Many in the tennis world shed tears at the close of superstar Roger Federer’s final match in September. A month earlier, Serena Williams, arguably the greatest female athlete of all time, likewise announced her departure from the game. And just like that, two of the most important and impactful tennis giants passed from news and headlines into history, legend and myth.
Ironically, the tears most visible at the end of Federer’s career were not his own, but those of Rafael Nadal — the Dionysian Spaniard to the Apollonian Swiss man. And Nadal will likely feel the effect of those tears strongest on Sunday, at the start of the Australian Open.
With the unfortunate withdrawal of Carlos Alcaraz due to injury, Nadal is now first seed at the first major tournament of the post-Federer era, looking to extend his reign as He-Who-Holds-The-Most-Major-Titles (only one beyond Novak Djokovic, and two beyond Federer — 22 for Nadal, 21 for Djokovic, and 20 for Federer).
As I watched Nadal weep in September (and shed my own tear or two), I wondered what might become of the man from Mallorca in the absence of his rival.
In Andrew Douglas’s fantastic 2018 documentary “Strokes of Genius,” both Nadal and Federer openly acknowledge that each molded the other into the greatness we know today. Federer said, “I had to embrace the idea of a rival. In the beginning I didn’t want to have one. And then eventually I realized there’s something good to take out of these situations. I maybe have to adjust my game a little bit — I don’t like to do that per se, but why not? Let’s go!”
Near the end of the film, American tennis star Martina Navratilova says, “I don’t know if Roger would still be around if Nadal hadn’t been born. It’s hard to stay motivated, and they kind of pulled each other.”
Echoing the sentiment, Navratilova’s own rival, Chris Evert, said: “What makes it stand out from any other rivalry is that they both are exceptional people; they both have such respect for each other; they both are very humble” (emphasis mine).
The question then remains: Will Nadal be able to stand on his own in the wake of Federer’s retirement?