Rafeal Nadal and Roger Federer's heart-stopping rivalry beats no more

Rafeal Nadal and Roger Federer - Australian Open 2012: Rafeal Nadal and Roger Federer's heart-stopping rivalry beats no more
True greats: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Photo: GETTY IMAGES
But despite the mass collective of will that sustains his worshippers’ belief that he can still win major titles, his time passed a couple of years ago. Simply put, he lost his nerve.
This was plain on Thursday, as it was against Nadal in the final in Melbourne three years ago, when he choked horribly in the fifth set, and couldn’t choke back the tears; against Juan Martin del Potro later in 2009, when he collapsed identically in the fifth; and in the US Open semis of 2010 and 2011, when he lost to Novak Djokovic after holding two match points.
In grand slam terms, he has been the living dead (albeit the most graceful and elegant of zombies) for a while.
What we did see die on Thursday, I think, was a rivalry for the ages. The raw statistics showed that, in their 25 previous meetings, Rafael Nadalhad beaten Roger Federer almost twice as often as vice versa.
But many of those meetings were on the Nadalian stronghold of clay, while the Fed entered this match in such imperious form that the bookies made him favourite.

Form is temporary, however, while patterns are permanent, the decisive one here – established over many years – being that of Federer leading in sets, but tentatively handing back the break. The talent and physical perfection endure. But the mind has gone, and it is sad to behold.
At morose moments like this, it is an Englishman’s duty to seek sanctuary in the past, and remember that, despite Nadal’s statistical dominance, theirs was arguably the greatest rivalry individual sport has known.
Muhammad Ali and the late Joe Frazier might argue the point, and their 1970s trilogy was of course spectacular. Well, not so much the middle bout. But the first bout, won by Frazier, was a classic, and the third in Manila is widely recognised as the best ever, or at least the one that came closest to killing both fighters through exhaustion.
But tennis – which is boxing for middle class people with a pain threshold – is far better suited to rivalry than the big fight game, in which rematches are rarities, People still talk about the “rivalry” between Tommy Heans and Marvin Hagler, but however incomparably dramatic the action, they met for a little less than three rounds.
Strokeplay-dominated golf also struggles to produce rivalries, the size of the fields dictating that seldom were Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, or Nicklaus and Tom Watson, or Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, locked in combat over the closing holes of a major.
Formula One has had its moments, most notably with the rivalry between the clinical Alain Prost and the romantically intuitive Ayrton Senna. But too much of it comes down to the cars to allow many truly even contests.
Perhaps a closer challenge came from athletics, when Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe fought for middle distance supremacy.
Their rivalry had the handy quality of a chalk ’n’ cheese personality contrast, between the taciturn, narky Ovett and the silkily self-assured Coe, and everyone remembers the dual shock at the Moscow Olympics when Ovett defeated Coe in the 800 metres, and Coe responded by beating the supposedly unbeatable Ovett in the 1500m.
But premier athletes spend more time avoiding each other than racing each other, and rarely leave what we might pretentiously call, in a rivalry context, a body of work.
Tennis throws together its titans all the time. Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, Borg and McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras... those pairings frequently produced the sense of anticipation one felt before Thursday’s match, even if it was a final eliminator for the right to meet Djokovic (please God I am wrong) for the title.
It won’t do so again. The rivalry expired on Thursday, killed by Federer’s loss of competitive intensity and tacit acceptance that attempting to resist Nadal’s will to win is futile.
It leaves a host of glorious memories, first among them the astounding Wimbledon final of 2008, and I have a gloomy suspicion that we will not see its like again.

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