As I reflect upon the out-of-nowhere Australian Open victory by my favorite athlete ever, I am struck by how many times I’ve written premature obituaries. Roger Federer did the impossible by simply reaching the finals, not to mention winning them. He played a gambling, attacking, nothing-to-lose brand of tennis that was breathtaking. Nadal, meanwhile, refused to go down and at one point delivered what announcer Darren Cahill says is the greatest shot he’s ever seen, an angled squash shot that appeared out of reach. Federer is ancient by tennis standards at 35 and Nadal, who has always played a brutal style of tennis, is an old 30. They had no business facing each other.
I’ve written about them both over the years. I’ve always rooted for Federer over Nadal because I preferred the boxer over the yokel (to borrow from Ralph Ellison), Gustave Flaubert over James Patterson, the dancer over the bull. But I also know that the two of them together are greater than the sum of their parts. Many agreed with Chris Evert’s tweet as the Melbourne match entered its fifth set: “Ok… Give the title to the both of them, for heaven’s sake…” When Federer himself said after the match that he would have settled for a draw, he sounded serious.
To honor them both, I turn to a poem that in the past I’ve only applied to Federer. The two men have become good friends, and I imagine Federer asking Nadal to join him in the journey that Tennyson’s Ulysses proposes to his former shipmates.
It may be that our two warriors never get this far again in a major tournament but are washed down dark gulfs, maybe in early rounds. It may also be that, improbably, they achieve the tennis equivalent of touching the Happy Isles and meeting the great Achilles. Perhaps Nadal wins the French Open and Federer wins Wimbledon. Win or lose, however, they have been the twin suns that have lit up “the Golden Age of Tennis,” producing its most memorable matches.
So here is to the two of you, Roger and Rafa. With gratitude:
Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.