Federer and Nadal thrill and remind SA of what we have missed
Jedi knights are not real, but watching Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal wielding their tennis racquets like lightsabers, mesmerising a grateful South African audience, was otherworldly. And it was also a reminder of what we have missed.
Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were not playing for titles and acclaim when they met in the surreal tennis setting of a gusty Cape Town Stadium on February 7, but their genius, competitiveness and brilliance was always evident.
The occasion was unlike anything seen in tennis, with a world-record 51,954 people in attendance, breaking the previous record of 42,517 for a match, set in Mexico City in 2019. It was about charity and raising money for the Federer Foundation. On every level the “Match in Africa” was a roaring success. Federer’s 6-4 3-6 6-3 win over Nadal was neither here nor there.
The aim of attracting a world-record crowd was met, the hope of raising $1-million for charity was surpassed with a final tally of $3.5-million (R52m) collected, and the goal of giving South Africans a great show, exceeded. Even a howling south-easter could not detract from a night when average South Africans mingled with politicians and sports stars to see the sporting equivalent of royalty in action.
There were no titles and world ranking points on offer, but between the smiles and courtside interviews during the three-set singles match, the renowned competitive juices of two of the greatest-ever players flowed.
At one stage Nadal hit a ripping inside-out forehand with that trademark topspin. A winner against most players. But Federer moved with panther-like speed and grace to not only get his racquet to the ball, but hit a vicious cross-court forehand in return, which forced Nadal into a reflexive, lunging volley. Nadal won the point. Even Federer couldn’t turn from way outside the tramlines in the deuce side and make it back to the ad court to play another shot.
That sequence of three shots took barely two seconds to play. The pace and movement of these two supreme athletes, coupled with racquet control, anticipation and vision was electrifying. The reason why they have won 39 Grand Slam titles between them was obvious, even to spectators without an intimate knowledge of tennis.
They are supreme physical specimens who have worked tirelessly to maximise their rare talent. That combination of genetic superiority and mental capacity to extract the most out of their physical gifts was enhanced when seeing the results in the flesh.
Both players are familiar to South Africans and most of the world, through the medium of a high-definition television screen. Their prowess in real time is scarcely believable. The visceral thrill of witnessing their explosive movement and atomic hitting power has to be seen to be believed. At times, the court dimensions and the net seemed inconsequential to their placement and positioning.
In the celebrity doubles match that preceded the singles between Federer and Nadal, South African comedian and talk show host Trevor Noah and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates looked scarcely human. Federer and Nadal appeared to have the force with them. They were so physically superior it was as if they were an alien species.
Noah is in good physical condition. He clearly has a regular exercise regime and spends time in the gym. He is trim and wears a suit well. Yet, while sharing a tennis court with Nadal and Federer, he looked lumbering and overweight. He is neither of those things.
The two superstars are lithe and liquid in their movement. Their years of training and playing allows them to cut angles on the court, so that they cover the distances with maximum speed and minimum effort. Because we are so used to seeing them in action against each other and peers of a similarly high level, it all feels normal through a TV lens. It’s only when you witness them in the flesh that you realise, when it comes to the sport of tennis, Federer and Nadal are beyond human.
When Rafa and Roger were playing at their best, as they did at times in the singles encounter, the short bursts of explosive energy needed to combat their opponent across the net was brutal and beautiful. At times the ball travelled at speeds of more than 140km/h, when they exchanged groundstrokes. It was as if the ball was prey and they were hunters.
It was tiring just watching it. In Grand Slam tournaments these guys play at that level for four hours or more.
The Match in Africa was only partly about tennis. The charity component was the factor that made the match possible, as both players reach a stage in their careers and personal lives where there is balance.
Federer is a father to four children and travels less on circuit these days, to ensure he spends time with his family. Nadal married in 2019 and will no doubt start a family in due course. He has a foundation that also supports needy children. Africa is a continent where their philanthropy is needed.
Although both players knew that the Cape Town Stadium would hold more than 50,000 people for the event, it was clear both were moved by the size of the crowd when they walked into the packed arena. Earlier in the day they warmed up with only a smattering of people around. By the time they walked out to play the doubles match at 19h30, the energy in the stadium was tangible.
Federer admitted afterwards that he choked up and had to hold back tears. They are both used to being adored wherever they play, but this was a whole new level.
“It was a dream come true – I didn’t know exactly how it was going to be, and how it was going to feel,” Federer said. “And having my mum there, Siya (Kolisi) there, and everybody who was on the court for the doubles, obviously I thank them a million times – I will never stop thanking them.
“So, ja, that was a unique moment in my life, for sure.”
Nadal deflected questions about whether he might take his next charity match to a football stadium, preferring to enjoy the moment in Cape Town.
“I don’t know – this is a moment to enjoy tonight. Honestly, it has been an unforgettable time and we had a lot of fun,” Nadal said. “It’s something special tonight, especially for a very good cause – sending a very positive message to this part of the world.
“Hopefully it helped encourage young people and kids to follow their dreams. So, hopefully this match helps all these good causes and at the same time, we raised a lot of money for kids that really need it. Let’s see in the future what’s going on, but tonight, we had a great time and an unforgettable day.”
Tennis doesn’t lend itself to such huge attendances simply because a court is only 23.77m long and 8.73m wide (for singles). And the speed at which the ball travels, makes it difficult to watch from afar.
Technologically though, the organisers did all they could to make the experience as watchable as possible for the fans. The court was the colour of Roland Garros’ red clay (although it was a hard court) and it was elevated about 1.5 metres off the ground. It made visibility easier.
There were no advertising barriers around the court, allowing patrons in the low tiered stands in close proximity a clear view. Three giant HD screens operated in real time and also replayed the action. Crowds of this size might not become the norm in tennis, but Cape Town showed that big stadium tennis is feasible and watchable.
“It’s an amazing crowd, an amazing stadium,” said Nadal, who made his first appearance in South Africa as a professional. He played a junior tournament at Sun City when he was 14.
“It’s an unforgettable evening. We will probably never play again in an atmosphere such as this one. I can’t thank the people here in Cape Town enough. They came here and created an unforgettable atmosphere.”
Another innovation was that there were no line judges. Hawk Eye technology, which has been used for more than a decade, was expanded for this event with the use of Hawk Eye Live.
Every line call was made by technology. If a ball was out, an electronic voice would call it to the umpire’s earpiece within 0.3 seconds. The official then made the call to the players. The whole process took about a second. Often by the time umpire George Phiri called “out” on a serve, the ball had been returned and the second shot of the rally was already being played, such was the tempo of a Federer and Nadal rally.
Like its football counterpart Video Assistant Referee (VAR), it took some immediacy and drama from the match, but ultimately it was about making the correct decision. A player can hardly argue with a machine, or glare at linespeople that don’t exist. In the case of this match, line calls were never going to be disputed, but the lack of human interaction might be missed if the technology is adopted at regular ATP events.
Once-off or a new beginning?
Despite the success of the occasion and the brilliance of the two principal participants, there was also a tinge of melancholy with the realisation that this might be the first, and last time, these two great players “compete” in South Africa.
Tennis in this country has nowhere near the commercial clout of football and rugby and even if Tennis South Africa were to host an ATP 250 event (the lowest rung of the main tour tournaments) it would need about R60-million to do so. Events of that size do not attract players of Federer and Nadal’s calibre. They are simply too good and too desired to play on the lower rungs of the tour.
It took the superstar power of Federer and Nadal to create the level of drama and occasion seen in Cape Town.
“One of the questions I’m asked the most, is: ‘when are we bringing an SA Open or ATP event back to South Africa’,” Tennis SA chief executive Richard Glover said on a recent Maverick Sports podcast.
“The strategy we have adopted with regards to hosting international tournaments is that we have to build foundations and stepping stones first. The transition of our promising juniors to semi-professional and ultimately professional players is key.
“To do that we have focused on International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior tournaments in South Africa. We brought an ITF Grade 6 event to Cape Town in 2019, and that is significant because there are only six of them in the world.
“It is significant because it gives the highest ranking points for juniors. Kholo Montsi (SA’s top junior boy’s player) won that tournament and now he’s ranked 12th in the world, which gets him into big junior events.
“We are starting to have ITF tournaments in South Africa so that the likes of Kholo Montsi, when they transition from juniors to the pro ranks, can play entry-level professional tournaments at home. We also have an ATP challenger tournament in South Africa in 2020 for the first time in about eight years.
“Once we have these stepping stones in place we can look to aggressively bring a high-profile event to this country.
“The other challenge we have is a financial one. It’s difficult to bring an ATP 250 event here, which won’t attract the top players. Tennis SA would have to buy a licence for that tournament because there are only a certain number of weeks available in the ATP Tour calendar. That costs about $1-million (R15-million). Then to run the tournament for a week, costs another R50-million.
“I’m not saying those events are not important, but if we were somehow to find the money to bring a SA Open back to this country in 2021, realistically how many South African players would play in the event? It would be a handful at best.
“So, we have to produce players first, give them those opportunities from a stepping-stone perspective and then bring a big tournament to South Africa.”
Federer and Nadal are unlikely to grace these shores again as top professional players. But their presence has indicated that there is an appetite for high-level tennis in this country. DM
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