On the protracted journey to North Greenwich this morning (London transport is laboring under major engineering works and facing a tube strike), almost every conversation I overhear is a discussion of Federer and Nadal. It makes me so pleased that on a weekend when the first Ashes test is underway, England have taken on South Africa at Twickenham, and the usual round of high-profile Premiership football clashes are on—Spurs v Liverpool being today's hot ticket—tennis can still fill the O2 arena.
It also makes me feel slightly ashamed of myself for not being more excited. As far as I'm concerned, the greatest rivalry in sport—as I understand we're now obligated to call it—reached its zenith at Wimbledon 2008 when Rafa carved out the heart of Roger's empire and more or less devoured it, and since then it's basically been one-way traffic. Rafa is the best player in the world right now, Roger has had one of the greatest careers; these things seem obvious to me. They don't even play each other that much—twice in 2009, and this their second meeting in 2010—meaning that their rivalry is mainly played out in records and statistics, and on their behalf in forums and blogs across the internet by their fans.
If I'm not excited though, I'm clearly the only one. The crowd applauds politely during the doubles final, a straight-sets victory for Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic; the trophy ceremony resembles a game of musical chairs as all four players acknowledge the end of old partnerships and the forming of new ones. It's good fun, but it's not what everyone's come for today.
Never has the O2 arena been so full of flags, Swiss and Spanish, and signs, some painstakingly-sewn and impressive, others scribbled in felt tip on what looks like scrap paper. The reach of the Federer signs is impressively global: 'Lugano Greets King Roger!', and more bafflingly, 'Namibia Loves Roger.' The Nadal supporters' signs read 'VAMOS RAFA' or simply 'RAFA!!!!', as if the man needs no introduction, just punctuation. It's a breathtakingly international crowd, too; in the past few days I've met people—not journalists, just fans—who have come from all over the world to be here. For every estuary voice which howls 'come on, Rog!', there's an 'allez Rafa!' or an authentic 'vamos!'
I've heard enough serious discussion of the crushing psychological blow that one opponent can inflict on the other by making him wait at the beginning of the match to note down how events turn out. This time, Federer manages to stay seated, visibly twiddling his thumbs, until after Nadal has got up to join him at net for the coin toss. It's either a minor miracle or a bold statement of dominance, but Nadal strikes back immediately by being substantially late in rising for play. In the chair, Mohammed Layani is already holding his head in both hands, like the mother of two squabbling siblings on a long car journey.
By the time the first three games have been played, it's obvious that we're not going to see any huge tactical surprises; nobody's come up with a masterstroke since the last time they played. Federer is going all-out aggressive, ending points quickly wherever possible; Nadal is trying to break down Federer's backhand. Not earth-shattering.
Stationary, Nadal looks squat and chunky across the net from the lithe Federer. That impression all but disappears once they both start to move. Nadal's feet scuttle across the baseline like a beetle; it's better to watch the unbelievable speed with which his racquet whips around his head as he delivers each forehand like a grenade. Despite that, it seems to have been all Federer so far, bounding on to every short ball like an eager puppy to smack a forehand winner. More impressively, his backhand doesn't seem to be leaking errors; indeed, more often that not he finishes a protracted exchange by finding an acute and unexpected angle off that side. The same shot gets him the first break, his fifth forehand winner the first set, 6-3. He hasn't lost a point on his first serve yet.
Federer is playing great. Nadal isn't, quite. Whether it's the remarkable speed with which Federer seizes his opportunities or not, the Spaniard looks a step slow, and his shots don't have the same penetration they did against Murray. Time and again his balls have been landing short and Federer isn't giving him a second chance at any of them. At the changeover, he sits miserably with his hands in his lap, looking between coach and umpire as if unsure who to expect a telling-off from first. His is the only long face in here; Maradona, Princess Eugenie, Thierry Henry all get big cheers from a happy crowd. Boris Johnson gets the biggest, proving once again that the fact that people in this city have the good sense to fill arenas for tennis doesn't mean they display the best judgement in all areas of their lives.
Nadal, inevitably, regroups. A return winner at 1-2 lets him fist-pump and strut, predatory for the first time, and he breaks on Federer's first significant forehand error. When Federer slips and falls in the next game trying to reach a bounce off the net cord, the Swiss is starting to look a little frantic and Nadal firmly in control. One weak service game and the set is gone.
The crowd at least are pleased about it; everyone would have felt short-changed if this one finished in straights. It feels almost like the match proper is starting now, and the rallies are growing ever more spectacular; the tennis that these two men can produce on pure instinct, playing on their veins, is breathtaking. Nadal is hitting much deeper than he was at the beginning of the match, but Federer's serve—after a brief vacation in the second set—is clicking beautifully, time and time again leaving Nadal stranded by the wide serve to the deuce court. He's still finding those angles off the backhand, giving him a toehold on Rafa's serve at 1-2 down. When that toehold becomes break point, the roar from the crowd is earsplitting. Lars Graff would have barked 'Please!' down the microphone as if having to restrain himself from adding 'stop embarrassing yourselves!'; Layani, on the other hand, milks the moment, drawing out the words 'aadvaantaaage Federer!' Federer manages to box Nadal into a corner until his attempted passer flies wide and consolidates the break despite alternating service winners and groundstroke errors, and is suddenly looking rather impregnable at 4-1. When he breaks again, the Federer fans are ecstatic and the Nadal fans are putting on their jackets. It's a cold day outside.
There's a slight oddness to the end of the match, as Federer's winning forehand looks out to seventy-five percent of the stadium. The fans sitting behind that line are the first to cheer, then as Nadal shakes his head and starts walking to the net, Federer is next. He's actually won, even if it's taken everyone a moment to realize it.
During his speech, Nadal's voice creaks with fatigue. In a possible Freudian slip, he thanks the crowd for their support 'in Wimbledon.' Federer quickly reiterates the mention of Wimbledon in his own victory speech. Deliberate or not, both of them know that the real battleground is elsewhere. This has been an extended trailer for Roger and Rafa, 2011; coming soon to a Slam near you.
Watching the confetti and camera flashes, I think about the significance of this victory. I'm starting to share some of Pete's skepticism about the format and implications of this event. Nadal may have been defeated, but no-one can deny it's been his year, and a rocky one for Federer by his lofty standards. I doubt that this defeat will impact Nadal for long; and I don''t know what Federer's victory can give him in terms of motivation and confidence for next year that the champion doesn't already possess. The Fedal numbers may have shifted a little, giving the hardcore fans fresh ammunition in their ongoing battles, but I'm not sure it means much more than that.
But it has been a week of great entertainment, of tennis that's encompassed the entire range from execrable to exceptional. It's given the ATP a chance to showcase their product, and London an opportunity to demonstrate another facet of its nature as a tennis city. On a personal level, it's been a week of staying up until 3 a.m., trying to find the right words for the best players in the world; a week when taking longhand notes during Nadal matches left my fingers blistered, and Djokovic's smile distracted me enough that I left my mobile phone in his press conference. (He didn't call.)
It may not quite be the 'fifth Slam' just yet—but it's been a bloody good week all the same.