Home > Australian Open, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer, Tennis > Wait…Do good things really come to those who wait?!

Wait…Do good things really come to those who wait?!

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I admit it. I am an unabashed Federer fan-boy and it took a tennis event of volcanic proportions to rid me of writer’s block and finally update this long dormant blog. As eye-rolling Federer skeptics indulge in a paroxysm of clicks and touches of the back button to head back to whence they came, I will ask fellow #FedFans to join me in yet another deliciously addictive reminiscing of the day Federer turned 18!

It is a state of mind familiar to the most ardent devotees of Roger Federer when I say that it has been two weeks of glorious gorging of all news and media related to Federer. I’ve feasted on every article – mostly mundane, some sublime and a few downright asinine – written about Roger’s pinch-me-hard-because-I-must-be-dreaming victory at the Australian Open. I’ve watched YouTube videos of the match (especially the fifth set!) more times than I care to admit. With each viewing, I’ve marvelled and thrilled at every beautiful shot of Roger’s and Rafa’s in that match – and have cringed at Roger’s numerous unforced errors with the smug sense of relief and none of the usual sense of foreboding and doom felt during a live match – a blissful state of mind that can only be born of knowing that the end-result was favorable.  For the die-hard Roger fan, it has been five years of painful waiting for that elusive 18th title. Five years of hearing self-proclaimed tennis aficionados clicking their tongues with tender pity at his obstinate refusal to acknowledge his sell-by date and gracefully retire. Five years of moments of rapturous promise – like the butt-kicking he unleashed on Murray at the Wimbledon semi-finals a couple of years ago – turning quickly into oh-so-close-but-so-far defeats at the hands of Djokovic at a few finals or the say-it-ain’t-so losses at the hands of power-hitters like Marin Cilic or Raonic. Five years of wondering if people weren’t right after all – that he may never ever win another grand slam again. And yet, five years of arguing with people that a man who loves tennis as much, should play as long as his heart desires – simply because he is still so bloody good at it, even if he doesn’t win as much as he used to! Five years of wondering when the pain that only the die-hard fan feels at his every loss…would ever begin to dull.

 As the saying goes, ‘Good things come to those who wait‘. And boy did that phrase ever make sense on Jan 29th – when the Gods of Tennis rewarded our patience by helping Roger Federer overcome a decade of demotivating losses to win in 5 sets over Rafa Nadal.  Evidence of fate colluding to bring Roger and Rafa together for one more (possibly last) satisfying meeting in a grand slam final, is writ large in the events that transpired over the two weeks. The losses suffered by Murray and Djoker in early rounds, the faster court surface favoring aggression over defense, milder than usual temps Down Under helping our ageing warriors conserve energy – all factors designed to create the black swan event of a “FEDAL” final!  Be that as it may, the final was one for the ages. Drama, tension, see-sawing of fortunes, breathtaking shot-making as well as astonishingly impregnable defense – this match had it all! And for both players, we also witnessed the fascinating juxtaposition of mind over matter and vice-versa.

 Many of the articles I’ve read in the ensuing days has focused on a painstaking analysis of how Roger managed to up-end the now-familiar script of his backhand eventually bowing down to the many RPMs and height generated by Rafa’s topspin forehand. Succumbing to the inexorable march of “Big Data” into the most remote recesses of our lives, tennis is a much measured sport these days. Data is endlessly sliced and diced around first serve percentages, unforced errors, return efficacy, ratio of approaches to net to points won – or various combinations of these measurable aspects. This approach obviously appeals to the geek in me. Being an eternal optimist, I misguidedly hope to glean lessons from this microscopic examination of professional games for profit in my own amateurish attempts at playing tennis. What I – and other lovers of the beautiful game – know intuitively is that no degree of data analysis can explain or demystify the complex ebb and flow of games. To be sure, this obsession with numbers has some utility value – but it feels like today the numbers have assumed a relevance beyond what is truly theirs simply because “Big Data” is the flavor du jour.

The results of poring over metrics cannot (and should not) reduce the experience of magic, like we had in the recent final, to a mundane manifestation in the dry terms of percentages and probabilities. Tennis is an individual sport played all alone. A sport where protagonists have to beat their own inner demons while simultaneously beating the person on the opposite side of the net. The mind matters more than mere matter. Of crucial importance is the fitness regimen that players religiously follow in and off-season, their devotion to spending long hours on the practice court, their single-minded dedication to researching opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and making constant tweaks to their game to stay ahead of the pack (or catch up to it). These aspects are the lowest common denominator for success in today’s game – table stakes to stay relevant. While the effort that goes into preparation undoubtedly accounts for the lion’s share of success on a given day, how does one explain why one player wins and another doesn’t, when this difference in their level of preparation and intensity of effort is so infinitesimally small as to render it a moot point? Can the win and loss be reduced to an analysis of data? I opine not. Body mechanics on the day, mental state in clutch moments, decisions a player takes in split seconds that sometimes may go against established conventions of playing the percentages, how a player reacts to the loss of a hard-fought game with 5 break-points frittered away, how a player resists the urge to alter their commitment to a plan when it is being buffeted by the brutality of Rafa’s topspin (or in some cases how she resists the urge to obstinately stay a doomed course) – these determine outcomes. For instance, at the end of a 26-shot rally of jaw-dropping quality where the flow of control seemed to oscillate between both players, Federer somehow found the gumption to let loose a near half-volley audacious down the line flick for a winner. Or down 30-40 in the final game, he pummeled a deep inside-out forehand that drew him back to deuce. A post-match analysis of the numbers will reduce these two events to a collection of forehands, backhands, winners and errors. Who can quantify how Rafa’s spirit might have been sapped by Roger stealing that point after 26 shots? Or how he dealt with the disappointment of seeing two break points get swallowed up – one by an ace and another by a forehand Roger had no business even attempting, given how much was at stake. 

NOBODY in today’s game embodies the mental toughness required to win in such situations, than Rafa Nadal. My unfettered admiration for Rafa stems from the fact that he is the very Epitome of Effort, a Paragon of Perseverance and the living God of Grit – qualities I hold dearer than mere God-given talent. That Roger was able to mount a fightback from a break down in the fifth set, looking down a fully loaded barrel and in such emphatic fashion reel off 5 consecutive games to win the title, makes the victory simultaneously hard to believe and sweeter than sin. His backhand assumed an air of authority and impunity that it rarely ever exudes against Rafa, while his usually-reliable serve and forehand also continued to fire on all cylinders. The result was an almost Wawrinka-like backhand beatdown that we had never seen in a Roger vs Rafa match before. In fact, in that last set it almost seemed as though Roger’s backhand was more reliable, more incisive and far more likely to generate sharply angled winners than his forehand! Throwing caution to the wind, firing audacious winners from both wings and keeping unthinkable levels of pressure on the Rafa serve, Roger pulled off a great escape of Houdini-esque proportions and in victory applied much needed salve on the wounds of the patiently devoted – like me.

It was beautiful, blissful and immensely satisfying – all at once. When that final hawk-eye challenge went in Roger’s favor, I felt like Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne in the climactic scene in my favorite movie of all time – The Shawshank Redemption – when he breaks out of prison by crawling through a river of unspeakable filth to emerge free (and figuratively clean) on the other side. We may never again experience all elements of the universe conspiring in such fairytale fashion – but we can continue to hope that it will. And we can keep hoping that Roger can continue to play, like only he can, as long as his spirit wills him to enjoy the game that has given him so much and to which he has given in equal measure.

Onward now to Wimbledon. Let’s hope there’s more magic in them old bones to water the green lawns with his tears one more time. Go Roger!

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