Last dance

Growing up, Keats was on my Leaving Cert English. One of the poems I loved was Ode on a Grecian Urn. It’s a lovely poem and the last few words are “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
 
That’s what I mean. He epitomises physical beauty in the way he plays and for anything we see that is beautiful in life we always feel there is a certain truth in it. It is an exposing of truth and that’s why people love sport. 
 
In a world of greys where nothing is clear, sport is clear. Sport defines stuff. We get winners and losers, villains and heroes. We get beautiful and ugly. He is the closest definition to beautiful as you can imagine playing any sport. Ali in his prime would have been a beautiful way to watch boxing. Definitely.
 
Roger also reminds me of a super hero in comic books. Real super heroes like Superman; even when he is under extreme pressure he never looks fully extended. If there is an avalanche or he has to lift up a mountain, he never looks like he is straining. 
 
He lifts the mountain with one hand. He never sweats. That’s Federer: you never feel that he is fully, fully extended. You always feel there is something left in reserve.
 

That's Mario Rosenstock on Roger Federer ahead of last weekend's Australian Open showdown with Rafael Nadal.

I stayed up until 5:30am watching the match. I had not seen near peak Federer and Nadal play in ages, and I'd given up hope that it would ever happen again. It felt like a privilege, a one time entry pass to a time machine that would take me to see two greats clash in their prime. I had some caffeine, to which I'm very sensitive, and plopped down in front of my TV for the night.

Perhaps they are a step slower than before. No one would expect anything less given their ages and accumulated wear and tear. And yet, to my eye, they seemed as good as ever.

I agree with Rosenstock that Federer's chief appeal has always been the aesthetic elegance of his game. Every shot of his seems choreographed for slow motion in an art gallery, like a piece of Bill Viola video art. That he never seems rushed or over-exerted implies that when you master the physical action of something, it becomes easy, not just in practice but in form. 

I disagree that Federer has never been fully extended, though. While his physical movements have never seemed strained, it is Nadal above all who has pushed Federer past his redline. I'll never forget the time Federer cried, after losing the 2009 Australian Open to Nadal, another match I stayed up all night to watch. Nadal owns a 23-12 edge vs. Federer head to head, but more than that numeric edge it's the way he's beaten Roger, almost physically overpowering him, to the point where he's seemed to break Federer's will. Rarely do you see Federer concede sets or go on strategic tilt, except vs. Nadal.

It's such a stylistic contrast, Nadal with almost no strokes that seem as effortless as any shot in Federer's arsenal (watch the highlights from their match and note that Nadal grunts after each stroke while Federer never makes a sound except for the occasional squeak of his sneakers). Every shot Nadal hits seems to require his full exertion, none more so than his forehand, which he hits with more topspin than anyone has ever hit a forehand . His follow through is so severe, the racket whipping up over his head and then back down over his opposite shoulder like a priest trying to whip himself on the back, that even without seeing the RPM statistics it is easy to believe they are unmatched in history.

It is that forehand, aimed at Federer's backhand wing, that has been decisive in so many of their matches. The one handed backhand is beautiful, especially Federer's, but it's a stroke uniquely vulnerable to shots with extreme topspin. Because of the way the human body is engineered, it is difficult to handle high balls, but the alternative, to stand closer and try to take those shots earlier off the bounce, requires incredible timing, strength, and coordination.

That's what was so incredible about Federer's win last weekend. In the past, he'd often shank backhands trying to handle Nadal's forehand, but in this match, I've never seen him hit his backhand so cleanly and aggressively. He sometimes won exchanges in which Nadal hit forehands at his backhand repeatedly (see for example the exchange that starts at 5:37 in this video), something that seemed unimaginable in the past.

More importantly, Federer finally changed tactice. Watch the highlights and look at where Federer's feet are in each exchange. Right up against the baseline. Now go back and watch Federer play Nadal in the French Open in 2007, to take an earlier confrontation between the two, and stare at Federer's feet again. He's several feet behind the baseline. He was taking backhands on the rise off the court, and whether it was his new, larger racket, which he switched to in recent years, or just improved timing, he was hitting the backhand as clean and as hard as he's ever hit it.

Commentators have long remarked that they'd love to see him switch up his strategy to challenge Nadal, his nemesis. Attack more second serves, approach net more, anything but trade with Nadal from the baseline. He did some of that in the Aussie Open final, but quite he was the aggressor while staying at the baseline. It was a surprise. The faster courts in Melbourne helped, but to switch things up at age 35 required, most of all, a fluidity of mind. What is it they say about old dogs and new tricks?

The chief obstacle to seeing them meet like this again is probably their health, and so I hope they start taking more extended breaks between the majors to rest rather than work themselves to death in practice or in other tourneys on the circuit. They've done the grind in the past. What we want now are just the peaks.