Tennis, more than most sports, can quickly pass even the best of players by. One minute a player seems poised to dominate for the foreseeable future, the next he’s found feigning interest in women 20 years his senior on reality TV. Part of what makes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal so remarkable is that they’ve been essentially at the top of the game for over a decade. They may not quite be Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but they’re pretty close, and it’s why their meeting on Sunday in Basel – marking the twelfth-freaking-straight year they’ve faced each other, is worth a closer examination.
In case you missed it, here’s the cliffnotes for the match: Firstly, Federer should’ve won this in straight sets. Going into the match he had form, surface and location working in his favour, and the way he played in the first set – attacking relentlessly, hitting through his crosscourt backhand – he seemed set for a relatively straightforward afternoon. The reason it went to three is because Nadal stuck to his guns, waited for Federer’s backhand to deteriorate, and capitalised when he got tight. Federer never really got his mojo all the way back in the third, but Rafa lost his, giving him the title. All-in-all it’s safe to say that of their 34 meetings, this match won’t crack the top ten.
At its best, Federer-Nadal is two men trading moments of brilliance for games on end. Each man will go on runs where they look so untouchable you might be forgiven for discounting just who is on the other side of the net – for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter. At even rarer times, they reach that level at the same time, and you’re left sitting in amazement as they constantly redefine what untouchable tennis is. In Basel, while we were treated to those flashes of brilliance, the match was all too often punctuated by moments just as profound in displaying their frailties – untimely double faults, routine forehands missed, subdued aggression – giving you a constant reminder that this is not the Federer-Nadal of yore.
By no means did it lack for entertainment – this is the greatest rivalry in tennis history, after all – but it’s hard not to be wistful for the sort of tennis these two played at their peak. Going into the match (and certainly afterwards), many a fan might’ve wondered why these two don’t play as often anymore – unfortunately, the answer is in the inconsistent tennis we saw on Sunday.
Gone are the days where either could waltz to a final – or even a semi – as both simply have too many average days. And whereas in their primes an “average” day was still superior to just about anyone else’s good one, that’s simply not the case anymore. Playing as they did in Basel would set them up for disappointment against many of the sport’s upper echelon – guys like Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and of course, Novak Djokovic. Does it mean they can’t beat those guys? Of course not, but at any given major, they’ll have to go through at least two of them, and that’s a far more difficult proposition than it used to be.
As a final aside, from a semi-poetic/cosmic point-of-view, it’s fascinating that the two find themselves at such level pegging in the first-place. Nadal is still the right side of 30, and was firmly in the ascendancy last time they met in January 2014. He shouldn’t have dropped off as fast as he did, but the unfortunate truth is that Nadal’s ultra-physical style of play was always going to deny him the prolonged twilight of Federer. Then again, perhaps it’s only right that the two men who took tennis into the stratosphere, embark on their final chapters together. The Basel final was a chance to reflect as much as it was to enjoy the tennis played – here’s hoping we get a few more opportunities to prioritise the latter.