There are stories. And then there are “story-stories.” The twin reemergence of Roger Federer and Rafael “Rafa” Nadal this year has been one of those story-stories, full of wait-that’s-not-alls and tell-me-what-happened-nexts. Their return to form has been as emphatic as it was unexpected, a jolt of sun in a strange year.
When the two faced off in the final of the Australian Open way back in January—which Federer won in a tense five sets (6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3)—there was the sense that the stars had simply happened to align one last fleeting time. Federer was ranked and seeded seventeenth at that time; Nadal hadn’t reached the semifinal of a major since 2014. The match was expected to be lightning caught in a bottle, something to be savored before reality set back in.
But since then, Federer and Nadal have played three more times, including in two other finals. They even played on the same team—as doubles partners no less—in a team-tennis enterprise dreamed up by Federer called the Laver Cup, after the great Australian Rod Laver. Most recently, they played in the final of the Rolex Shanghai Masters. Nadal was in imperious form coming into that final, having just won the previous tournament in Beijing and the one prior to that, some minor summer event played in Queens. When they flipped the coin at center court in Shanghai, Nadal was on a seventeen-match winning streak. Federer won in straight sets in barely over an hour: 6–4, 6–3.
Before that, the last time they’d played was in the final in Miami in late March: Federer had also won in straight sets in barely over an hour: 6–3, 6–4. And the time before that Federer had once again won in straight sets in barely over an hour: 6–2, 6–3.
In other words, the last three times they’d played, Federer had dry-erased Nadal. And in the only close match they played, in Melbourne, Federer sped past Nadal the final five games. The severity and consistency of these beatdowns have been aided greatly by the fact that Federer, in a rare recognition of his limitations, skipped out on the clay-court season entirely and watched from afar as Nadal won his tenth title in Monte Carlo, his tenth in Barcelona, his fifth in Madrid, and, in Paris, his tenth French Open. So, where exactly are we with these two? Quiet as it’s kept, we’re to the point where we can’t tell if it’s better that they keep playing each other or are kept as far apart as possible. Nadal is ranked number one in the world. Federer is number two. But Nadal can’t touch Federer at this point. Federer may never again play on clay. And unless there’s a moment of divine intervention on the other side of the net, the other players on the tour can’t keep up. It’s another story in the story of 2017. And all this with winter coming.
After ten straight months of chasing the sun and living in a floating bubble of perpetual summer, the ATP World Tour—the official name for the highest category in tennis of the men’s professional circuit—has turned the final corner and veered, finally, into autumn. Call me strange and unredeemable, but this is one of my favorite times of the tennis season. The grand narratives of the majors—who will win or not win what? How will that affect this person’s or that person’s legacy?—have come and gone. By now, we know all about the miraculous returns of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Not only did they split the four majors up for grabs this year, they’re certain to end the season ranked in the top two. Most of the remaining hierarchy—Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic—have been out injured. The others—Cilic, Zverev, Thiem, Del Potro—have alternately flickered and faded on the biggest stages. Nothing has come close to stealing the spotlight from Federer and Nadal and nothing that happens between now and the end of November could possibly change that.
Therefore, aside from some vague love of tennis for its own sake, what really matters now, with the U.S. Open fairly far in the year’s rearview mirror? And what about it is beautiful now that 2017’s story has been all but written, with the matches from now until the end of the year being played out in the dreary pall of one indoor arena after another?
This is the time of the tennis season that has fewer of the fun baubles—no cheery sun, no wind, no anachronistic traditions, and match after match on one unremarkable, and for the most part interchangeable, indoor backdrop after another. No more Mediterranean vistas behind the mezzanine in Monte Carlo, no more late winter dreamscapes of the Coachella Valley, no more impossibly red strawberries on beds of frothing cream in the thimble-size London summer. This is the tour distilled to its most unromantic elements under the advancing autumn lights and encroaching darkness of Moscow, Antwerp, Stockholm, Basel, Vienna, and—like lovers who don’t know better than to leave well enough alone—less-sexy second swings through Paris and London in November to close out the year.
Life starts to press in. Tennis seems more momentary, more fleeting, and the pastoral is sucked from it. It’s a sober denouement back to Europe, with clenched fists, toxic fear of its own shadow, and a bleating cacophony of useless, cowardly politicians. Tennis arrives like a returning prodigal. It, too, still has its role to play in the ways in which 2017 was and will be remembered. Just remember: this is not the dawn of heroes; it’s the dusk.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground and Heaven. He is currently writing a book about tennis, The Circuit, which will be published in 2018.