Near Misses: Roger Federer, Rome 2006October 29, 2009
Sports have offered us innumerable memorable moments, where the opponents have fought neck-and-neck in the entire match with one of them barely—scarcely—managing to cross the finish line.
The drama offered has been intense, the emotions are insurmountable, the pressure is inexplicable, and the end result is such a dramatic finish that the sports fans will call the sport itself as the "victor" rather than the winning opponent.
"Nobody lost the match" is a statement that will capture the headlines of the next day's newspaper.
It is not entirely true. The objective nature of sport doesn't allow for two victors. One will have to bear the axe and swallow the bitter pill of defeat. The victor will be the one taking a bite at the trophy and the vanquished will only be left with accolades that will be die away over time.
Fans would always remember that Manchester United scored two last-minute goals in the injury time to win the Champions League in '99, rather than the overhead kick by Bayern Munich's Carsten Jancker, which bounced of the sidebar that would have effectively sealed the trophy for the latter.
The heroic knock by Lance Klusener in the World Cup '99 semis will be mentioned rarely, but his last ball misunderstanding with Allan Donald will forever be remembered as another lost chance for South Africa. This was probably the greatest limited overs cricket match ever played. Not so for South Africa.
Near misses are part and parcel of the game, and they are hard to digest, specially when the vanquished had a golden opportunity to achieve something special.
In this dry season, when tennis is hiding away from limelight, and issues other than the sport—or its journalism—have taken center stage, antiMatter is in charge of making sure that we are reminded of some of these brave players who offered the fans a memorable experience, which was, at best, forgettable for them (please see page two for details on this series).
And what better way to start this series than focusing on a part of one of the best rivalries in tennis?
Back in those days...
Yes, back in those days...When the likes of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Juan Martin del Potro were still in their teens, Andre Agassi was the runner-up in the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal was in his pirate attire, and used to pump himself up with "Vamos," and Roger Federer was ahead of every other player by at least a couple of thousand ranking points—4000 points in today's ranking system...and Masters Series finals were still five-set affairs.
In 2006, the Federer-Nadal rivalry was just peaking. Nadal was still considered a specialist dirtballer but was increasingly becoming an intimidating presence for the Swiss. After winning his second consecutive title at Monte Carlo in four sets against Federer, he was, in fact, touted as the favorite to add Rome to his tally as well.
On the other hand, it was a golden opportunity for Federer to finally solve this Nadal puzzle which had troubled him for four out of the last five times. Even their costumes matched perfectly. Federer in his pristine white reminiscent of Wimbledon, while Nadal in the bright green, similar to what he wore during his blitzkrieg at the French Open 2008.
The stage was perfect for an epic.
And the match started with a bang. Winners were being hit one after the other, and unforced errors were being kept to a minimum—an exceptional start, more so because it was being played on clay.
The main difference in this match compared to others was because Federer seemed equally comfortable on his backhand wing against Nadal—an area where he has struggled throughout their rivalry.
Federer looked very confident on this stroke as he was not running around the backhand as he normally does. Perhaps it was due to the confidence gotten from getting close in Monte Carlo, he knew he had a great chance that day, more so because this surface was a little faster.
After trading a break of serve, the first set went into a tie-breaker, where he played possibly the best tie-breaker of his life—his breaker in the second set of French Open '09 finals included—as he stormed through by not conceding a single point!
The second set was no different than the first. Federer continued to play a calculative aggressive game, always willing to end the point quickly, but willing to grind through and defend as well. His backhand was exceptionally good as he was winning winners as well as trading moonballs through this weaker side as well. As a result, Federer dictated a lot of rallies and kept Nadal under pressure, just not enough to break him.
Nadal leveled the match in the second and started to run Federer around the court to take the third set as well. It looked as though Nadal would run away in the fourth.
Unfazed, Federer had other ideas, as he went on an all-out attack and broke Nadal twice to set up a tantalizing final set finish. With all the momentum drawn from the fourth, he broke Nadal early in the fifth and it looked all over when Federer was serving at 4-2 and 40-30 up.
Nadal then hit a winner from a seemingly impossible position and broke Federer back. Federer still attacked considerably, and held two consecutive match points—both of which were saved after strenuous rallies.
The final set tie-breaker was no different than the proceedings of the set, as Federer led 3-1 and 4-2 at one point.
Nadal never gave up and ran all parts of the court to make Federer hit that extra shot, and he finally broke Federer's heart after almost five hours of mesmerizing slugfest.
This was as near as Federer ever got to beat Nadal in a best of five set match on clay. This was the equivalent of a tantalizing French Open final we never got to witness between the two best clay court players of this generation. This was probably the reason why Federer had to wait till 2009 to attain his career Grand Slam.
One can only imagine how the rivalry would have shaped up had Federer prevailed on one of those match points, or capitalized his lead in the tie-breaker.
Coordinator's Note on the Series
The experience that sport is is two layered.
One is the experience of living through a match, and the other is the experience of living through memories. Both are always in existence simultaneously, and they paint the picture that sport is for us, the former does the foreground and the latter the background.
On this canvas, there are beautiful things, and ugly, bitter things. The former we savour, the latter, we try hard to forget, but gets embossed more into that pretense of an iron will, the more we try to excrete it from memory.
This series is about the latter—the bitter and ugly things; and among those, the most bitter and most ugly—yes, the Near Misses.
There are different ways in which these misses will be seen. The fans will be sad, the lovers will be heart-broken, the rationalists will just nod their head and accept the results, the proud rationalists will laugh at the fans and the lovers, the existentialists will revolt in silence, and the dreamer will fantasize about the what-could-have-beens.
Whatever is the case, the loser's side, though appreciated and experienced, goes unspoken, and unwritten. But never the less, they deserve to be discussed, shared, and lived together, for such hard blows reveal character.
With this article, this series stands open for public participation, and I will be co-ordinating the proceedings. Please send me a personal message, if you are interested in taking part, and I will reply with the details.
Note to Editors: Please do not change the pagination.