The match that transcends tennis

There is sport and then there is Roger playing Rafa in the arguably the most significant match in tennis history.

Roger Federer, SF, Rod Laver Arena, 26 January 2017.
Photo by: Ben Solomon/Tennis Australia

There is sport and then there is sport.

Your normal, run-of-the-mill sport is still gripping, it can still be the centre of your world for the 90 minutes of the football match, the five days of the cricket test, but it is soon over and gone.

And then there is sport. Those are the moments, the matches and the characters that live with you forever.

In countless countries and on countless occasions, I have been stuck in strange towns trying to get to unknown addresses and my only mode of transport is a taxi driver who speaks no English. I wave my arms, I point wildly at maps; he stares at me blankly. And then, as I jabber on, the penny drops: I am from the UK. The taxi driver smiles knowingly. “Bobby Charlton,” he says. “George Best.” And I know everything will be all right. Contact has been made. The international language of sport has worked its magic.

As the hours tick away before Sunday night’s final, the world is tuning in. Those who are tennis fans would have tuned in anyway, but there are people out there who will watch this time not because they know anything about tennis but because Roger is playing Rafa. They may not know a topspin lob from a backhand volley but they know Rog and Raf.

Going back to my travels, I have met many a stranger who knows little of tennis but who tries to strike up a conversation. “I’ve seen that chap, what’s his name? Been No.1 for ages? Oh, who is he? Won Wimbledon…” They could mean anyone because they have no interest in tennis. But if you mention Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal, their eyes light up. They know all about them.

Roger and Rafa are not tennis players, they are not even tennis legends – they are sports legends. They are like Pele, Tendulkar, Ballesteros. They need no introduction and no explanation – they just are. And even the ever-humble Rafa is fully aware of the situation. He knows the importance of this final; he knows what it means to himself and to Roger and he knows what it means to the sport. The like of their rivalry will probably never be seen again.

“[The rivalry] was amazing for me, for me and I think for tennis, too,” Nadal said. “Is the combination of two different styles that makes the matches really special.
“Is different way to play tennis. Both of us, I think, having a lot of good success with these two different styles. I feel that this rivalry go not only in the tennis world. People from outside of our world talks about this, and that's good for our sport. Is good that we are back there.”

The final promises to have something for everyone.

For the stats geek, there is the record book to consider. Federer is hoping to extend his record haul of Grand Slam titles to No.18. That would stretch the gap between him and Nadal to four major trophies.

Nadal is hoping to collect his 15th big trophy and so overtake Pete Sampras’s tally (they are tied on 14 apiece at the moment). He is also hoping to become only the third man after Roy Emerson and Rod Laver to complete a second career Grand Slam (win all four majors at least twice).

For the purist, there is the contrast in styles to analyse and dissect: the artistry and fluidity of Federer’s game versus the more muscular, attritional approach of Nadal. Precision v athleticism, attack v defence, forecourt aggression v baseline aggression. And as for the sheer bravery of both men in moments of crisis – neither man will blink in the face of the oncoming truck.

For those of a more frivolous nature, there is the battle of the immaculate Fed against the athletic Raf. As the new saying goes: horses sweat, gentlemen perspire but Roger merely glows. Across the net there is Raf begging the ballkids to mop the pools of sweat on the baseline where he has just been standing. There is the cool Federer easing into his service action as if he was stirring his afternoon cup of tea; there is the hyperactive Nadal adjusting his undies, mopping his face, pushing back his hair, touching his ears, his nose and his forehead – and then doing it all again – before settling in to receive that Federer service.

It is their ninth Grand Slam final, their 22nd final in all and their 35th meeting in a rivalry that goes back 13 years. Between them, they have 31 Grand Slam singles titles and have been world No.1 for 443 weeks (that’s more than eight-and-a-half years). These are two players the like of which we will not see again. And now they are playing each other again for a major trophy.

There are moments in sport that you simply cannot miss, moments that you will talk about forever. Where were you when England won the World Cup? When Don Bradman smashed the Poms for 309 in a day at Leeds in the Ashes? When Shane Warne bowled his ‘Ball of the Century’ to Mike Gatting at Lords? When Australia won the Americas Cup? When Michael Phelps won his 23rd Olympic gold medal? When Usain Bolt broke the 100m world record?

Where will you be when Roger plays Rafa for the AO 2017 title?

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