I have a few core beliefs. First, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are — with due respect to Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, and Novak Djokovic — the two greatest male tennis players of my lifetime. Second, their rivalry is one of the best in the history of tennis. Third, Nadal seems like someone who would have really enjoyed War Horse. I don’t know why, he just does. It’s extremely easy to imagine him telling an interviewer, “I was touched, in my heart, by what that little horse went through.” Federer would have said he liked it but secretly been irritated by the incompetence of the military leaders. Sometimes you can just tell things about people.
So when Federer and Nadal drew each other in the semifinals of the Australian Open, there was no way I wasn’t getting up at 3:30 a.m. to watch. The last time these guys played in Melbourne, they turned in an otherworldly, four-hour-and-22-minute war/ballet/epic that Nadal won 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2, leaving Federer sobbing and speechless. It was maybe their third-best match.
I didn’t know if I could survive the rematch.1 I didn’t know if Earth could survive the rematch. But I had to see what would happen. And oh, I kept a running diary — you know, in case it might help future alien anthropologists decipher the ruin of our world.
First Set: The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer
3:36 am ET — And Federer takes the court in a red polo shirt and snazzy olive jacket. I know not every tournament can be Wimbledon, but it’s really weird to see Federer in anything other than a crisp white suit. I blame the Rolex commercials. He’s like a young Mark Twain at this point.
3:37 — Our first glimpse of Nadal, who’s wearing his classic “so yellow it’s green, so green it’s yellow, so yellow it’s annoying” T-shirt. Is it deer season at Melbourne Park? Is he auditioning to be a goalkeeper for Chelsea?
3:40 — The two players share a tense but courteous hit-around. The hit-around is one of my favorite customs in tennis. Let’s help each other warm up before we try to annihilate each other!
3:43 — We’re treated to our first “Hey, look! Australia!” shot of waves cresting into an idyllic beach. It’s pretty sad, really, given that the beach, and all life on earth, will shortly be coming to an end.
3:45 — We are under way. Federer’s first serve is a fault. Then he reels off four straight points to take a 1-0 lead. I’m not sure this tells us much.
3:47 — ESPN flashes a graphic breaking down Nadal’s 7-2 record against Federer in majors. What’s crazy is that if you took out the French Open, where Nadal’s 5-0, they’d be tied at 2-2. So (a) over half their meetings in majors have been on clay! And (b) they’ve played dead even on every other surface. There are so many fascinating “what-ifs” around this stat it’s hard to know where to start. Does it prove Nadal is better than Federer (because he’s dominated on clay)? Or does it prove Federer is better than Nadal (because he’s made it to more finals on his weakest surface)? What if they’d met in five Wimbledon finals instead? There’s just nothing that isn’t compelling about this rivalry.
3:48 — As if on cue, we get our first close-up on a Nadal super-scowl. This one could melt lead. He looks like a volcano that wants a picnic to erupt on. He won the last point, by the way.
3:51 — Still on his own serve, Nadal somehow puts a Federer overhead smash back in play. A rattled Federer clunks the next forehand wide. And here’s our first Nadal FIST PUMP AND BELLOW!! of the match.
3:54 — But wait! Federer uses a wicked, wicked crosscourt backhand to break Nadal on his first service game of the match. 2-0 Roger. Hello, interesting.
3:55 — Nadal is going back to his usual strategy of working over Federer’s backhand. But now Federer runs around one and takes the point on a dainty forehand drop shot. Suddenly it’s 3-0. Everything looking good for Federer so far.
3:57 — Nadal’s scowl is entering “soccer hooligan in solitary confinement” territory. Federer, by contrast, has yet to register his first facial expression of the match.
3:59 — Federer snaps a backhand, catches the ball on the rim of his racket, and watches it doink to the ground about six inches away. I know this match is the harbinger of the apocalypse, but that was just pure comedy.
4:00 — So, hey, it’s four o’clock in the morning! I’m sitting in a completely dark room eating banana bread while watching the best tennis players of my lifetime duke it out 10,000 miles away. Just another morning on Earth.
4:03 — Nadal finally manages to win his serve, then drops the next game to a couple of astonishing, i.e., utterly characteristic, Federer forehands. 4-1. Federer’s currently serving 93 percent and has won all but two points on his first serve. There’s got to be another shoe here, right? Could we be looking at one of Nadal’s astonishing (i.e., utterly characteristic) “digging deeper than humanly possible and rallying so ferociously things in the stadium spontaneously catch on fire” comebacks?
4:08 — Federer hits his sixth forehand winner of the game, a desperation get that somehow drops in after everyone, including me, thought it was wide. Roger reacts by maintaining exactly the same facial expression and peacefully looking at the ground.
4:10 — Nadal serves an ace to move the first set to 4-2. The camera cuts to a shot of the Nadal box. A lot of dudes brought their Wayfarers to the apocalypse.
4:12 — Big early game coming up. Federer needs a hold to take a commanding 5-2 lead. If Nadal gets the break, we’re suddenly back on serve at 4-3.
4:13 — Leading 15-30, Federer dumps a backhand volley into the net. First moment so far when he’s really looked shaky.
4:14 — At 30-all, Federer misses a backhand down the line. On break point, Nadal rips, I mean just absolutely crushes the holy life out of, a crosscourt backhand winner. And we’re back on serve. Federer was cruising up ’til now. One of those sudden 4-2 turnarounds that completely change the tone of a match.
4:16 — Nadal sneers in a way that says, “If I were the horse in War Horse, I would have conquered Europe, declared myself god-king, and subjected the humans to the lash.”
4:17 — Federer hits three terrible shots in a row to let Nadal hold at love. Four games all in the first set.
4:20 — Now Federer holds at love for 5-4. Tension is building like crazy. It’s impossible to say who’s got the upper hand.
4:23 — Now NADAL holds at love for 5-5! For the record, that’s three straight dominant holds. You could cut the tension with a knife right now. More to the point, the tension could cut you with a knife.
4:26 — Leading 40-0, Federer misses an easy forehand drop shot, the first time either guy has scored on the other’s serve in almost four games. Doesn’t matter, because Federer wins the next point to go up 6-5. He reacts by maintaining exactly the same facial expression … but maybe just flashing an almost imperceptible fist pump?
4:28 — The camera cuts to a shot of Melbourne looking beautiful in the sunset. Enjoy your last glimpse of it, for tonight the horsemen ride.
4:30 — General observation: Nadal’s leaping forehand is one of the most violent-looking shots in tennis. It’s like he’s not hitting a tennis shot so much as he’s decapitating a ghost.
4:32 — We’ve gone to a tiebreak, by the way. Some key match stats: My heart is beating 9,700 times a minute, I’ve consumed about 400 mg of caffeine, it’s 4:30 in the morning, I have an 82 percent chance of experiencing hallucinations within the next five minutes.
4:36 — Federer jumps out to a 4-1 lead in the tiebreak. That earns us the evening’s first cut to Mirka Cam. Based on the refined way she’s clapping, Mirka appears to be off watching an opera somewhere.
4:38 — This could be me hallucinating, but Federer just stopped playing a point in order to challenge a call that the ball was in. He loses the challenge, loses the point, and suddenly it’s 4-3 in the tiebreak. Federer is as bad at the challenge part of tennis as he is good at all the other parts of tennis.
4:38 — Fortunately, he recovers in time to cap off a tough rally with a gorgeous deep forehand volley. 5-3.
4:40 — Federer, suddenly dictating play, pulls Nadal up to the net, where he loses his balance and tumbles to the ground. Three set points. Nadal scowls. Federer reacts by not changing his facial expression at all and dabbing his forehead with a towel.
4:41 — Nadal holds both his serves for 6-5. Federer has one more shot to serve out the set. He serves a fault. Tension is building skyscrapers all over the place. But then Federer somehow wins a cautious rally to take the first set 7-6(5). He reacts by … actually making a small sound and visibly moving his fist. Just unbelievable emotion from the veteran Swiss.
Second Set: The Blood-Dimmed Tide Is Loose
4:45 — Nadal is now glaring at the court surface as if he can see 3,000 miles underground to the place where he will dig to begin his comeback.
4:47 — Federer hits a jaw-dropping backhand passing shot to set up three break points, then wins the first one to break Nadal at love. 1-0 Federer in the second.
4:48 — Nadal is scowling to the point where he appears to be made out of bees.
4:50 — And it helps, because he breaks Federer right back at love. 1-1. Am I crazy or does it almost seem like these guys have a good tennis rivalry? I’m crazy, right?
4:52 — Nine forehand winners for Nadal so far. Nine ghosts currently sprawled headless on the court. Nine ghost families weeping piteously behind their Wayfarers in the stands.
4:58 — Federer’s been consistently going for big shots on his backhand return, and for the most part, it’s been working. Given that Nadal’s strategy against Federer always involves taking his backhand’s lunch money while avoiding its big brother (the forehand), this is potentially a big deal.
5:03 — Isn’t every day Australia Day in Australia? Apparently not! Only today is Australia Day, meaning that we could soon be playing under a sky full of fireworks. Which would be totally appropriate to the occasion, of course. Though it might make it harder to detect the start of the apocalypse.
5:06 — Federer warps in a serve that is mathematically and physically, and kind of morally, impossible to return. Nadal returns it. On the next point, Federer hits a leaping behind-the-back overhead volley, an astounding winner that Nadal somehow chases down and returns for an even more astounding crosscourt passing shot. Are those lights the fireworks? This isn’t just in my head, is it?
5:09 — Nadal wins a huge break point to go up 4-2 in the second. Rafa is now screaming and punching the air after every single point. Big, big game ahead …
5:12 — … which Nadal wins handily. 5-2. Nadal stalks off with a sneer that says, “If I were War Horse, I would have torn the Kaiser apart with my own bare hooves.”
5:15 — And the sky fills up with fireworks. The players leave the court, we’re told, to wait out the show in a “massage room.” The break couldn’t have come at a better time for Federer. He’s looking as tired as I feel. Maybe tireder.
5:25 — Back from the pause, and nothing’s changed: Nadal breaks an increasingly hazy-looking Federer at love to take the second set 6-2. That was a slaughter. That was just straight-up Australian tennis. In France, doing that to another human being could get you arrested.
Third Set: The Ceremony of Innocence Has Drowned
5:27 — And this is basically the story of this rivalry, right? That is, one of the fundamental things that everyone seems to sense about these players is that Nadal has limitless tenacity, never gives up, gets stronger as the match progresses, and loves the fight for its own sake, while Federer, for all his sublime talent, can turn confoundingly soft on the rare occasions when the momentum turns against him. Just every now and again, there’s a Strange Federer Softness. Sometimes you get the sense that he feels he’s proved his point in the early games and expects the rest of the match to fall into line out of courtesy. And if it doesn’t, if things don’t work out as a logical extension of those first few games, he’s taken aback. It’s not that he lacks the mental strength to compete, more that he loses his decision-making ability because he’s genuinely perplexed. He’s like a ship in becalmed waters. Anyway, this third set will be vital for him.
5:36 — Federer overcomes a couple of break points, an ad-deuce-ad deadlock, and seven (!) unforced errors to hold his first serve in the third. It’s 1-1, but right now it’s taking absolutely everything just for Federer to stay in this.
5:42 — Both players hold for 2-2 in the third. It’s still anybody’s set. Talking about the Djokovic-Murray matchup in the other semifinal, Chris Fowler calls it “just about as compelling as this.” Which is true, but that’s the San Andreas Fault of “just abouts.”
5:46 — Mirka Cam shows her delicately clasping her hands together as if vaguely distressed. Perhaps the tenor is in some sort of trouble in the opera she’s watching?
5:49 — Nadal wins a goofy point when the ball clips off the net cord and pops up high just as Federer is rushing the net. It was a lucky break for Nadal, whose sneer says, “I am War Horse, and luck is my bitch.”
5:51 — Federer’s won 17 of 31 net points. Nadal: 3 of 8. Rafa is killing Roger on passing shots.
5:52 — Two more routine holds for 3-3. After the bloodbath of the second set, the third is settling into a more level back-and-forth rhythm. Federer has paused the carnage, at least for now.
5:58 — The camera picks up a bunch of joyful Nadal fans dancing around a Spanish flag, then cuts to Mirka, who runs a thumb coolly along her eyebrow. Let’s be honest: Sometimes it’s hard to avoid national stereotypes when you’re following this rivalry.
6:00 — Like a bullfighter dancing a fiery tango with danger, red cape swirling, castanets clicking on his fingers, Nadal directs a hot-blooded stare across the net toward his pale, aloof, chocolate-loving, punctual opponent.
6:01 — After holding off three break points, Nadal dumps a crosscourt backhand into the net. Federer leads 4-3 — first time in an hour it’s felt like he’s in the match. Federer, of course, reacts by not changing his facial expression at all and glancing idly at his racket.
6:04 — And just like that, Nadal breaks back. 4-4 in the third. The world might be ending, but at least this is mesmerizing tennis.
6:08 — Just a masterful point from Nadal. He uses an off-speed backhand to throw Federer off balance, then works him around the court a little before mercy-killing the point. 5-4.
6:10 — Sneer says: “If I were War Horse, I would still be awesome at tennis.”
6:12 — Federer serves-and-volleys to hold for 5-5. No one can get the upper hand. Somewhere in the distant reaches of space, a star, responding to the tension in this set, unexpectedly goes supernova.
6:17 — And Rafa fights back from 15-30 to hold for a 6-5 lead. Roger will now effectively serve for his life. Stars exploding all over the sky. My heart rate approximately 27 million beats per minute.
6:18 — Federer opens with an ace, then swats a makeable forehand into the net. At 30-30, Federer chunks a makeable backhand into the net. Set point for Nadal. Federer holds it off with a punishing forehand passing shot.
6:23 — The crowd applauds a ballboy for doing something cute. DO THEY NOT KNOW THEY ARE ALL DOOMED.
6:24 — And Federer somehow pulls out game with an ace to send the third set to a tiebreak. Mark my words, if he wins this breaker there will be rioting in Switzerland. (I.e., showing up a couple of minutes late for work, publicly yawning at the opera.)
6:26 — Federer loses his 656th terrible challenge of the match and drops to 1-3. I know I’ve said this before, but Roger’s incompetence with the challenge system is breathtaking. He might have a future as an NFL coach.
6:28 — With Nadal leading 5-1 in the tiebreak, Federer dumps a forehand into the net. Five set points for Nadal.
6:30 — Set point no. 1: Federer uses two sharp backhands to push Nadal into an uncharacteristic forehand error. 6-2.
6:31 — Set point no. 2: Federer rips a forehand so deep that Nadal can only send up a flailing backhand, which Federer slams home. 6-3.
6:32 — Set point no. 3: Federer ace. Wow. Wow. 6-4.
6:33 — Set point no. 4: But Nadal comes back with a topspin-heavy forehand, which Federer blocks clumsily into the net.
6:33 — Nadal takes the third. If just a couple of points had broken differently there, Federer might be winning right now … but isn’t that always how it goes in this rivalry? It’s tough to see Federer coming back from this now.
Fourth Set: The Darkness Drops Again
6:36 — Maybe another way to think about the Federer-as-soft problem is that, temperamentally, Federer is an artist, not a fighter, and for an artist to win against fighters, he has to be on a higher plane all the time — essentially has to be so good he can turn every contest into an exhibition. This may be the thing I love most about Federer, that he’s dominated tennis with a game that feels almost completely detached from the idea of sport as combat. But against Nadal, who’s at least almost as talented as Federer and who plays tennis like someone who’d rather be fighting in the mud with swords, he can’t help but get sucked into a battle, which, sadly, is not where he’s meant to be, even if he still wins some of them.
6:40 — Another way of putting that is that as frustrating as the Strange Federer Softness can be, it’s probably inextricably connected to the quality that made him such a wonderful player in the first place.
6:48 — Stats With Too Few Data Points To Mean Much Korner: Nadal is 8-1 lifetime when holding a two-sets-to-one lead over Roger Federer.
6:48 — Stats With Absolutely No Shortage Of Data Points Korner: Nadal digs around in his pants for the 945th time tonight. Who’s worse at what: Federer at using challenges, or Nadal at picking comfortable underwear?
6:49 — Serving at 2-2 in the fourth, Federer pours yet another forehand into the net. For his backhand being his supposed vulnerability, he’s dying a lonely Arctic death on his forehand right now. He’s hit something like 30 forehand errors.
6:50 — Federer saves a couple of break points to go up 3-2 in the fourth. He reacts by not changing his facial expression at all and moving a stray lock of hair off his forehead.
6:58 — Patrick McEnroe is killing Federer for hitting too many shots to the Nadal forehand and not picking on the backhand enough. That’s basically the artistic temperament, though — it’s not about tactically exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses, it’s about playing even more amazing tennis yourself. Again, this is only a winning formula when there’s an entire extra unoccupied plane of ability separating you from your opponent. Which is the case for Federer against almost everyone, but (obviously) not against Nadal.
7:00 — Still on serve with Federer leading 4-3 in the fourth. 3:15 into the match. It’s starting to get light in my living room.
7:05 — Federer slices an absolutely mind-bending crosscourt forehand at net — he hit it at about a 2 degree angle — for a 30-15 lead on Nadal’s serve. Then he gives it back with a simple backhand error. Nadal directs a mini-fist pump at the ball as it flutters out of bounds.
7:09 — Suddenly, Federer has earned himself a break point at 4-3 and is one point away from serving for the set. But Nadal digs out of it, holds, and watches another invisible ghost crumple to the ground in a pool of its own blood. 4-4.
7:13 — Nadal’s forehand would look amazing from the back of a chariot.
7:14 — Now Nadal earns a break point and a chance to serve for the set. Federer digs out of it with a pair of forehands that look like they came out of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook. At deuce, Nadal just murders a crosscourt forehand winner, across his body, and while moving in the opposite direction, and I’m pretty sure the entire crowd and television audience blacked out and somehow when we came to Nadal was serving for the match at 5-4.
7:18 — And here’s the game everything turns on. First point: Federer spills another forehand. 15-0 Nadal.
7:19 — After Nadal gets out of trouble with a behind-the-back backhand, Federer hits a perfect crosscourt dropshot. 15-15.
7:19 — Whatever happens, it is an absolute pleasure to watch these guys play tennis.
7:20 — Somewhere in the depths of the solar system a terrible pale comet hurtles toward us.
7:21 — Two points from the final, Nadal sprays a forehand wide. 30-30.
7:22 — Nadal pounds a serve deep. Federer’s return goes wide. 40-30. Match point.
7:22 — Federer strings together a series of hard shots to Nadal’s backhand to force him into an error. Deuce.
7:24 — Nadal contorts his face into a mask of savage fury but badly overhits a forehand. Advantage: somehow, Federer.
7:24 — Debris from the shattered moon drops into the atmosphere and plunges toward our cities.
7:24 — But Federer’s way-too-cute overhead floater sails wide. Deuce.
7:25 — Federer hits a crisp backhand return that Nadal plants in the net. Advantage: somehow, again, Federer.
7:26 — Federer compresses the last point by planting his own backhand return in the net. Deuce.
7:26 — Nadal puts Federer on the wrong foot by serving to his forehand, and Federer sends the next backhand wide. Advantage: Nadal. Match point no. 2.
7:27 — A net of green fire sprawls across the sky.
7:27 — And after a rally, Federer loses control of yet another forehand. Nadal wins, drops to his knees, shakes his fists, scrambles to his feet, kicks the corpse of a headless ghost, and looks around for the trophy platform before remembering that this was only a semifinal.
As it has been, so it shall be: Nadal — as always! — wins a close, tense, hard-fought, and frequently thrilling match against a Federer who never quite knew what to do once the fist pumping and bellowing started. Again, pretty much, as always. The win brings Nadal’s lifetime record against Federer to 18-9, including 5-1 on outdoor hard courts, and in the process deals a meaningful blow to the (already shaky) idea that his success against Federer is dependent on a disproportionate number of their matches being played on clay. Federer waves to the crowd and heads for the tunnel wearing the look of utter sadness that is his default no. 3 expression these days.2 Nadal jokes around with Jim Courier, gives a scouting report for Murray-Djokovic, and withdraws, presumably for a celebratory screening of War Horse.
Somehow, the earth survives. For now. I’m turning off the lights to find out whether this meteor shower will let me get back to sleep.