behind the court, he could fully translate the unique atmosphere in Centre Court to the pages of his book.
For many Federer fans, this book may seem anathema, a publication never to be bought, let alone opened; but being the sadist that I am, I insisted on purchasing the piece if only to marvel at Wertheim’s stunning descriptions and extensive knowledge. Here is an author that truly knows his stuff—and appears to enjoy writing about the minutiae of the tennis world.
Strangely, I managed to read—no, devour—the entire book in just a few hours. Even the intense emotions that reverberated off the final pages of the book, which brilliantly echoed Federer’s despair and Nadal’s jubilation at the end of the final, failed to prohibit my snapping the book shut.
A million things flew through my head as I flew through the chapters that broke down the background of the match and each dramatic set. Yes, reliving the events of the darkness of Sunday, July 6, 2008 was upsetting for me, a viewer who strongly desired Federer to win a sixth consecutive Wimbledon title. However, almost one year on, am I, along with other Federer fans, really still hurting that badly?
I began to ponder the events of the past few months. Certainly there have been many peaks and troughs, ups and downs, in Federer’s performance, both before and after the crucial Wimbledon loss.
Yet have the events at Roland Garros a few weeks ago—where Federer won the French Open, his 14th major, completing a career Grand Slam—affected Federer fans, Federer himself, if not the whole tennis world, so deeply and fundamentally that one is actually able to accept gargantuan defeats such as Wimbledon 2008 with a little more ease and fluidity?
Surely the recent news and events do help this feeling. When Federer was defeated once again at the Australian Open at the beginning of February this year in a five-set final against Nadal, many believed it truly was the beginning of the end for Federer.
The schism between Federer and Nadal fans deepened, the rivalry truly registering across global sports audiences. The Wimbledon 2008 final, with its unparalleled location, length, and drama really penetrated the international consciousness, which only increased after Melbourne.
It seemed that Federer’s despair and desolation of 2008—the frightful combination of mononucleosis, the symbolic ‘turbo-zit’ (Wertheim’s phrase, not mine), the loss of his hegemonic No.1 position and Wimbledon—was set to continue for the foreseeable future of Federer’s tennis career.
Federer’s crushing defeat at the French Open last year only exacerbated the opinion that his chances of winning majors, especially if facing Nadal in the final—and certainly achieving the career Grand Slam—was effectively zero.
Nevertheless, richly needed highs in the season came from Federer’s Olympic gold medal with Stanislas Wawrinka in doubles which propelled him to his triumph at the US Open in New York in September.
These victories notwithstanding, the consensus was that last year’s Wimbledon signalled the coronation of a new king and Federer was irreversibly damaged.
Yet by April 2009, a shift in the tennis sphere—barely perceptible but present nevertheless—began to manifest. Federer’s private life became, by his own high standards, ‘practically perfect’, with a private marriage with his longtime sweetheart Mirka Vavrinec over the Easter weekend in his hometown of Basel and a baby on the way.
With Roger the person and all private matters running as smoothly as Swiss clockwork, Roger the tennis player seemed to settle down too.
A great performance at the Rome Masters 1000 event was topped by a magnificent tournament and straight sets victory against Nadal in Madrid on clay. Consequently hopes were indeed higher for Federer’s French Open prospects, yet nobody could bet against the king of clay ruling supreme in Paris once again.
But then the shocks came. Novak Djokovic defeated—then Nadal defeated at the French Open. Federer hung in the tournament, feeling the mounting pressure, fighting with his heart and soul in order to create his dream against almost every opponent.
This year, not even an intruder could stand in his way. June 6, 2009, 11 months exactly from that fateful Wimbledon 2008 day—Roger Federer becomes the French Open champion. The career Grand Slam, the 14th major.
Suddenly, Federer has won two of the three Slam events since Wimbledon 2008, now with his first French. Nadal has won Olympic gold and another hardcourt slam in the Australian Open. This rivalry still lives and breathes. Federer is still the great player he always was, seemingly only slightly affected by his Wimbledon loss.
Of course, the tennis season is far from over—there are still two slams and many Masters 1000 events, not to mention the World Tour Finals, to complete—and Federer, like Nadal, has not played a competitive match since that monumental day in Paris.
But somehow, it seems that Federer’s Parisian victory has melted the pressure. Across the world, it has enabled Federer fans to relax (if only fleetingly); it has enabled them to believe that there really is such a thing as tennis karma. What goes around comes around, one could say.
Nevertheless, clearly the Spanish nemesis still poses a problem for Federer. A 13-7 record in Nadal’s favour does not bode well for future match-ups, even if the latest meeting was won by Federer.
Crucially, Federer may play with a little more ease at this year’s Wimbledon, given that he does not need to ‘chase history’ as urgently or fervently as was suggested in the darkest moments. However, Federer has always been pushed by history; he is too competitive and too aware of competitors to truly relax.
This is a Slam, after all. Moreover, Nadal will enter SW19 as the No.1 seed and defending champion, with more motivation than usual after his early exit at Roland Garros; Federer will be desperate to reclaim his most prized crown and simultaneously surpass Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major titles.
To a certain extent, ATP ranking points also come into play. Currently, Nadal is 2000 points ahead of Federer. A win at Wimbledon for Federer, or on the flipside, a poor showing by Nadal, could kick-start a forceful numerical comeback by the former World No.1, especially as Nadal has many points to defend in the coming months.
It is clear that there is still an incredible amount riding on this forthcoming Wimbledon once again, without even considering the hopes of the likes of Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and even 31-year old Halle champion Tommy Haas.
Nadal’s knees and the suspected flare-up of patella tendonitis are of much concern. Could any more stress and strain on punishingly hard grass courts add insult to injury (only small pun intended) and leave Nadal in turmoil for not only a defense of his WImbledon title, but also his chances in the rest of the season’s events?
Is it dangerous to consider Federer a favourite, given his lack of competitive grass-court preparation and the fact that he could still be emotionally drained?
Will the coming fortnight prove to be another turning point in the Federer-Nadal rivalry? Another blow to Federer on Centre Court, or indeed now Nadal, could have tumultuous consequences for the remainder of the season.
Tennis lends itself to a coup d’etat and even the occasional restoration of ‘traditional’ power, but the past few months have created the most radical and oscillatory shifts between two individuals for many years.
The sheer accumulation of matches and twists in momentum and victories in recent months between these two tennis giants mean it is certain that any clash will be full of tension, drama, and excitement.
The wounds from Wimbledon 2008 are indeed healing, slowly but surely—with the essential help of time and, of course, the silhouette of the Coupe des Mousquetaires firmly fixed at the forefront of Federer’s mind at least for one year. Still, time is a fickle creature. We will know in only a few weeks if the wounds are to be reopened, deeper and more poisonous than ever before.