The oasis in the Californian desert has finally burst into flower. After what seemed to be many days of play, the four “big ones” at last took centre stage in the Aegean blue of the Indian Wells show court late on Saturday and Sunday.
And the two stars of the show, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, only graced that stage well into the night—and out of the view of anyone beyond the USA time zone. So with the result already on the board, how best to describe their first appearances in this garden of tennis?
Their contrasting presences in the vibrant surroundings of Indian Wells threw into sharp focus the differing color pallets with which they paint the game.
Oppose red with green, or blue with orange. Each color makes the other seem more intense.
Place them alongside one another, and they shimmer.
Combine the same pairings as light, and they become white.
They are different but the same. They are complementary colours.
And Federer and Nadal are complementaries made physical in the men’s game.
Both men—along with many of the others—have adopted the blue theme of the venue. It’s a place drenched in blue, completely in tune with its watery origins. It’s no surprise that this is a favoured stop on the tennis tour, providing a serene mountainous backdrop, cloudless skies, dry heat, clear air. It’s as close to a garden of paradise as wealth can create in a desert.
Nadal is in the new strip he launched at the beginning of the year, plain crew neck, white and sea blue with navy highlights. His head and wrists are swathed in sky, and he wears crisp white from waist, through knee straps to his feet. Smart, bright, filled to bursting with muscle.
Federer has stripped his look back to the simplest blue-black ink, shoulder to knee in darkest navy. The collar has gone, replaced with a plain neckline dipped slightly at the throat. What might be somber is lifted by the white of headband and feet, signed off with a pristine Nike swoosh on the breast. The inky shirt skims his slim form, but the darkness of the fabric conceals the working musculature.
Nadal is color. Federer is absence of color.
Nadal is solid 3-D. Federer like a shadow.
Then there is the look, the demeanor, the expression.
Nadal wears his heart on his sleeve, face contorted into passion with each whip of his racket, the effort evident in his strained brow.
His forearm seems to expand to twice its size, shoulders explode from his rock-hard chest, fingers flail into a splayed star. Effort and energy personified.
Federer’s physical presence is as stripped down as his clothing. The body language calm, economical, relaxed. The only facial expression is the usual tug of upper lip between teeth.
In most people, this is a sign of anxiety: in Federer, it seems to draw inward of his focus. He expends not an ounce of superfluous effort, yet moves across the surface like lightening.
Then there is the whole “experience” of these men when they hold court.
Nadal demands the crowd’s attention in the way a rampant bull bears down on any unfortunate who dares to encroach upon its territory.
His shoulders swagger, the legs and hips twitch in preparation, there is a stillness before the unleashed attack. Clothing is adjusted, ball bounced slowly, glower aimed at target. It’s intimidating.
Then feet in unison propel him into the explosive serve. His neck bursts with sinew, sweat flies like sparks from a Catherine wheel, and the racket—clutched in two fists—circles over his head like a broadsword.
Federer’s face is like a closed book, and the service preparation and action so smooth and quickly taken that they lull his opponent into false confidence. The final glance from beneath pharaoh-like slanting eyes reveals, in a brief moment, the cobra about to unleash its venom. Swift, beautiful and deadly.
His skin glows with a sheen of sweat. His long neck poised, yet flushed.
His racket, too, is a weapon in the way that a pen is flourished across parchment, out-arguing his opponent with a language of his own.
And when the game is won, Nadal jumps and pumps, exudes dominance in his spring-mounted walk from baseline to chair, to baseline again. He draws more confidence from exchanged looks with his team—though it’s clear he needs none.
Federer flexes his lower arm and clenches his jaw, just slightly. This is a Federer from more than a year ago, emotions reigned in—at least for now. He glides to his chair, relaxes back and takes in his surroundings. It could be a practice session. He gives nothing away.
They are as chalk and cheese, black and white, pole and equator. Yet where their paths cross—even over the net in loss or victory—there is common ground, like a Venn diagram.
Extraordinary athleticism. Dedication to their sport. A constant desire to improve. As much mutual respect as such extreme rivalry can tolerate.
And they bring to their sport what complementary colours bring to artists.
Each intensifies the other when put together, bringing a vibrancy and a depth that mere tints of either colour cannot achieve.
That is why we love this rivalry so much, why we hope for final after final between them. Whether or not it happens in the glimmering blue of Indian Wells, we anticipate with a thrill those rare moments when the two colours merge into white light.