Our own dapxin has led me to Matthew Syed's probing analysis of The Rivalry, entitled in the print edition, “Rafa’s priceless gift for Federer – defeat”:
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier will probably for ever have the last word on great sporting rivalries, but there is something about the tectonic collision between Federer and Rafael Nadal that has taken their struggle for supremacy beyond anything we have seen in tennis.
It is not just the exquisite contrast in styles and temperaments and the special talent that, in their unique ways, they share. It is not just that they have elevated each other's games to levels that leave us shaking our heads in disbelief instead of merely clapping. It is not even that they have produced two successive five-set finals, first at Wimbledon last July and now in Melbourne, so epic that Tolstoy could have written novels about them.
No, the true meaning of this rivalry - as with that of all great rivalries - is to be found deep within the two men as they ask questions of each other that they never imagined they would have to answer on a court.
There was a time when Federer's pursuit of Pete Sampras's record of 14 grand-slam titles had all the trappings of a procession, particularly after he defeated Fernando González, of Chile, without breaking sweat in the 2007 Australian Open to move into double figures. He was, like Ali in 1966, surveying a world so bereft of adequate challengers that his opponents seemed part of the act. Here you go, Roger, why don't you pass me; here, matey, a nice forehand for you to smash away a winner.
Fair use disallows me from quoting too much more of this outstanding essay, but surely you will all read it for yourselves.
I've become tired of this rivalry, moreso because of the way in which it is covered, not the way in which it has been played out. Clearly, this blog comes alive after a Rafa-Raja final, and so do I. The psychology of this rivalry is about as compelling as any I've ever seen in tennis and some of that has to do with the ways the talking heads cover it.
Syed is the first person I've read or heard that has lauded Rafa for his "brilliant tactical brain." Of course, Rafa is the greatest competitor on the tour, but he also possesses one of the greatest minds. As Syed sees it:
Part of the joy of his contests with Federer is watching the way he mercilessly tests the arc of the Federer backhand, those high, looping, teasing topspins forcing the Swiss to execute a stroke that looks almost vaudevillian.
Federer responded in Melbourne by stepping in and taking the backhand, where possible, on the up. But Nadal was not discouraged, switching the play, using the expanses of the court, testing Federer's legs, before shunting it back into the backhand side. The ebb and flow, thrust and counter-thrust, was magical.
That, for me, is the crux of it. Rafa outsmarts Raja. On every surface. Back when Raja dismissed Rafa as "one-dimensional" his fans defended him for simply telling the truth. But I never saw Rafa's game that way. Unconventional, yes. One-dimensional, no. And, from where I sit, part of Raja's breakdown on Sunday had to do with him finally realizing that he wasn't just being outplayed by Rafa, he was also being outsmarted and that, above all else, was the thing that was "killing him" the most.
Syed concludes his essay thus:
Nadal will loom large over Federer's every waking thought as the Swiss attempts to regroup, the world No1's muscular shadow forcing Federer to ask himself a string of searching questions. Should I enlist the services of a coach? Should I remould the backhand to cope with the vertiginous bounce of Nadal's topspin? Should I cut the amount of court time and get down the gym to fashion a level of fitness comparable to the indefatigable Spaniard? Should I restructure my season to focus exclusively on Wimbledon and the US Open?
But amid the questions, Nadal has also handed his greatest rival a priceless, if daunting, opportunity. It is the same opportunity that Frazier handed Ali, McEnroe handed Borg, Prost handed Senna, Duran handed Leonard and Spassky handed Fischer. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the resilience that so many of Federer's erstwhile cheerleaders think is beyond him. It is an opportunity to make believers of those who question his mettle.
But ultimately it is an opportunity to make a believer of himself - and that, one imagines, is likely to prove the greatest challenge of all.
I couldn't agree more.