About halfway through Roger Federer’s latest masterpiece, BBC analyst Boris Becker captured the feeling of what was going on.
“There were a lot of comparisons with that [famed Wimbledon final] 11 years ago,” Becker said. “Tell you what, we’re getting there.”
By the end, we had, though only one of Federer and Rafael Nadal managed to make the trip along with us.
Federer has put in some magisterial performances in his career, but they are growing fewer now.
He’ll be 38 years old in a few weeks. He isn’t as quick or deft. These days, he needs to think his way out of problems rather than abracadabra his way through them.
From that tactical perspective, Federer’s 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 semi-final victory on Friday was a master-class in game management. He stuck with Nadal in the early going, rope-a-doped him in the middle, then slowly pulled away.
The score alone suggests one-sidedness. That was not the case. There were a few pivotal moments – an early break in the third, a late opportunity to implode – that could easily have pushed this the other way.
In particular, the last game of the match had a backs-to-the-water, fight-for-your-life feel as Nadal repeatedly repulsed certain victory. Until it was actually won, you’d have laid good money that a fifth set was inevitable.
“We could still be playing,” Federer said much later. “Who knows?”
If it wasn’t the five-hour Federer-Nadal classic of a decade ago, it was a very acceptable facsimile. Some of the exchanges were so exquisite that, watching them live, your mind could not quite compute the physics involved. When these two are together and at their best, what you’re watching is real-life CGI.
There was no showy embrace once it was done. A handshake and a couple of shoulder pats. Something cordial, but just barely.
Nadal stopped himself from fleeing and signed some autographs, as any perfectly happy multimillionaire would do on any perfectly normal day.
The only concession Federer made to what had just happened was a slow, “Can you believe it?” shake of the head that he carried on down the tunnel.
Once he got to the first microphone though, Federer’s impenetrable force field of blasé was back up.
“I thought the match today was played at a very high level,” he said. “It was nice.”
Nadal’s reaction was more telling. He fairly sprinted in to do his postmatch news conference. He did not arrive in a good frame of mind.
All that shy Iberian ease he uses to sell wristwatches had evaporated. Instead, Nadal mumbled, shrugged and sneered his way through answers. He seemed very near to a frothing meltdown.
Someone tried to softball him with a question about his shared legacy with Federer.
“We spoke about that a thousand times,” Nadal said, rubbing his forehead irritatedly and laughing without humour. “We are not done.”
Asked to sum up what his aging nemesis does so well, Nadal came up with a Spanglish descriptor Federer might want carved on his tombstone: “He is always able to do the most difficult things easy.”
You know that thing when you know someone is angry, but figure that if you say, “Are you angry?” they might come out of their chair and punch you in the face while three international broadcast cameras record it live? This was one of those times.
So no one asked.
Nadal has 18 Grand Slam titles and US$110-million in prize money. His legacy is more secure than government bonds. And in that moment, none of it mattered. He’d lost to the one person who cannot be allowed to beat him.
Federer showed zero triumphalism in return. No champion has ever taken his wins and losses with such equanimity.
Like Nadal, he could find no special reason he’d won, or explain why the other had lost.
“I know you guys think we control everything. We don’t. Some balls just fly in and some don’t,” Federer said.
I suppose the same could be said metaphorically of any life, but has anyone ever put more balls in than this guy? On the court, off it, everywhere in between?
That grace is Federer’s real legacy. He first won Wimbledon in 2003, when he was 21. A couple of years later, it was already generally agreed he was the greatest male talent in history.
Over the course of winning a major tournament, a tennis player has to sit in a room full of journalists and be grilled seven or eight times. You do the math. Over the years, that is hundreds of chances to say one wrong thing that sticks to you.
Federer’s never done it once. He’s never even come close. Instead, he walks that invisible line between modesty and arrogance better than anyone ever has. He knows how good he is and takes no effort to hide it. Nor does he feel the need to remind you of it. As remarkably balanced as his game is, his personality is far more so.
If Nadal had perfectly encapsulated Federer’s game, Federer took his own stab at it on Friday: “Good things happen when you try to do the right thing. Bad things happen when you doubt yourself.”
This man isn’t just in charge any more. He’s turning into tennis’s philosopher king.
But there was no whooping it up. Friday’s accomplishments will be buried in the “other news” section of his career clippings if he loses on Sunday.
Federer has never beaten both of his only real rivals on the path to a Grand Slam title. The second test may be the greater – Novak Djokovic on grass.
Should he accomplish it, this title may be his most remarkable feat yet. Given his age and the level of competition, it would certainly be the most difficult. He has nothing left to prove, which may be the key.
“The stars are aligned for me,” Federer said of his year to date.
If Sunday’s sporting exhibition is half as good as Friday’s, for the rest of us as well.