International Blog – Michael Dickens
On the eve of this year’s Wimbledon, Tennis Channel and the BBC will air a documentary on the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry that features and celebrates both iconic players and their storied rivalry through the lens of the 2008 Wimbledon final – arguably the greatest match in tennis history – which became the subject of the book Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played by L. Jon Wertheim.
“As a rule, you use superlatives at your peril,” Wertheim recently wrote in looking back at the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final. “When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met on Centre Court that Sunday afternoon (and evening and night) in July, it marked the rare sporting event that lived up to the considerable hype. And then eclipsed it entirely.”
The two-hour documentary, which debuts on Tennis Channel on July 1 at 8 p.m. ET with additional airings scheduled throughout the Wimbledon fortnight, will show how the rivalry is not only the most dynamic in tennis, but in all of contemporary sport. It features interviews with both participants, Federer and Nadal, as well as Wertheim (now executive editor and senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a contributor on Tennis Channel) and others who covered the 2008 final such as Ted Robinson of NBC Sports (who was the principal commentator of the broadcast shown in the United States) and David Law of the BBC. It is interspersed with perspectives from Hall of Famers Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova, who were a formidable rivalry back in their day, as well as Hall of Famers Björn Borg and John McEnroe, also another formidable rivalry at Wimbledon.
“I don’t know if Roger would still be around if Rafa hadn’t been born,” says Navratilova. “You embrace that this rivalry is bigger than you,” adds Evert.
“He was the king of clay; I was the king of grass,” said Federer during Strokes of Genius. “Through Rafa I became a much better player throughout my career.”
Nadal adds, “Federer’s tennis is excellent in every way. I play with intensity and he plays more elegantly, more aggressive.”
“If you scratch underneath the surface you realize that we’re probably quite similar,” admits Federer.
Strokes of Genius is more than mere nostalgia – and, thankfully, both players willingly participated in this documentary. In fact, the documentary stands out for its timeliness. Both players are still on the top of their respective games. Nadal is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and Federer is a very close No. 2. Combined, they’ve won the last six Grand Slams. The promise of another Federer-Nadal final is very real.
Strokes of Genius uses an original classical music score by Jeremy Turner set to footage of steadily building set-and-match turning points “and the razor-wire tension of two tie-breaks with the title on the line to capture the poetry and drama of tennis on its greatest stage.”
Through the years, Federer and Nadal, who are seeded No. 1 and No. 2 at this year’s Wimbledon Championships, have formed the most dynamic rivalry – not just in tennis but in all of contemporary sport. Thanks to the built-in collegiality of tennis, the two are good friends off the court and show tremendous respect for each other while on the court. It’s pretty remarkable when you think about it that Federer, who turns 37 this summer, and Nadal, who turned 32 at the French Open, are not only two of the oldest and longest-tenured players on the men’s professional tour, but also remain the most dominant. Already this year, Federer has won the Australian Open and Nadal the French Open. It’s easy enough to build a case for why Federer should reign at Wimbledon, again, as this fortnight plays itself out.
Looking back at the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal, in what has become the seminal event in the Open Era of tennis, the Swiss maestro Federer came in as the Wimbledon champion for five consecutive years. He was right on track to take his place as the most dominant player – male or female – in the history of tennis. And, yet, it was during the fading daylight of the five-set epic journey that Federer shared with Nadal, won by the Spaniard, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7, that the swashbuckling Nadal met the moment. As Wertheim described it, their captivating match was “essentially a four-hour forty-eight minute infomercial for everything that is right about tennis – a festival of skill, accuracy, grace, strength, speed, endurance, determination, and sportsmanship.”
Beyond their records, we learn, the Federer-Nadal rivalry was heightened by their clashing styles. “One could spend hours playing the compare-and-contrast game,” Wertheim wrote in Strokes of Genius. “Federer versus Nadal embodies righty versus lefty. Classic technique versus ultramodern. Feline light versus taurine heavy. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus an unapologetic, whoomphing brutality. Zeus versus Hercules. Relentless genius versus unbending will. Polish versus grit. Metrosexuality versus hypermasculinity. A multi-tonged citizen of the world versus an unabashedly provincial homebody. A private-jet flier versus a steerage passenger. A Mercedes driver versus a Kia driver.”
For once, Federer would experience the unfortunate truism of tennis, explains Wertheim. “128 players will enter a Major tournament, and 127 will start the next event on a losing streak. And he would experience this irony: for years he did virtually nothing wrong. Yet all those casual fans were going to know him as the loser of the Greatest Match Ever. … He was gaining more renown in defeat than he had for any of this triumphs.”
Today, Federer is the most decorated men’s Wimbledon champion with eight titles. “While the 2008 loss to Nadal was disappointing, it was not so crushing to him, and by extension, shouldn’t be so devastating to his fans,” says Wertheim.
“I had to embrace the idea of a rival,” says Federer during Strokes of Genius. “In the beginning, I didn’t want to have one. And then, eventually, I realized there’s something good to take out of these situations. So, I maybe have to adjust my game a little bit. I don’t like to do that, per se. But why not? Let’s go.”