22 Aug 2017 19:53 IST

Federer and Nadal return to dominate tennis

With Nadal back at #1, the golden age of tennis has truly returned, if only for a fleeting moment

In a week that saw human hatred come out in all of its ugly forms — the Charlottesville riots in the US and the deadly terror attack in Barcelona — the world of tennis presented itself as a welcome sanctuary, showing, ironically, how proper human effort, perseverance, and ambition can help scale great heights.

More than two years ago, I had written a frightening column lamenting the slow demise from the world’s stage of two of the greatest tennis players ever — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. More out of blind hope than any sense of conviction, I had said then: “Given their incredible talents and near divine physical fitness, they are still likely contenders to eclipse a few more records and win even more titles.”

And boy, have they really proved their fans right! Forget a few more records and titles, which we will come to shortly, but starting this week, Nadal has reclaimed the world number one ranking; he is followed by Federer, who will be world number two. The point-difference between them is so narrow that if Federer goes deeper into the US Open tennis tournament, starting next week, than Nadal — a distinct possibility given how Nadal has, once again, appeared to lose his form from earlier in the year — Federer could be at the world’s peak of tennis greatness.

Unbelievable form

Federer back at Number 1? If a Rip Van Winkle-like character were reading this before the 2017 season started, he would be shaking his head in disbelief. The first three Grand Slam titles this year were shared by these two (Federer - 2; Nadal - 1). Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title — a record; and Nadal won his eighth, ninth and 10th at the French Open, Barcelona and Monte Carlo — a feat dubbed La Decima that will likely never be repeated in human history.

He is now up to 30 ATP 1,000 titles now, equalling Novak Djokovic. Federer is at an incredible 19 Grand Slam titles, again, a feat that will most likely not be repeated unless Nadal or Djokovic give chase. Andy Murray, who is often spoken of in the same breath as these three, only has three Grand Slam titles and still has a long way to go. So remarkable was Murray’s achievement among the habitually winless Brits that they promptly knighted him last December when he reached the #1 ranking.

Federer turned 36 this month and Nadal is 31 years old. In another era, these players would be tennis commentators or coaches by now. Yet, they are at the top of their game. Nadal’s destruction of Stan Wawrinka at the French Open final was so complete that it felt like a first round match at a Grand Slam. He didn’t drop a set during the entire tournament, which is fascinating considering that one has to win seven matches in a row to lift the title. Four weeks later, Federer, at Wimbledon, repeated Nadal’s feat.

Both these players took long breaks last year to attend to their injuries and recover. It is mind-boggling that these players have all but returned to their previous form.

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride

Many factors have contributed to their rise. Djokovic has been in a horrible slump and is now out for the rest of the season with a tennis elbow injury. Murray has been in a similar slump and has had hip-related injuries. Wawrinka too is out with injuries. The second crop of tennis players has continued to generate bridesmaids but not brides; these include the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic. The three most promising young players today are Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem, but they are not as consistent as the grand old men at the top.

Holding the failure of other players as reasons for the resurgence of Federer and Nadal is unjust. Tennis is a competitive sport played over multiple days and anything could go wrong during a long tournament — poor weather, an injury, fatigue from a prior long match, court conditions, scoreboard nervousness when things aren’t going your way, and opponents who are willing to take risky shots because they don’t have as much to lose; the list is endless.

Instead, the tennis world is rightly celebrating their resurgence for what it is: the raw hunger and ambition to win, combined with a belief that victory is possible. These things, of course, are never sufficient and have to be backed by raw effort — unending hours at the gym to stay fit and healthy, followed by many hours of practising on the court. The most important aspect is the recognition that their bodies are ageing, which dictates that they have to make strategic changes to their game.

Upping their game

Federer’s mix of shots and the way he plays aggressively took even Nadal, his long-time foe, by surprise. The two have met on three occasions this year and Nadal soundly lost each time. Always endowed with a great serve, Federer has strengthened it even more. It has been almost impossible to break Federer’s service games any more. Meanwhile, Nadal has tried to shorten his points by stepping up his service speed and approaching the net more, but continues to be vulnerable when defending break points.

There’s a lesson in this for all of us, no matter what our careers are. If we’re going downhill, there’s a way to come back and exceed prior heights scaled. And while rising to the top, we must take everything with us but not our arrogance; that , we leave behind at the base of the mountain because it can weigh us down while climbing, more than anything else.

The golden age of tennis has truly returned, if only for a fleeting moment. If you are a tennis fan, a feast awaits you when the US Open starts August 28. If you’re not, it is time to pick up the sport because there really isn’t another sport with as much drama and action all rolled into one.

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