“The key to a good rivalry is contrast,” says multiple Grand Slam champion Chris Evert. Words often used to describe Roger Federer’s game include “artistry”, “aristocratic” to go with his power game from the baseline. For Rafael Nadal, what he lacks in creativity in comparison, he makes up with his “tenacity” “endurance” and “stamina”. Contrasting, yet effective.
Stories of legendary rivalries in professional singles tennis never gets stale, with match-ups like Evert vs Martina Navaratilova, Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe, Federer vs Nadal still the topic of conversation, or film. The last in this list still has chapters waiting to be written.
McEnroe admits that even his epic battles with Borg fall short compared to what he declares as “the greatest tennis match ever played.” The marathon 2008 Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon between Federer and Nadal has a book dedicated it, “Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played” by L. Jon Wertheim. A documentary based on the book, titled “Strokes of Genius”, released a decade after that game, recently dropped on Discovery Plus for viewers in India.
Match statistics and records aside, dig deeper into the context of this final, you could see where McEnroe was coming from. Nadal, the ruling clay court king, looking for that elusive Grand Slam title on grass having succumbed to Federer in the previous year’s Wimbledon final. Federer, weeks after being walloped by the same opponent at the French Open, looking for his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title. Federer, plagued by thoughts of defeat after conceding the first two sets, gets a breather with divine intervention from the clouds. He claws back to win the next two sets thanks to a combination of individual brilliance and service blunders from Nadal. Following another shower, the players return for a gruelling fifth set and in the darkness, lit up “by flashbulbs from the spectators”, a winner emerged after 4 hours and 48 minutes of court time. Do spoiler alerts exist in sports documentaries too? It feels guilty to even think of giving it away.
This encounter forms the backdrop in this documentary and over the course of 90 minutes, the Federer-Nadal rivalry — or Fedal — is analysed by the two players themselves, coaches, family, commentators, journalists, the chair umpire and former tennis greats. Access to precious footage from childhood days gives the film great depth in understanding the contrasting temperaments of the two players. An electric classical music score by Jeremy Turner blends well with the slick editing of the match highlights reels.
Speaking of contrasting temperaments, Federer and Nadal couldn’t be more different. Nadal recalls of how self doubt, curiously, brought out the best in him. “Never feeling that I am good enough constantly pushes me to improve,” he says. You almost feel like Nadal thrives in declaring himself as the underdog, even if the trophy already has his name all over it.
Federer, on the other hand, nearly let his arrogance and inflated sense of self worth destroy his tennis at a young age. Coaches speak of how they had to rein in this talented yet tantrum-throwing kid who believed he had all the shots in the book by watching the greats on TV. Federer eventually realised that his raquet-throwing theatrics would bring enormous embarrassment to himself and his family if his matches were shown to a global TV audience.
As Federer brought more discipline into his game and fitness, he altered the dynamics of men’s tennis with the fall of the Sampras era – which he orchestrated in 2001 – and marking his own period of domination till he found his match in Nadal. With titles changing hands, the field was spreading out.
The film gives a revealing insight into what the greats think of their arch rivals. Evert recalls her soft spot for Navaratilova on seeing her most vulnerable side in the change rooms. McEnroe recalls feeling bummed out when Borg abruptly announced his retirement, admitting that his battles with the Swede brought out his best tennis. Unlike team sport, in tennis more often than not you are problem-solving by yourself all the time, as Federer says. There’s nobody to bounce ideas off, no-one to offload your frustration to. This explains why great rivals also remain the closest of friends, bound by feelings of empathy.
The Nadal-Federer bonhomie is much the same and over the years, both have been very open about the immense respect they have for each other. The film gleans on their rivalry timeline post 2008 but all along does well not to distract from the match in focus. From those reels, the duo make it clear that they are better players because of each other.
Strokes of Genius is currently streaming on Discovery Plus