These People Should Not Be Encouraged

Cincinnati Masters, Quarterfinal

(4) Nadal d. (5) Federer, 5/7 6/4 6/3

Just as the merest commonplace can attain greater profundity via translation into Latin – quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum videtur – the indication that a rivalry has attained world-historical significance comes when its instalments are denoted with Roman numerals. It worked for the Punic Wars, which were conducted mostly in Latin, and reached III before the legions razed Carthage. It worked for Rocky Balboa in his endless toils against clear diction. Most pertinently to an article about men’s tennis, it holds true for the ongoing rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the latest iteration of which took place tonight at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio. The accepted nomenclature for this match was ‘Fedal XXXI’. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America(For the record, having the protagonists’ names crushed together into an unlovely portmanteau signifies little, except that the conversation is happening on the Internet, where brevity is the soul of everything beside wit.) In any case, Nadal won, and now leads their head-to-head XXI to X.

Directly before Nadal won, it was a very good tennis match, and for a time threatened to transform into a great one. This, to be frank, would have made it the exception rather than the norm, since Nadal and Federer’s matches often blow out one way or the other. Indeed, recent instalments have been consistent only in demonstrating that the quality of any given tennis match bears little relationship to the lavishness of the hype preceding it. If anything the relationship is inversely proportional. Certainly it has been this year. They’d faced each other twice, at Indian Wells and Rome. Both those matches were stridently promoted as unmissable spectacles. Both were victories for Nadal, and memorable mainly for their lopsidedness.

Since then Federer has hardly improved, while Nadal is enjoying the best hardcourt form of his life. Despite the speed of the court and the disparity between their records at this event, the hype before tonight’s Cincinnati quarterfinal felt less warranted than ever. Sky Sports has updated their special Fedal package since Rome, though the cloying, legend-building tone remains. ESPN’s promo was if anything worse, owing to the characteristic application of high-fructose corn syrup. One might feasibly construe it all as ironic, if only television networks were capable of irony. From this perspective, it is therefore of some concern that tonight’s match actually did more or less live up to its hype. The last thing these people need to be is encouraged. As it is, of all the things one can take from tonight’s match – and most of them are positive for both players – one of the worst is that any subsequent encounter between these two will come affixed with a warning label informing viewers that the coming tennis match will transcend the sport, and could well rupture the very fabric of space-time.

From the perspective of Federer’s countless fans, this probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing, assuming the effect could be controlled, and deliver them a version of their idol from any other season than the current one. Indeed, there were periods tonight when it seemed like something like that had happened. There was a passage from the end of the first set through to the middle of the second when Federer was almost in ‘full flight’, that rarefied zone up near the jet stream to which he periodically ascends, when even opponents as accomplished as Nadal admit they’re reduced to awaiting his return to earth. But Federer never quite got up there, and for this Nadal should be given enormous credit (although he was surely relieved when Federer’s forehand ‘winner’ at 3/3 30-30 barely missed). Nadal never permitted the Swiss to gain that crucial break. It helped that he himself had taken flight, beginning from the middle of the second set, and lasting through until he’d achieved a definitive lead early in the third. The two players thus overlapped in the middle, and produced the most entrancing stretch of tennis between them in years. While this will sadly encourage those whose self-assigned task it is to promote the rivalry, it did serve to remind the rest of us why the rivalry deserves promotion. When both men are playing well at the same time, there isn’t anything else quite like it.

It was the most competitive best-of-three match Federer and Nadal have put together in years, and among the longest, surpassing the two-hour mark. It was almost longer still, as Federer, who’d barely troubled Nadal’s serve for the entire third set, suddenly and ferociously fought back from 40-0 down as the Spaniard sought to serve it out. Nadal had been coasting to the line, and seemed ill-prepared for this late barrage. From nowhere, Federer was not only finding space in Nadal’s forehand corner, but was hitting balls hard into it – this was a crucial detail – before punishing Nadal’s inevitable weak reply. Alas for Federer, it didn’t last. Nadal eventually closed it out, launching a winner of his own into Federer’s forehand corner. (Hawkeye showed it out, but Federer either saw it in, or was hoarding his challenges for the press conference.)

Federer lost, but he will surely take heart from the manner of his losing, since it came in a highly competitive match against the best player in the world. He said as much afterwards. He has been in terrible form for most of this year. For all that he has been sporadically magisterial in beating up lesser players, such as poor Hanescu at Wimbledon, he hasn’t looked at all imposing against high-quality opposition since Melbourne. Even yesterday he started weakly against Tommy Haas, although he finished well. His form tonight suggested he’d somehow ingested a portion of the ever-green German’s strength in the process. Victory tonight would have been vastly preferable for him, but he hardly sounded discouraged heading to New York, even though he’ll have his lowest seeding – No.7 – in eleven years.

Meanwhile Nadal will know that Federer’s ranking and form is largely irrelevant; all the top pros are quick to insist that such considerations are extraneous the moment play commences. He recovered from a set down to defeat a strongly performing Federer on a fast(ish) low surface where Federer is the five-time and defending champion. Furthermore, he managed this just a week after beating Novak Djokovic – they’ve now faced off XXXVI times – in Canada, where the world number one hasn’t lost since 2010. For a player who thrives on belief, these kinds of victories mean everything. After all: Crede quod habes, et habes.

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