Tennis fandom in the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal era: All you need to know

When Steven Pinker waxes eloquent about living in humanity’s Golden Age, Walter Benjamin’s “every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarity” comes back as haunting riposte. But no Benjamin can qualify the assertion that the last 15 years have been the chosen moment in human history to be a tennis fan. We, the todayers, are truly blessed to bear witness to the divine talents of, and scarcely human displays put on by, Roger Federer and his bromance buddy, rival, nemesis and plausible co-claimant to GOAT (“greatest of all time”) status, Rafael Nadal.

Paradoxically, though, what Roger gives his flock of tennis-watchers with one hand, he partially takes away from the other, a point brought home by the wreck wreaked last weekend by Rafa at the French Open.

All comparisons are odious but inter-temporal comparisons of sporting prowess and achievements are, in addition, indefensible. The sport changes, settings are altered (old versus new grass at Wimbledon), technology intervenes (rackets and strings), human physiology improves (Rod Laver’s forearm versus Rafa’s bulging biceps), and training, fitness, and management methods evolve radically (the solitary circuiteers of the 1970s are replaced today by players with their harems of coaches, analysts, physios, professional soothers and hand-holders, not to mention psychotic parents).

But if you have lived long enough, spectated seriously for 40-plus years, observing roughly three to four generations of players, and been borne up and dragged down with every fortune of your idol of the time, you have sort of earned a right: the right to make comparisons across time based less on objective statistics and more on the reactions of a fan-aficionado. And for someone my age, that right stems from having caught in the teens the end of the great Rosewall-Laver-Newcombe era, and then being fully involved in the eras of Connors-Borg-McEnroe-Lendl, Becker-Sampras, and now Federer-Nadal. That span, and allowing a bit of condescension toward the past, nearly covers all relevant tennis history, give or take a Tilden, Budge, von Cramm, Gonzales, or French Musketeer.

Having clarified terms and perspectives and drawn all the caveats, it is time to substantiate the Pinkerian claim as applied to tennis. This is the golden age because never in tennis history have two insanely gifted players played at the same time, and played such unusual and contrasting styles of tennis. So, it is not just that Roger and Rafa are GOATs, they are GOATs in their own distinctive and inimitable ways. All the clichés about the contrasting twosome are, of course, true: the serve-volleyer and the baseliner, the swift executioner and the attrition practitioner, the ballerina and the bull, the floater and the pounder, the one not breaking a sweat after five hours of toil while the other is all straining effort. The odds are low of there ever being another era of two great players but those odds lengthen into nullity of the two being as different as Roger and Rafa.  

But there is a twist in the tale. We are privileged to have had these two maestros, and yet the most flawlessly efficient tennis of any one season in nearly all of tennis history happened arguably in our times in the form of, yes, Novak Djokovic in 2011. Uncharitable though it may be, Novak is not the GOAT, nor terribly distinctive, and yet he, not Roger or Rafa, gave us the winningest season of dominant tennis. Of the three, it was Novak who came closest to winning the Grand Slam (in 2011) and only the forgotten wiles and clutch serving of Roger came in the way at the French Open. He, not Roger or Rafa, held all four Grand Slam titles at once. And the most competitively thrilling, high-octane tennis that we have seen were the Novak-Rafa contests at the Australian and French Opens, eclipsing on that specific metric even the Roger-Rafa encounters at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. 

In short, we have been privileged to see the prodigious and diverse talents of Roger and Rafa, and for one season, also the ruthless dominance of Novak. When has that ever happened before?

But why is Roger the giver also a spoiler? Here I speak as a besotted believer. Over the years, we have been so enthralled and so wanting the best for him that secretly we have wished Rafa’s failure so as to not undermine Roger’s GOAT status. Deep in our hearts, we know that that status is forever asterisked because in their head-to-heads Rafa has been dominant, often embarrassingly so. We know our vulnerability to that barbed Wilander question: “How can Roger be the greatest of all time if he is not even the greatest of his time?”

Rafael Nadal
But our fandom has extracted a subtle cost: it is not just that zealotry has made us ill-wishers of Rafa so that Roger can reign supreme, it has come in the way of fully and objectively reveling as fans in Rafa’s incomparable greatness. As Roger cultists — over-rating his niceness while under-acknowledging Rafa’s — we have paid a price as tennis fans. Think of it: where are the paeans to Rafa, where is the prose-poetry to describe his tennis, where is his David Foster Wallace? That omission is telling because it is becoming increasingly clear, and the latest French Open confirms beyond doubt, that Rafa belongs in that pantheon of tennis gods alongside Roger.

Who has so dominated one surface like Rafa while always contending on others? Who has produced that vicious kicker spin where the ball, as heavy as Rafa’s drenched t-shirt, apparently sailing long comes thudding down in defiance of gravity only to rear venomously high for the opponent? Who has practised the clichéd coach’s exhortation to play with give-it-all intensity every point, whether in training or tournament, satellite or Grand Slam? Who has that inside-out forehand from mid-court that can be dispatched with late deceit? Who can hit that slap-slam forehand-masquerading-as-backhand, and find shallow angles from locations closer to adjoining courts? Whose defence and commitment to retrieval can unleash the demons in your mind even before you have tread foot on the tennis court? 

Novak Djokovic
Who had any business to enjoy a tennis longevity so incommensurate with the destructive demands placed on his body? Who, oh who, is the most clutch player in history, not just imperturbable under tension but ratcheting up the dial — serving harder and acuter, hitting more viciously, returning more confidently, flirting more brazenly with the lines — on crucial points? How often have we seen Roger’s break points remain maddeningly unconverted into games, sets, matches, more Grand Slam victories? And let us not forget that 17 and counting for Rafa is not that far away from Roger’s 20 Grand Slam titles. Our Roger-rooting has unconsciously blinded us to all things Rafa, preventing us from savouring all his distinctive magnificence.

The Swiss has swanned around the tennis court Nureyev-like for nearly two decades. But it is time for us Federistas to render our long-overdue apologies and begin genuflecting at the altar of the Matador from Majorca. Doubly blessed and doubly blissed have we been to be alive in the Roger-Rafa tennis era. And, oh my god, it is not over yet.
Arvind Subramanian is the chief economic adviser to the Government of India

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