Note: This is not about the Patriots win in Super Bowl LI, a horrifying evening that started like a dream result - a Falcons unexpectedly comfortable win - and devolved into a slow nightmare that willl haunt me for years to come. No, I'll address that, and my general thoughts on football going forward at a later time. Probably reconnect it back to my piece right before the season started titled 'Learning to love the NFL without Manning'. This is about the other tough loss my sports fandom had to endure the past fortnight, Rafael Nadal's crushing defeat to Roger Federer.
Twice before, I've written about the concept of acceptable losses. First was when the Spurs lost to the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, after choking away Game 6 and the ability to win a 5th title against the best of the LeBron-era Heat teams. The second was two years later, when the same Spurs lost a Game 7 to the Clippers in an incredible back-and-forth affair. What made the first loss acceptable was the respect the Spurs effort engendered them to with the NBA and sports public. What made the second loss acceptable was more or less the same, plus the additional bonus of what happened the year in between - the Spurs winning the NBA Title 4-1 against the Heat, capping it off with maybe the best three-game stretch of basketball ever played.
**Quick note, a few other acceptable losses in my lifetime as a sports fan: the 2012 Devils Stanley Cup Final loss to the Kings, as they beat the Flyers and Rangers with Marty Brodeur having one last turn-back-the-clock playoffs. The Raiders playoff loss this year because the future is so bright. And in a very hindsight is 20/20 way, the 2012 Broncos divisional round loss to the Ravens, as I should have just been happy to have a healthy Peyton back in my life, and the Ravens at least made good and beat the Pats and won the Super Bowl, giving Ed Reed the ring he so rightfully deserved**
For a third time I will write about an acceptable loss, but if anything what is more special is not the fact this is an acceptable loss, but the fact that I can consider it that when I saw my favorite tennis player lose to his long-time rival up a break in the 5th set, squandering any realistic chance to catch that rival in all-time career slam wins, and basically end once and for all the debate of who the best tennis player is. Yes, Rafael Nadal's loss is very much acceptable, and what made that match so much more special is that if Nadal was able to maintain his one-break edge in teh 5th set and take it home, my friends that are Federer fans would probably say the same thing.
I don’t know whether it was a more mature understanding of sport, or a secret admiration for Roger Federer developed over time, or just an acceptance that rooting for the 2nd best player isn’t all that bad, but I was more or less fine with that result. If I rewind 5 years, let alone 10, that match would have horrified me (Note: arguably even more so than the Super Bowl would a week later). My guy didn’t play all that well, but came up huge in big moments. The match was, in terms of the scattershot nature of the play, somewhat similar to the 2009 Final they contested. In that match, Federer was probably the better player in the first four sets, but Nadal just wouldn’t go away. Ultimately, he broke Federer early in the 5th set, ran away with a 6-2 finish, and emotionally broke Federer – reducing him to tears in the postmatch speech. Eight years later, Nadal was outplayed but not deterred, and broke Federer early in the 5th set. It was all set-up. A script we’ve seen so many times before, where over time Nadal just breaks Federer’s will. Instead it didn’t happen. And I’m OK with that.
That men’s final (and a quick shout-out to the Williams’ sisters final creating an incredibly nostalgic tournament) was a four-hour celebration of the sport, of these two rivals, of two players whose time passed them by fighting back in a way only Champions know how to do. The idea of Nadal, a man who hadn’t so much made a Major Semifinal, let alone win a major, since the 2014 French Open, or Federer, a man who had made finals somewhat recently, but hadn’t won a major since 2012 and had missed the last six months of 2016, making a run would have been a legendary story. For both to do it? Pure elation. As a Nadal fan, it was somewhat comforting seeing Federer on the other side of the net, seeing the rivalry that carried Men’s tennis to its highest point ever, on the center stage.
You could see it in the way Federer spoke about the match after he won. Roger Federer was never all that conceited, but hid his much deserved arrogance behind a sweet demeanor, but he spoke beautifully. You really felt when he said that he wished tennis had draws so he could split the trophy with Rafa that he meant it. This tournament wasn’t just about #18, but about turning the clock back to when he ruled the sport, before Djokovic passed him, before Murray passed him, before his own countryman in Stan Wawrinka passed him. Playing Nadal in a major final was just a sign for Federer that all was right in the tennis world. Better for him he won it this time.
For Nadal, you can say the same as well. Ever since he won his 14th slam in 2014, ending a period where he won three out of five slams, making a final in one of the other’s, he was on top of the world. If anything, he fell farther, quicker than Federer did. Long a man who did his best in the slams, where he would grind player’s will over 5 sets, he started tensing up at big moments, losing winnable 5-set matches to Andreas Seppi, Fernando Verdasco and Lucas Pouille in the last three hardcourt slams he played. Nadal was unfortunate in that his peak overlapped with both Federer and Djokovic’s peaks. Federer had that 2003-06 period before Rafa became an all-court threat and Djokovic was just a prodigy to be to lock up 9 majors. Similarly, Djokovic has had the last three years when Nadal and Federer were either too injured, too old or both. Nadal never had that stretch, and more than anything it was just a joy to watch him play for a major again.
Over the last two years as a Nadal fan, with it seeming increasingly more likely he may never win a major again, it became, for the first time, easy to accept my fate of rooting for the guy who would never be the best. Sure, Nadal had Federer’s number head-to-head, and had a resume that makes him an easy argument as the 2nd best player ever, but he wasn’t the first best. And he shouldn’t be. Federer was better, Federer was more peerless. Federer was both an emotional artist in his beautiful play and a robotic genius in his ability to stay healthy, stay active and stay so darn good deep into his 30s. Federer is the greatest player in men’s tennis history. His highs were higher than anything we’ve seen. His longevity will likely be better than anything we’ll ever see. I’m fine admitting that. I’m fine admitting Nadal isn’t the best. I’m fine because Nadal has done enough to hold his place so easily at #2, has provided the sport a lift when it most needed it (a Nadal-less Tennis would have faded mightily in the mid-00’s if, say, Federer won 11 straight majors). Nadal was a part of probably the two best rivalries in men’s tennis history. Rafael Nadal had written his history already, but the coda was missing, and while I wouldn’t be surprised at this point to see him win the 2017 French Open, even if the 2017 Australian Open Final loss is the last great moment, it was sure great. Made even greater with Federer being across the net.
More than anything, this was a great celebration for the rivalry that made the sport. More than anything, it proved that rivalry may not be the right word. Rivalry has a hidden tinge of malice, or tension between the two combatants, like the Ravens-Steelers, or even, for an individual example, the Serena-Sharapova rivalry back in the day. Nadal and Federer surely have played enough great matches for it to register as a rivalry. The most notable was the 2008 Wimbledon Final, at this point more or less accepted as the Greatest Match in Tennis History. Right behind it was the 2009 Australian Open final (Federer actually said in an interview he considers this match to have the highest level of shotmaking of any Roger-Rafa match). But if anything, that match ended the truly malicious or tense part of the rivalry.
This was the match Federer accepted Nadal as his equal as a legend of the game, and we can poetically point to one singular moment. When accepting his trophy, Federer broke down on the stage, crying uncomfortably as a stunned crowd applauded. He receded back to gather himself, and Nadal was called up to accept his trophy as the Champion. Nadal accepted his trophy and instead of starting his speech, immediately went back to Federer and put his arms around the still-crying Federer, embracing him in a moment that should be cemented for life. I have witnessed two incredible displays of earnest sportsmanship by one of my favorite players in my lifetime as a fan. The first was Peyton Manning’s short message to Bill Belichick after last year’s AFC Championship, “This might be my last rodeo, so I want to say it sure has been a pleasure.” The second was Nadal embracing his biggest competitor. Instead of exalting in breaking Federer’s will and spirit to inconceivable levels, he embraced the fallen comrade instead.
These were the two greatest competitors of their era, and Nadal took his time to console Federer. Eight years later, Federer got his chance to pay it back with him saying he should split the trophy. He meant it. The two greatest players in tennis history competed in a great five-set final, with drama, with shotmaking, with strategy, with everything anyone could have hoped for. And at the end, they got to show what great class acts they are, what great ambassadors they were, and while the tennis world may be split in two distinct camps, the two players aren’t. And neither am I anymore. They were happy to play each other, and we all, including me, a die-hard Nadal-ite, were just as happy to witness it.