BEL18VE TO BEL19VE VIA BEL18VED
Bend but No Break............................
He got broken in the first game of the deciding set. It usually proved to be the kiss of death in their previous meetings. The fatigue of repeatedly exerting the backhand to the metronomic high topspinning forehands and the bullishness of his opponent would lead to a typical collapse. This time he had hoped it would be different. This time Bull was there for the taking he thought. He cannot repeatedly outhit me he felt. He even took a medical time-out to slow things down. On break point, he missed a fairly straightforward forehand not too dissimilar to the one that turned things around against the stylish German on Chatrier.
He put the disappointment away and quickly found his range in the following game. He blasted two anti-aircraft missiles, from the backhand no less, that created two break points to even things. Bull used his fearhand to save and create an advantage for himself. He then held serve with his patented inside out forehand to go 2-0 up. The opportunity was there. The Bull was tired. He was there for the taking but the Maestro failed to make it count. Bull was still ahead by a nose. No player had lost more than four slam finals in a row in the Open Era. The boy from Basel had lost his last three. He bent the Bull but just couldn't break him.
It was a standard affair when it came to his nemesis. He'd take the first set whacking half-volley winners & backhand flicks and just when, seemingly, a rout was on, the Mallorcan Bull would belligerently return those half-volley winners & backhand flicks with spinning interest rates and ruin the Maestro's focus & game plan. The South Afro-Swiss would then go into a shell and play with extreme conservatism, thereby playing right into Bull's hands. Invariably it would lead to Bull turning Matador & Maestro turning dazed & confused bull to end the corrida de toros en corte de tenis.
A 106 mph wiiiiide serve netted: 15-0. A 111 mph serve down the T, hit with vicious swing, hit long, high and handsome: 30-0. A 121 mph serve fizzing down the T that hit the board before Bull blinked. All it took was 42 ticks on the clock. Win the next point and the damage will have been controlled. Love became 15, 30, deuce and not one, not two but THREE break points. All of them saved by 3 aces, each in excess of 121 mph. An advantage arrived 304 seconds after 40-0. He finally took the game with a rasping cross-court backhand that Bull could just net.
Federer went from strength to strength breaking Nadal twice, once reeling 4 straight points from 30-0 down, to take the set 6-1. Three of those points were won by sizzling backhands that pierced Nadal's racket like śrīrāma's arrow pierced the seven sal trees. The first two games of the set took 15 minutes but the last 5 just 26 as Federer was just 6 games away from a slam that looked improbable when he slipped on the hallowed centre court 205 days ago. But, Nadal, playing in his first slam final in nearly 1000 days, responded in typical fashion breaking the 35 year old early in the set. That would be enough to give the Bull set 4 and the first FEDAL slam final for nearly six years would go the distance.
Bend Just Won't Break..........................
The Federer Express rolled through its next service game holding to love. Nadal went 30-0 up. Federer levelled things with a forehand that pushed Nadal wide & gave him a short ball to finish. It was his 122nd point of the match same as Nadal. Nadal went ahead 40-30 but Federer responded with a skidding inside out shot that Nadal hit long. Federer forced another break point, his 4th in 2 games, with a shot that yours truly calls, a thing of indescribable pulchritude, the backhand down the line. Nadal saved it. Another opportunity came and went like the moon. Nadal held firm in the game that lasted 6 minutes and 19 seconds but it seemed like at least 10 times that to his box. The relief was palpable.
BEND BECOMES BREAK!!!!!!
Federer held serve comfortably and even refused a massage from the therapist. He had taken one earlier in the set. The first point of the next game saw an eighteen shot rally end with a cross-court backhand that scorched the surface. Nadal hit a loopy heavy ball to the ad court, Federer ran around and hit a cross-court falling backwards. It had an extra bit of zip and Nadal netted his down the line forehand. Federer bellowed "CHUM JETZE" to pump himself up. They exchanged points and on deuce Federer hit yet another Seven Sal piercing rāghava's arrow, his 14th & final backhand winner, that had Xisca just shaking her head in disbelief.
Nadal responded as Nadal does! He went to his old faithful: looping heavy topspinners to the single handed backhand. It took him just three shots to move the old man and open the court. The third one with just a bit of extra bounce. Federer's return was short. Rafa's eyes lit up. He opened up his body, planted his left foot for pivot and moved every sinew from the thigh, hip, lats and shoulder to produce maximum torque on his patented inside out off-forehand that paints the line. The old faithful failed Rafa this time and the ball landed on the outside of the sideline and Federer was level!
BREAK OPENS THE FLOODS!!!
This time there would be no slip ups on the great man's racket. He breezed through his game in just 85 seconds missing just 1 first serve. Rafa was now feeling the nerves and quickly fell to 0-40 on his serve. The Bull, true to his name, responded in bullish manner and saved all three with some clutch serving. Federer forced his fourth break point of the game with a stunning finish of an engrossing enthralling 26 shot rally. Half-volley pickup stretch down the line forehand. We'll work on the order of the adjectives later.
Nadal saved it with yet another clutch serve that had worked well throughout the two weeks in Melbourne. The Maestro forced another break point with a powerful forehand down the line that Nadal hit wide. Nadal, with that lefty advantage serve, went wide. Federer met it just outside the doubles' sideline and snapped his wrist. The ball caressed the centre of the ad court service box and zipped off the surface. Nadal misjudged the pace and hurried his proprietary banana shot. The ball hit the KIA sponsor's board on the net and Roger Federer was four points away from his fifth Australian Open and less importantly his record extending eighteenth slam.
Bent But No Break
Ask the greatest of servers and they'll stereotypically respond, "Close-out games are the toughest.". Its hard not to feel butterflies especially when you are serving for the match. Even in the most glorious of his glory years, Federer was broken by Nadal when he was serving for the 1st time at SW19. Back then he had an insurance break so he finished the job in his second attempt. A combination of nerves and lightning opportunism from Rafa saw Federer go down 15-40 just like he had in the first game of the set and just like the first game he saved one break point with a 124 mph ace down the T.
And just like the first game of the set Federer got a slow high bouncing short ball almost exactly as the point that turned things around versus Haas on Philippe Chatrier. This time Federer made no mistake as Rafa gave up. Federer got his first match point when Rafa sent a 122 mph kicker that leapt like a kangaroo long. Federer sent a nervous forehand long to muck it. His 20th ace wide brought a second match point. He then sent yet another kicker that Rafa just got to and it sat up nicely. Federer painted the sideline which was confirmed by Rafa's challenge. This time it would be different. This time Bull was taken. He did not repeatedly outhit the nearly 36 year young Federer.
Almost three years ago, Federer was down 2-5 in the fourth set in SW19 before he found a hitherto non-existing 20th gear in his engine to win 5 straight games and take it to a decider. That would be insufficient but this five-in-a-row won his one-for-the-thumb Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. This five-in-a-row also gave his first slam for almost five years. 366 days ago I wrote this after Djokovic eliminated Federer.
Cry because you will not get to watch him about 60 times a year. Wail because there is no substitute drug that is going to keep us high. Lament because it is going to send us into intense withdrawal for which there is no Dr. Drew’s rehab. Mourn because science isn’t advanced enough to help us survive the oncoming detoxification process. It is a 21st century Greek tragedy in the making.
Turns out Roger Federer makes even Greek tragedies have happy endings! As for his legacy, 18 is just a number to rib the haters. Numbers are for mathematicians & statisticians. Roger Federer transcends numbers. Irrespective of whether he won or lost, my admiration could not go higher. He proved how much he loves this game when he jumped for joy after beating Nishikori. He proved how tough he is mentally when he tamed Stanimal's brute on a bum thigh in the fifth set in the semifinal. He proved at nearly 36 he can add new wrinkles and facets to his technique by flattening & zipping his backhand. Rewording John Lennon's succinct description of Chuck Berry quintessentially illustrates Roger Federer:
If you tried to give tennis another name, you might call it 'Roger Federer'.