Cast your mind back to 2011.
Apparently around 6 million people tuned in to watch Roger Federer play Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open men’s tennis final last Sunday. One can only guess at the number worldwide.
Federer captivates in a way that very few athletes ever have.
There’s a very simple measure of this – people who don’t normally watch tennis will watch Federer, and though they know very little about the sport or the difference between a slice backhand and a topspin forehand, they are very aware that they are watching something special, something that transcends two people whacking a ball back and forth over a net.
So what made the final so memorable?
When worlds collide, everyone pays attention. Last Sunday, not only did this happen, but a whole host of other factors converged to produce a date with destiny that barely managed to contain the hopes and near hysteria of one of the biggest ‘what if’ moments in sport.
Let’s look at all the puzzle pieces so we can understand the beautiful picture that was made.
Neither Federer nor Nadal had any business being in the final in the first place. The 35-year-old Swiss and the 30-year-old Spaniard had both suffered long layouts with career-threatening injuries that saw them enter the tournament severely underdone.
The Federer-Nadal rivalry ranks highly in the annals of sport because of its peculiar nature. It presents the greatest player of all time versus the greatest player of the greatest of player of all time.
There were question marks hanging over each player. Nadal’s lead-up match was an energy draining, epic, five-set encounter against a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov. Federer took a groin strain into the final.
Even though Federer, thanks to his association with Stefan Edberg, has developed a more aggressive and attacking style of play in later years, the match up on paper against Nadal still heavily favoured the Spaniard. The pre-match tips of Lleyton Hewitt, Jim Courier and Darren Cahill all went, albeit with heavy heart, to Nadal. Make no mistake, Federer was the underdog for this match.
There was always been a pattern of sorts to Federer-Nadal matches. It’s not uncommon for Federer to come out of the blocks fast. Then invariably Nadal reels him in and takes control. A Federer comeback follows, that for a period ignites the flame of hope, and then an inexplicable stumble, which is all Nadal needs to snuff that fire and take the match.
This nearly happened again on Sunday. With Federer down a break in the third, the pattern was set to play out once again.
But not so fast. This is sport and sometimes the unexpected happens. Federer composed himself and decided to play the ball instead of the man or the situation.
And when Federer plays the ball, well, the world stops and he takes our breath away. Shot after shot found its mark and he created a force that took on a will of its own and wouldn’t be denied.
Millions watched and millions felt it.
Thank you linespeople, thank you ball boys and girls, thank you Rafa and thank you Roger.