At this point, coming up with novel ways to describe the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry is like trying to eat just one Skittle out of the bag — it’s a futile exercise. We all know the contrasts that make their tennis duels so compelling. Federer’s the artiste, the effortless ballet dancer, grace on grass. Nadal’s the snarling street fighter, the mental grinder, the…don’t say it, please, okay, here it goes…the swashbuckler. (Dear Grand Slam tournament officials: is there any way to officially retire the Nadal-as-buccaneering-swordsman-cliche at a post-match ceremony?)
So give the producers of Strokes of Genius, a new documentary that explores the classic 2008 Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final — which Nadal won in five sets — credit for juxtaposing the two all-time greats in a way that didn’t feel tired. The film features a clip of Nadal, arms ripped, standing beside Federer, who was sporting a preppy sweater with gold-colored buttons.
“I remember seeing Nadal, in his sleeveless shirt, bulging biceps,” says BBC commentator David Law, host of The Tennis Podcast, in the documentary. Someone wolf-whistles at the chiseled Spanish star as he warms up before the match. “And then right next to him,” says Law, “you’ve got what looked like a prince.”
Strokes of Genius, which airs July 1 at 8 p.m. ET on Tennis Channel, serves as more than a mere nostalgia trip. Sure, reliving arguably the most riveting match in tennis history, which saw Nadal end Federer’s quest to win six straight Wimbledon titles in a four hour, 48 minute epic that included two rain delays and ended in near darkness, is delightful. But the documentary stands out for its timeliness. Who would have thought, a decade after that incredible July day — which saw Nadal squander a two sets-to-none advantage before prevailing in a fifth-set tiebreaker, finally giving him his first Wimbledon title — that both players would still be going strong? That they’d be 1-2 in the world (Nadal No. 1, Federer No. 2) in 2018, when Federer’s 36 years old, and Nadal’s 32? That they’d have won the last six Grand Slams running (Federer’s the 2017 Australian Open champ, the 2017 Wimbledon winner, and the 2018 Aussie champion; Nadal’s taken the last two French Opens, and won last year’s U.S. Open)? That the promise of another Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final, another unforgettable duel a decade later, is very, very real?
Both players participated in the documentary, which is based on the book by Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertheim, who’s also an executive producer of the film (Meredith Corporation owns both TIME and Sports Illustrated). Fans learn more about Federer’s early proclivities for temper tantrums — it’s true, the unflappable Federer almost went all John McEnroe on everyone.
“I [sought] perfection maybe way too early in my life,” Federer says. Footage of a prepubescent Federer making faces and kicking balls and dropping rackets follows. “We sometimes felt very ashamed,” says his father, Robert, who’s spent the last 15 years beaming on millions of television sets around the globe as his son piled up his 20 major championships. “We really took him many times aside and said ‘Roger, I’m not going along with you anymore. I’m not playing the fool.'”
“I used to tell him, your bad behavior is like sending an invitation to your opponent,” says Federer’s mother, Lynette. “Here I am, beat me. I’m ready to beat today. So go ahead.”
Federer listened to his folks. Nadal’s family also supported his rise: his uncle Toni, who’s featured prominently in Strokes of Genius, coached him for years. Nadal makes a comforting admission in the film: When up against Federer, he led the fourth set tiebreaker 5-2, and had two serves to close out the match. But then his mind failed him. “I start to feel nervous,” Nadal says. He missed his first serve, and said he had a feeling he’d double fault. He did exactly that; Federer charged back to force a fifth set.
Superstar athletes rarely cop to mental frailty. Doing so offers comfort for the rest of us.
Nadal’s lapse makes his eventual win ever more impressive. He could have folded, instead, he fought back and won anyway. That victory was Nadal’s first Grand Slam win off of the Roland Garros clay. He’s gone on to win 17 slams, second only to Federer’s 20. Nadal became Federer’s foil: he owns a 23-15 head-to-head advantage against Federer, though Federer prevailed in their last Grand Slam final, when he beat Nadal in five sets at the 2017 Australian Open. Both players continue to push each other to unprecedented excellence.
“I had to embrace the idea of a rival,” Federer says in Strokes of Genius. “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. So 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.”
Strokes of Genius celebrates a sport’s golden age. All that remains for Nadal and Federer: writing their Wimbledon sequel.
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