In Praise of Roger and Rafa

What defines sporting greatness? At what point in a player’s career do we begin to attribute an iconic status to him?  Is it when he wins every title there is to be won? Or when he consistently reigns supreme, towering over every other player of his era? There are no perfect answers. 

But all sporting legends share one common attribute: they fundamentally transform the way we perceive the game. We remember Bobby Fischer not for the number of championships he had won, but for the flamboyant chessplay he had fashioned. Sachin’s demolition of Akhthar and Warne comes to mind far more vividly than any of his statistics. We celebrate Messi’s mazy runs, not his Ballon D’Or awards. That’s my idea of sporting greatness. Long after their accomplishments are forgotten, long after their trophies are buried under dust, their legacy still remains fresh in our collective memory.

For more than a decade now, Roger and Rafa have come to represent everything we love in sport— precision and power, elegance and aggression, artistry and industry. One moved around the court with effortless grace, the other chased the ball like a cheetah after a gazelle. They consistently pushed the boundaries of tennis, challenging the limits of what is deemed possible. With them, the ridiculous became the routine and it seemed as if their era of dominance would last forever.

It’s been 11 years since that breathtaking final at the 2008 Wimbledon. The game ebbed and flowed for 4 hours and 48 minutes, leaving the spectators gasping for breath, their eyes swinging from side to side, with the precision of a pendulum clock. As if nature felt left out of this grand drama, it forced its hand. At 5-4 in the third set, as dark clouds gathered above the centre court, Roger and Rafa had to leave. The crowd buried their heads in their hands, unsure of whether the players would come back. Challenging every shred of doubt— and nature itself— they re-emerge to put on a show that is now widely regarded as the greatest match of all time in the history of tennis. 

The greatest rivalry in sport?

But sport can be an unforgiving spectacle, reducing even the invincibles to mere shadows of their formal selves. As Federer and Nadal aged, their reflexes dithered. Federer’s backhand began to lose its sting, and sometimes Nadal would give up the chase far too easily, making both of them look agonizingly ordinary. With each unforced error, every passing match, the decline looked inevitable. 

11 years later, it seems as if their careers have followed the trajectory of that epic game. Just when it looked like the sun is setting on their remarkable careers, they defy age, expectations and the critics to re-emerge and meet once again at the Wimbledon, perhaps for one last time.

On the eve of today’s game between these two exceptional sportsmen, it matters not to me their latest head-to-head statistics, nor do I care about the number of grand slams each had won. As I look back at their remarkable journey, all I feel at this moment is a profound sense of reverence. 

For the epic battles, the extraordinary rivalry, for the humility and the grace, and for your never ending pursuit of greatness, Roger and Rafa, thank you.