At one point in the Tennis Channel documentary Strokes of Genius, we hear the voice of commentator Ted Robinson – “Is the Spaniard really going to beat Federer in his own house?” There’s genuine concern in the voice, a break from his otherwise impassive commentary during the match. Rafael Nadal is two sets up in the 2008 Wimbledon final, and a tournament he has lost over the past four years (but got gradually better at) is well within sight.
Some more passionate supporters look on with ‘blasphemy’ written on their faces, as an outsider desecrates their temple and God, sporting that pristine demeanour. As the second set came to a close, there is widespread disbelief among the fans, much like in Robinson’s voice.
But then it would be wrong to assume that Robinson was alone, when he believed that Roger Federer would only have to show up on Centre Court to win another Wimbledon title. Not in 2008, as many of us would eventually find out. There was a beast on the other side, who was playing with a hunger that no one, especially Federer, had ever seen. An unrelenting Rafael Nadal was not only posing difficult questions to Federer, but he had managed to do something few have managed till date – make Federer look like he didn’t belong. With Nadal’s two-set lead, Federer’s bid for a record sixth consecutive Wimbledon title was hanging by a thread.
As much as the documentary delves into what John McEnroe describes as the ‘greatest match I’ve ever seen’, it also deconstructs its two champions. What was the atmosphere like, before that final? How did the events leading up to this epic final, add up? What made this rivalry special? What was its impact in the world of tennis and sports in general?
Answering all these questions, the documentary features the interviews by not just the two players in question, but also former rivals like John McEnore/Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova/Chris Evert. It is a relationship few people experience, something Navratilova interestingly describes as ‘intimate’. She recounts having shared the podium with Evert, when she was at her most vulnerable and vice versa. Similarly, McEnore talks about how Borg ‘demanded’ him to play at a level, he himself never expected of himself. It forces us to count our privilege of being witness to this once-in-a-generation rivalry like Federer & Nadal’s. One exists because of the other.
In a rare moment of candour, Federer sheepishly concedes – “Those first two sets I really didn’t *believe*, I could win.” And then further goes on to recount the humiliating loss inflicted upon him at the 2008 French Open finals, only a fortnight before the historic final in Wimbledon. Federer won only five games in the clay court final, and the fact that Nadal was catching up on grass and getting better seemed to be troubling Federer. Even as he manages to eke out the next two sets before losing in the fifth, the 2008 Wimbledon final was important because Federer discovered his nemesis. Each match up till then was a battle between a champion and his challenger. After Nadal’s first win at Wimbledon, each match would become full-blown war.
But never did the ruthless competition make things bitter between two. Never did either of the players do anything on/off court, that would be considered a ‘cheap shot’. It was fair sport; both players did their best. When one of them won, the other congratulated them with a smile. It takes a certain level of mutual respect for someone like Nadal to say how much he ‘admires’ Federer’s style and that anyone who didn’t understand his opponent’s exquisite, effortless style probably didn’t understand much else in tennis.
This rivalry is Utopian, and it all peaked during that poorly-lit evening in London, a decade ago.
Watch Strokes Of Genius over here: