It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
It was the best outcome for fans, for the tournament, and for one of these gods of tennis, but nobody could predict who would stand atop Mount Olympus by its conclusion, nor for whom it would be the bitterest disappointment.
They bring out the best in each other. They like one another, respect one another, but are the deadliest of rivals.
They both knew they were in great form and in peak fitness. The result of this match would indeed be the best of times for the victor—either a record-equalling Grand Slam tally for Federer, or the eventual subjugation of the hard court for Nadal.
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…
The first set drew gasps of awe and sighs of disbelief as both players lost their serves several times over.
Federer had come into this match with his service flowing beautifully, but by the end of the set, his percentage was a gloomy 54 percent. He lost it 7-5.
The tennis, though, once the early tensions are released, was scintillating. The kind of shot-making that peppers the occasional game of mere mortals was jam-packed into every point, every game, and every set of the match.
Nadal pounded missiles at Federer and had bullet after bullet fired back at him. Cross-court or down the line, both men’s backhands performed superbly.
The contrast in style, of course, epitomised the differences in their tennis. Federer’s cobalt-hued shoulders swooped wide in the most dramatic and elegant single-handed whip. Nadal gripped his racket with both fists as the biceps powered back over his left shoulder to deliver a flat, vicious cannonball.
In the second set, Federer’s serving dropped to just 37 percent, yet he won it 6-3. But it was the third set that reached the pinnacle of achievement on both sides of the net.
It became impossible to select a favorite rally or a favorite shot. It was pointless to second-guess who was would acquiesce under the pressure of their opponent’s brilliance.
At 2-2, Federer delivered a wonderful drive volley to the backhand corner, yet Nadal ran it down and looped a sharp, short cross-court forehand under Federer’s nose in an outrageous winner.
In the next game, Federer retrieved a drive that was skimming meters outside his forehand tramlines with a 45-degree cross-court return that his racket should not even have reached.
Then, with Nadal having treatment to his right thigh, a real chink of light appeared for Federer. Pivotal games came one after another.
At 4-4, Federer had a triple break-point, and Nadal missed his first serve. But he won the point with the obligatory backhand cross-court drive way beyond Federer’s reach. The next point was saved by a forehand to the same corner. The third was a gift from Federer’s forehand into the net.
At 5-5, Federer had a 40-15 advantage on Nadal’s serve, achieved by his classic defence-turned-attack. Even in replay, it’s hard to see how he lost those two break-point chances. Nadal simply wrestled the points back with his biggest of forehands.
Federer had to battle to the limits to hold serve for 6-6. He looked as though he would win the set when he played the most perfect backhand drive volley down the line. But he lost the point with a double fault. Nadal got the set, a second wind, and new springs in his legs.
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…
There was an extra dimension to this match that took the tennis, the occasion, and the emotional experience to a higher level. It offered an endless palette of color, touch, movement, and power.
The moon-tinted blue of the Melbourne court was a perfect counterpoint to the topaz of the players’ limbs. On one side, diamond-bright feet sparkled at dizzying pace across the aquamarine surface. On the other side, black and acid-green shoes pounded the boundaries like a sprinter hurtling to the winning line.
One torso glimmered in lapis lazuli, head bound in sweat-darkened midnight blue. The other was sheathed in a wet, black skin with highlights of brilliant yellow swathing forehead and wrists.
One stood, walked, leapt like a dancer, shoulders poised over his centre of gravity, arms outstretched for perfect balance. The other moved like an armor-clad gladiator, chest broad, deep and muscular, hurling his body at every ball.
The Federer face remained almost expressionless; pensive, downward-focused. Nadal’s expression was in constant movement, hyperactive, every emotion on show.
The patterns and tempo were ever-changing, like an orchestra of instruments harmonised into a melodious symphony.
Light balanced by shade, silence broken by roars, slow-motion slice countered by fast swerve: the complete drama on the perfect stage.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
The fourth set swung Federer’s way with the same fluctuations of service break and service hold, deuces and break points, outrageous winners and few unforced errors.
So hope hung over his team's box as he began the final set. But that hope was gradually extinguished as Nadal applied new pressure, and forced his opponent into serving errors, into netted backhands, and into forehands in the tramlines.
This colossus of power play and infinite resolve, who saved 13-of-19 break points against him, refused to yield to the racket of the former champion. He celebrated, at last, a Slam title on the hard stuff.
The depth of Federer’s despair became clear at the presentation ceremony. Exposed to a standing ovation from thousands of onlookers, the ever-eloquent Federer was first struck dumb by emotion, then overcome by tears.
With trophy in hand, the Spanish victor embraced the desperate loser. Grace and generosity between friends and rivals, it was a moving moment.
It may have been one of Federer's darkest hours. But his winter solstice will eventually pass, and the sun will shine again in his spring sky.
For now, though, his tears must give way to the warm smiles of a new deity in the tennis firmament.
Quotes taken from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
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