Roger Federer was still there in the fourth set of the 2009 Australian Open final, dancing around his backhand, snapping winners out wide, mixing in a few points of net play. He took the court at the start of the fifth, one set away from Pete Sampras’ record 14 Grand Slam titles.
And then he disappeared. He looked listless, defeated. Nadal intimidates Federer. It isn’t Nadal’s strokes–his punishing, topspin forehand, the nuclear backhands that skid off the lines, his ability to cover every inch of the court and crack winners on the stretch. Federer can do the same and more.
The source of Nadal’s supremacy is hard to discern through a cathode-ray tube in the Northern hemisphere, especially as my senses try to rally from their 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. Federer looks across the net. He sees something in Nadal’s presence, his expression, that makes him just a little bit tentative. Maybe the stylish Federer is discomfited by the naked intensity of Nadal’s will, afraid that exquisite strokes alone won’t be enough to defeat it. Federer seems to retreat inside himself.
On the fourth game of the fifth set, Nadal breaks Federer to go up 3-1. The rest is a formality. Nadal claims the championship, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2. In the match’s final moments, I find myself thinking the same thing I thought as I watched Wimbledon last summer. “You’re better than he is. You routinely punish players like James Blake who can give Nadal trouble. Why don’t you believe?”
On a Grand Slam’s final Sunday, belief may be the only thing that matters.