Australian Open Men’s Final
Melbourne, February 1st, 2009
Reinvention. It was as beautiful as the Melbourne night sky. Yet another Grand Slam final played out by two of the greatest ever tennis players, was a true study in reinvention.
That Rafael Nadal won his sixth Grand Slam and maintained his apparent hoodoo over Roger Federer in Grand Slam finals is but a sub-plot to what was on display here. Here was a tennis match we should discuss and savour for as long as we play tennis. That’s not because it was the greatest tennis match ever played. It wasn’t. Their previous Grand Slam dalliance at Wimbledon in 2008 was better for its sheer technical brilliance. But that’s not the point. The point is that we should talk about this match in the context of all tennis because it proved that we, as sports players and fans, and as people, must constantly reinvent what we do and how we do it if we are to better ourselves and better the way we live.
Nadal has reinvented the sport of tennis. He plays it in a way no other player before him has ever done. Where we once marvelled at the pure grace and sublime skill of Roger Federer, and the way he seemingly played his tennis racquet as a virtuoso violinist would play a Stradivarius, now we gasp at the way Nadal moulds the entire edifice of tennis – the court, the racquet, the ball, the point – into what he sees fit.
Where Federer mastered the art, Nadal has completely reinvented the canvas. It was unthinkable, even at this time last year, that Federer would have to raise his own supreme level. And yet this is now the inescapable truth. His tears in defeat revealed not just that he knows this to be true, but also that he knows not where that next level will come from.
Of course there were moments when Federer was in the ascendancy and a victory for the Swiss looked possible, notably in the third set before the tie-break and in the fourth set. But in the wash-up, was victory ever truly in doubt for the Spaniard? Federer later felt that he gave the fifth set to Nadal. Of course he did; he was broken mentally through the sheer emotional effort of winning the fourth.
Nadal has the terrifying ability to reinvent parts of his game as he plays. Imagine facing up to a player knowing that you constantly have to better your best efforts – literally evolve your game – just to win the next set. That is a daunting prospect, and one that not many players, in any sport, are always able to do. Yet that is the problem Nadal poses because he himself is doing it; evolving, set after set, match after match.
Here we have a player who is changing the way we see the sport of tennis. Nadal has reinvented the tennis player’s physique; he has reinvented the way the ball is struck; he has reinvented the notion of defensive tennis; he has reinvented the importance of the service break. But most importantly, he has reinvented the nature of the game to make it a combative sport where, like in boxing, pain is a barrier that must be burst through in order to clinch victory.
In his book The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes hypothesises that the great champions in all sports are great because when they don’t like their reality, they change it. They impose their will on their environment. Federer has achieved this out of necessity, but Nadal seems to do it out of habit. This is the difference between them and the apparent reason Nadal has beaten Federer in their last three Grand Slam final matches, even in Federer’s stronghold: Wimbledon. Nadal can reinvent any reality Federer attempts to impose. He has a grasp of the building blocks of physics that Federer can but marvel at. For now, anyway.
I say for now because champions like Roger Federer don’t just go away. They look deep in themselves and when all the tears have dried they find that next level. They appreciate what the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and Andre Agassi have done before them and they strive to prove, again and again, that sport is at its best when its players have to reinvent themselves and their sport and that only when we exceed our own expectations do we truly become better, not just as sports people but as people.