Federer and Nadal owe it to South Africa to put on a good show
The Match in Africa, a charity tennis encounter between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal at the Cape Town Stadium on Friday 7 February is aiming to raise $1m for charity. Hopefully it will also raise heart rates as a competitive match and not devolve into a facsimile of the real thing.
Federer and Nadal. Nadal and Federer. The two names are intertwined like two old vines. They could, and would thrive separately, but they are so much richer because of their bond.
Roger Federer would not be the same Roger that is loved and adored globally if he existed without Rafa Nadal. And Nadal would not be so universally respected if Federer weren’t a counterpoint. The duo took tennis to heights that seemed impossible and in their slipstream pulled another great — Novak Djokovic — along with them.
Djokovic may yet surpass them in terms of titles, but Federer and Nadal are worshipped in the tennis world and beyond. Both have an argument to be called the greatest player of all time even if they end up with fewer Grand Slams than Djokovic. Tennis fans are split between who they love most, but Federer fans will never say a bad word about Nadal and Rafa fans will always be glowing about Roger.
Their contrasting styles — Federer all grace, balance and lightness of foot who treats tennis as a pursuit of aesthetic beauty as well as titles — and Nadal all brooding power and intensity — adds to the nature of the rivalry. They are not reflections of each other but rather two contrasting forces of nature that regularly meet on a tennis court and blow us away.
Nadal appears to hate the ball and wants to destroy it with every swing of his mighty left arm. Federer prefers to caress the fluffy orb with effortless power. Two different approaches, two almost equally remarkable careers.
Federer’s 20 Grand Slam titles — statistically — makes him the best player of all time. For now. Nadal at 33 has 19 and is five years younger than Federer. Nadal appears to have no genuine rival on clay, meaning that winning the French Open for a record 13th time is close to a sure thing in 2020.
Titles, and particularly Grand Slams, are the currency all the elite players deal in, and for these two ageing warriors the hunger and the commitment needed to win them remains as high as ever.
They have nothing left to prove to anyone, yet their competitiveness won’t allow them to give less than everything as they enter the last stage of their storied careers.
At 38 years old and in a normal career, Federer should have hung up his racquet years ago, but nothing about the Swiss is normal or mundane. The fact that, as he closes in on 40, the only players that have his measure are Djokovic and Nadal says all you need to know about his greatness.
Since Federer turned professional more than two decades ago the game has changed. Long-forgotten Federer contemporaries such as Andy Roddick, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt have come and gone.
The sport itself has changed. Racquets, playing surfaces, ball tracking and string technology have all evolved in the 21st century along with constant improvements in nutrition and sports science. The amount of analysis a player can glean from easily available technology lays bare every opponent’s weakness, yet Federer and Nadal have never been knocked off the top for any sustained period.
The sport Federer began playing at a pro-level in 1998 is very different to the sport he plays now, yet he has stayed at the top of the pile by adapting and evolving.
Nadal, too, has seen the changes in his slightly shorter career and similarly has moved with the times. If the opposition took the sport to a new level, Nadal and Federer raised the bar again.
For South Africans, the careers of two of the greatest tennis players and sportsmen of all time have been witnessed on screens. Their triumphs, setbacks and epic rivalry has been beamed into homes via satellite television. The two champions’ careers have intersected with an era of high definition television, which has only enhanced their mythical status.
South Africans have never had the chance to see Nadal ripping a forehand with so much topspin that the ball spits off the surface after dipping viciously, almost defying physics. They haven’t had the chance to hear the thud as Federer drills a single-handed backhand down the line like a missile. Until now.
For the first time, South Africans will have the chance to see the combined owners of 39 men’s singles Grand Slam titles clash in this country when they play in the Match in Africa at the Cape Town Stadium on Friday, February 7. Well, the word “clash” is a little strong.
The event is a charity match in support of the Roger Federer Foundation. Fed persuaded Nadal to come to Africa and contribute his skill and marketability to a cause close to Federer’s heart. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates will also take part as will Talk Show star and Capetonian-made-good Trevor Noah.
Federer has a long association with South Africa, as his mother Lynette was born in the country. But a groin injury sustained at the recent Australian Open has been a slight concern.
“I don’t know what took me so long, to be quite honest,” Federer said about the Match in Africa during the recent Australian Open. “I said, ‘It’s not possible that I’m on tour for 20 years, I’ve become the player that I am, and I’ve never played in South Africa It’s just not OK.’ I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. You know how it is; life on tour sometimes is what it is. I couldn’t be more excited now that it’s finally happening. I hope I’m going to be fine to play; I believe I am, but we’ll see.
“Also, that Rafa is willing to do it is exciting, of course. I know my parents are very happy, very proud, as well. I’m sure it’s going to be very, very special for me on many levels to play there.”
A doubles match featuring the four will certainly not set pulses racing for those among the expected 50,000 crowd who have come to watch a tennis match. But the charity component is the reason Federer and Nadal are in the country and is part of the price that needs to be paid to have them here.
People might spend a fortune to hear Gates address a TED Talk or watch Noah do a stand-up comedy routine, but no sane person would part with hard-earned cash to watch them thwack a tennis ball around, regardless of who shares their side of the court.
Which is why, when Federer and Nadal do eventually square off in a singles match, it must be competitive. Of course, there is not a title on the line and no world ranking points to be gained or lost.
But no one wants to see under-arm serves and trick shots for the sake of it. Certainly not in the singles contest. The reason Federer and Nadal are so revered is precisely because they continue to do impossible things on a tennis court at an age when they should be winding down.
A charity match is about raising funds for a good cause, but fans want to see a “match”. They want to witness two proud players going at each other as if there were a Grand Slam title at stake.
South Africans have waited long enough to show their appreciation for two of the greatest athletes of this, or any era. They have parted with a lot of cash (R 150 – R 1 950) to fulfil a dream of seeing them live. Hopefully, Federer and Nadal understand that aspect of the contract they have made with the paying public in Cape Town. DM
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