Flashback to 2004. What were you doing? I was seven and not doing much. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were beginning a half decade of international dominance on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour.
As the 2016-2017 tennis calendar approaches its close, it is appropriate to reflect back on the two tennis superstars and their incredible reign, doing for tennis what any preternatural talent does for its sport. They raised tennis to a level of near-transcendence, enrapturing the world with their consummate abilities and physical absoluteness.
The 2016-2017 year engendered a resurgence for both Federer and Nadal, with each of them claiming all four of the year’s Grand Slams — Federer the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Nadal the French Open and the U.S. Open. The two had been in a bit of a lapse before the year started. Federer was nursing a injury, as was Nadal. All signs pointed to a sad but inevitable decrepitude for both men, the end of two careers that will be gilded in the annals of tennis greatness. But their the genesis of their greatness started long ago.
The enfilade of Grand Slam victories began for Federer earlier than for Nadal. It all started when Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003, defeating Mark Philippoussis. Nadal’s first Grand Slam win didn’t come until he won the French Open in 2005. Fittingly, the two’s first Grand Slam trophies came at the two places they would dominate in near-perpetuity. Federer has gone on to win eight Wimbledons and Nadal has gone on to win nine French Opens (and counting). From the 2005 French Open through the 2010 U.S. Open — 17 Grand Slams later — there was such a surge of greatness from Federer and Nadal that only two men were able to wrest a Grand Slam title from them, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro. The Grand Slam count for each is currently 19 for Federer (most all-time) and 16 for Nadal (second all-time).
The numbers are inscrutably impressive, but there is a certain aspect to both Federer and Nadal that deserves greater description than just statistical presentation. The numbers don’t lie, but these also don’t encapsulate the visual and aethetic greatness of both Nadal and Federer.
As someone who enjoys both playing and watching tennis, it is not exaggeration to say that growing up watching these two play was a godly stroke of luck. It is as if two ends of the physical spectrum are in constant collision, and the end result is always beauty, a diamond that is flawless because it accounts for every single facet. The two players are paradigms of style, Manichean oppositions creating universes in the guise of tennis matches.
Nadal brutalizes the ball, the whip of his forehands creating a torsion so powerful it conjures new iterations of a modern-day Laocoon. These intensely rippling strokes coupled with the speed of a bullet train make Nadal quite literally an elemental force on the tennis court, a bull of violent, indomitable surges.
Roger Federer, comparatively, has the pirouette-ish qualities of a ballerina and the flittingness of a ghost on the tennis court. His strokes — forehand, one-handed backhand, serve — are the epitome of grace and fluidity.
The problem with playing Federer is that the beauty of his game lulls you into thinking his unctuousness contains no power. This is a superficial and churlish notion. Federer has just as much pop as Nadal, and his devastation is sublime. When Federer beats you, defeat comes wrapped with a beautiful bow, while Nadal’s punishment is a bit nastier.
The two of these men together make for a spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Their fierce competition and dual-dominance is to be lauded for eternity, for it is Nadal and Federer who have made the game of tennis what it is today. They have both brought a passion that is unrivaled, and have exemplified what it means to be successful without being haughty.
It is my hope that these 21st century paradigms won’t capitulate to the luxuries of retirement just yet. If I know them at all (I don’t), they will continue their indefatigable thirst for compeitition and continue to be active in the sport of tennis. I believe they have a few more battles in store. And we will nevertheless be better for it, that is for sure.