Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open in a historic final. But Federer versus Nadal was still the match to watch. Two diehards present their account
On Roger Federer
There are five minutes to go for the match. I walk up to the small shrine at home and look at Sai Baba (of Shirdi, not Puttaparthi).
“Look Baba, you’ve got to realise that Federer’s poor record against Rafa is not because of any major deficiency in his game. It’s just that Rafa’s shots come at awkward angles, with awkward spins.”
Baba looks at me, right palm raised. As usual, you can’t be certain if there is a hint of a smile on his face.
“It’s not that Federer is mentally weak,” I say. “If that were true, he would have retired when Rafa started dominating him. Like Borg did when McEnroe beat him in three out of four major finals. But Federer keeps trying. And when it comes to aesthetic pleasure, even Rafa fans admit that Federer is second to none.”
Come to the point, Baba seems to say.
“Let him win this one last Grand Slam, with a win over Rafa. He deserves it.”
I go to the drawing room and switch the TV on. It’s an old-school TV with an ample behind, not one of those new anorexic ones. I sit in a beige plastic chair.
The players emerge from the tunnel. Federer’s not smiling at the camera, which is good. When he does, it seems fake. Like he’s trying to mask the chaos inside. Rafa, as usual, is prancing.
The first five games, Federer is divine. All Hermes forehands and Dior backhands. His serve has zing and the footwork is sublime. There is a backhand that is a blend of poetry and malevolence, a crosscourt that screams away at 157 kmph. It must have won grudging acknowledgment from even hardcore Rafa fans. This is the great thing about Fedals.
They compel you to accept the brilliance of the other guy. I often find myself gritting teeth and nodding a ‘too good’ when Rafa demonstrates his defensive genius, the strength of his will.
Those first five games have more beauty in them for me than the rest of the match, or even the dramatic final between Djokovic and Nadal. I’m reminded of the 1983 World Cup cricket final. India won, but come on, admit it, the performance that grabbed you was Viv Richards’ 33.
It’s quiet in the house. My wife and daughter are at my in-laws’. I’m to join them in the evening. It’s only me and my mother at home. There are intermittent sounds. The rustle of the newspaper my mother is reading, the roar of planes flying by the left of our building to land at Mumbai’s domestic airport. The still afternoon also allows the cry of a lone vendor, or the clatter of an autorickshaw.
The musical storm of Federer’s early brilliance blows over. There is an inevitability to it. I throw my head back and sigh, then decide to act my age and stay composed. Rafa starts whipping his returns high and deep. Federer has some embarrassing mishits, unacceptable form for a proud, patrician man. It’s manifest in the way he disdainfully tosses locks of his hair off his forehead. Soon enough, Rafa breaks to draw level in the set. The black Converse slippers I wear at home feel clammy.
It gets to 6-6 in the first set. Tie-breaker time. Partly out of superstition, partly for self-preservation, I switch the TV off. In cricket or football, there are periods when not much happens, and a fan catches his breath. In tennis, especially in this great era, your heart yo-yos every point. Each point, you live and die. If Federer is up 30-0, I breathe easy. If it becomes 30-30, I’m in knots again. It’s emosional atyachaar.
I go inside where the room is dark and cool and lie down. My attempt to stay away from the TV lasts 10 minutes. I go back to the drawing room and check the score. Federer is up by a set and has started well in the second. Now, I’m convinced I shouldn’t watch. I decide to run some errands and proceed to my in-laws.
Melbourne, however, is on my mind all through. If there were reports of a guy muttering and gesticulating to himself on the afternoon of Republic Day, well, that guy was me. For distraction, I stop at a mall. Standing in the kids’ section surrounded by toys and dolls and children’s clothes, I check my phone. There’s a missed call from a friend who’s a tennis fan. By now, it’s been a while since I’ve last seen the score. So I can’t resist calling him back.
“What are these guys doing, yaar. It’s madness,” he says in awe of the quality of the match.
“Yes. But I’m not watching,” I tell him. I tell him the reasons. He laughs.
“But since you’ve called, what’s happening?”
“Rafa’s leading two sets to one. The fourth set is on serve.”
I realise the match is over. In the evening, after dinner, my wife tells me there are rasagollas in the fridge. I gobble four. The sugar brings relief. But it’s temporary.
The clock is ticking faster than I imagined. It’s a chilly winter morning and my cosy house in north-west Delhi is about to turn into a battlefield.
My fun-loving and humble Punjabi folks, made aware of the big fight the night before, leave their daily chores and prepare themselves for the ruckus that will hit the house soon. Just an hour away from the battle, I read a few more pages of Rafa’s biography. His pre-match rituals, which help his power and resilience, include:
» Taking a cold shower before the game.
» Listening to pulsating music.
» Putting six grips on each racquet.
» Running water through his hair and then wearing his bandana.
How can I be far behind in having mine? I start with:
» Eating Nutella because Rafa eats it too.
» Keeping two bottles of water to my left because Rafa does it too.
» And finally, keeping calm and not talking too much because Rafa does that too.
Rafa does not like a break from these rituals, and I don’t let mine break for anything.
Dad is a cricket lover. Tennis and football are hobbies. But he always watches every ‘Fedal’ (a term for Federer-Nadal encounters) with me. He’s not a Rafa fan. He likes him, but like millions around the world, he is hypnotised by Federer’s magic. I, on the other hand, am smitten by Rafa’s ferocity on the court and his grace off it.
I remind him of our code of conduct.
He will ignore my behaviour during the match. He will not say anything negative about my Mallorcan hero.
As the two champions walk on to the Rod Laver Arena, I feel butterflies in my stomach. Not only because it is a big match, in front of a big crowd, but also because Federer looks like a warrior, his eyes steely.
I am sitting on my corner of the sofa and dad on his. But where’s mum, my lucky charm? Soon, she comes in and sees Rafa and exclaims in Punjabi, “Kinha sonah hega. (he is so nice).” That’s it. The rituals are complete. “Go, Rafa, go,” I shout.
During a match, my laptop is as important to me as the racquet is to Rafa. Sitting cross-legged on my sofa, I update my Facebook status—this is customary and compulsory for me as a Rafa fan. A few ‘likes’ and good luck messages on my wall, and I feel 100 per cent ready for the match.
Rafa’s gameplan is to run all around the court and return everything Federer fires at him. Mine is to not move at all. I just pray. I will try not to swear and will not toss the remote in the air, as I have learnt that Rafa does not believe in it.
An inauspicious start to the match. Federer wins the first set. Dad grins at me. I tell him, “Wait till Rafa muscles his way back into the match.”
I try to read Rafa’s mind. He is battling a player he considers better than him. In my mind, I know the gameplan is simple. “Just keep returning,” I scream, clenching my fists.
Rafa wins the second set. The atmosphere in the stadium is electrifying. As the pressure to win the third set is on Rafa, the pressure to go to the bathroom is on me. But I can’t move. I have to stay put. It is working and I can’t disrupt this momentum.
Federer is playing all the shots in the book. Isn’t he a bit freaky? How can he play that elegant backhand so effortlessly? And how can he always be so fit? But he is also looking edgy and that brings me peace.
Mum is in and out of the room. She brings us tea and peanuts. As per my superstition book, I am not supposed to eat. It disturbs my prayers. I enjoy my tea as Rafa wins the third too, strengthening my faith in my superstitions.
Maria Francisca Perello is Rafa’s girlfriend and I am Rafa’s wife. I don’t say that, my friends do. It was love at first serve when I watched him play at Wimbledon in 2007. My sturdy red car is nicknamed Rafa, I have not missed a single match he has played, I am saving up every month to travel to his hometown, Mallorca. Who can be crazier about him than me?
Rafa is nearing victory now, and the volume of the TV and my cheers is getting louder. Mum pokes me in the back and warns me to keep the volume low. I don’t care. Dad is losing interest. After over three hours of sitting in the same place, when Rafa leaps in celebration and the crowd erupts, I run to the bathroom, clenching my fists and yelling, “Vamos!”