Roger Federer … Rafael Nadal, no way; today they put on quite a show in men's Australian Tennis Open
Ranked a low-low No. 17, Federer outlasted No. 9 Nadal in five thrilling sets of a classic match not expected
COMMENTARY By ARNIE LESHIN
I've been around tennis for a long time, as a recreation player with a slow-mo serve, weak forehand with no place to go, running around my backhand, as a spectator at matches and tuning in on television.
But my main claim to the sport was as a sportswriter, like from the final year of amateur play to the first year of the U.S. Open on a professional level.
From the Open played at the Westside TC in Forest Hills, alias New York's borough of Queens, to Wimbledon, to the French Open, and from Forest Hills to the US Open now played in Flushing Meadow, Queens, or across the ramp from CitiField, to indoor events in Madison Square Garden.
Great times, great athletes, great events, great crowds. Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, Ken Roswell, John Newcomb, Arthur Ashe, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Margaret Court Smith, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver, Steffi Graff, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova. …and so on from grass, to clay, to hard courts, I've been through the courts.
Included among my many peers was the late Bud Collins, Mike Lupica, John Feinstein, journalists from around the globe, and so on from elite men and women tennis writers to the radio and TV commentators.
Even covered the dreamed-up doubles match in Atlantic City between Navratilova-Shriver and Bobby Riggs-Vitas Geriilitis, which the women won in straight sets.
Nowadays I don't have the patience to view five (men) sets on TV. One men's match at the Australian Open went 4 hours and 48 seconds. It wasn't for my eyes or patience.
But when I tuned in on Sunday, two days later for the start of the championship matching friendly rivals 9th seeded Rafael Nadal of Spain with familiar foe 17th seed Roger Federer of Switzerland, I decided to take a look at two gurus of the courts.
Nadal is only 30, but is coming off various knee problems, hadn't play in many tournaments, and said he'd been happy to go a few rounds at this time. Still, he rated a higher seed than Federer.
Federer, who had already won 17 Grand Slam championships, was in no way confident of winning one more to bring him the most Grand Slams of the Open era. or since Aussie Ken Roswell won the 1970 Open at age 36, and also to be the second-older to win a Grand Slam title.
Once No. 1, he was now relegated to No. 17 because he hadn't played an official tournament in more than six months and had slowed down after knee surgery. It was said he talked his handlers into letting to play here.
But they now hoped he would maybe get by for a few rounds. He had not won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2012, and had not won a Grand Slam versus Nadal since since Wimbledon in 2007.
Two legendary Hall of Fame racket men hoping to put on a show before a packed Rod Laver Arena, just grateful to have surprisingly come this far. So I decided to see what not many would have expected.
It turned into a classic five-setter. There were volleys that Evert and McEnroe in the TV booth said they had not seen a match like this in quite some time, and added never by two men who many thought had seen their best days.
Not true, not on this day that had the crowd roaring, rooting, clapping, trying to figure out who to cheer for. So they cheered for both, and no way could you figure out who got the most support. To me, it was 50-50.
Inside the arena was legend Laver, often considered the best of all time. The southpaw wonder who suffered from a stroke back in 2002 would be the one to present the championship and runner-up trophies.
Now he was having just a great time whooping it up after great shots after great shots were made, forehands and backhands catching the lines, amazing returns that ripped down both lines, plus the serving of Federer (21 aces) and the running down shots of Nadal.
These gentlemen of the courts never slowed down. Federer was putting together a 6-4 opening set by return of service and amazing shots. But back came Nadal to even the sets by chasing down Federer streamers and win 6-3.
Now the crowd was settling in and the Federer fans went wild when he served and fired back shots to triumph in the third set, 6-3. He appeared to be on a roll, but Nadal wasn't going anywhere, not when he was doing so well volleying at the net and never one to give in.
So back he came. Went back-and-forth with Federer until he tied the match again with a fourth-set 6-3 victory. There were moments when the crowd just couldn't believe what it was seeing, two battlers just playing tip-top tennis. Not many unforced errors, clutch serving, and unbelievable classic shot making.
Welcome to set No. 5. Nadal had already defeated Federer, 23-12, most of them on clay, his favorite, best surface. But on matches not played on clay, it was tied at 10-10 and that would be unlocked soon.
Nothing changed. Neither player slowed up. The crowd was in full voice, but Nadal broke in the first game, and held for a 2-0 lead, the Federer side had to feel concerned. But when the Swiss superstar held serve, his fans let loose, but quieted down a bit when Nadal also held and went up 3-1.
Again Federer held behind two aces, but again Nadal answered back with a pair of passing shots to go up 4-2. Three times Federer was at break point, but Nadal didn't let it happen. But at 4-3 after Federer let loose with back-to-back aces, he finally got through, breaking Nadal after four break points to knot things at 4-4.
Federer's servicing was now looking better and better, not allowing Nadal to volley at the net, and at love, he now led 5-4 and his crowd was ecstatic. A break is what he needed now. It got to deuce five times, to four adds, and when Federer shot a return down the line, it was ruled good, but before Federer charged the net, Nadal challenged the call, lost, and then raced to the net for an expected hug that showed how a fierce rivalry could include so much respect.
Federer followed by bending down to plant a kiss on the court, he waved and shouted to the crowd, did a few dance numbers, and looked like it was just too good to be true.
How correct this was. He did not count on winning this time, did not even know when he would win another Grand Slam championship, and didn't know what to do first.
He played here with verve and precision, even had to scrap his way through three five-set matches. He defeated four top-10 opponents. And of course was helped along by the top two seeds, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, being eliminated along the way.
Laver presented the trophies, the checks, and then posed with Federer and Nadal with the look of something that was just remarkable to follow on these hard courts.
Washed up, slowed up by bad knees, had seen better days, was taking a chance without hardly any recent competition. Right, now he hoist high yet another championship and hip-hip-hurray for both of these popular figures putting on such a show that I watched from start to finish, hurrying back after commercials, glued to the set for the first time in probably a long time.