Not to mention that Federer, in his five year run of greatness, has maintained such a totally dominant physical and psychological edge over every opponent. He garnered the nickname Darth Federer when he wore black once in the final and appeared like a black-clothed tennis exterminating machine, completely unflappable and untouchable. To watch Federer has been to watch tennis played to perfection: perfect body control, perfect power, perfect temperament and perfect focus.Only one thing has seemed to be able to faze Federer in his unprecedented dominance, and that would be Nadal, who has been the Kryptonite to Federer's Superman, owning an 11-6 lifetime record against him, really the only opponent who has been able to consistently compete with and even outperform Federer over the past five years, though Federer's Wimbledon victory last year seemed to reassert his physical and mental superiority to Nadal, as well as to every other tennis player who has ever lived.
But Nadal was having none of that this year. In contrast to Federer's polished perfection, Nadal has the appearance of a raging wild beast, all sweat, sneers, stringy hair, grunts and fist pumps. For all of Federer's graceful precision, Nadal has equal amounts of pure energy and athleticism. And both have unparalleled competitive wills: the same brilliant fire that illuminates Federer also radiates from Nadal. In the Wimbledon finals, Nadal jumped to a two set lead and seemed poised to win in three sets. But Federer, regrouping during some timely rain delays, came back to win the third and fourth sets, setting up an epic fifth set that stretched beyond anything that Wimbledon's storied history had ever seen and into the deepening London twilight. In a fifth set of a final there are no tiebreakers, and so the match went into extra games, with the champion being whoever could string together two straight victorious games. Finally, Nadal broke Federer to take an 8-7 lead, and then he served out his final game to claim the victory as he collapsed along the baseline. When he arose, his face was streaming with tears of triumph and exhaustion. Federer graciously congratulated him as they both accepted their trophies.
Tennis is virtually alone in the world of sports in its intra-dynamics, a one-on-one direct competition, two competitors facing each other across the net, directly interacting, slugging it out and trying to beat each other. No teams, no court-side coaches, no timeouts (unless you're lucky with a rain delay). And in a five set match, there is so much time for momentum to build and ebb, so many turning points, so much endurance required. What made this final so singular was that it was a face-off of the two unquestioned best players on the planet, each at their prime (though perhaps Federer is on the backstretch of his greatness while Nadal is still coming off of first turn of his), with each playing flawlessly, relentlessly past all boundaries of normalcy, each refusing to lose, until finally Federer, in what could only be total mental and physical exhaustion, showed the slightest chink in his armor, and Nadal, the ursurper to his throne, rushed in with the dagger to finish him off.
It's hard to say at this point who is the number one player in the world, as the margin between victory and defeat was so razor thin. The edge would have to go to Nadal, but no doubt Federer has several more good years left, and still has the tools and the mental toughness needed to reclaim his throne.
I, along with tennis fans around the world, hope that over the next few years this rivalry, just like this match, continues to ebb and flow, back and forth between who has the upper hand, who is the world's greatest. It is a study in contrasting styles, of how competition can propel rivals to new levels of greatness, of grace versus power.
It is a thrill to behold.
Long live the kings!