Personal Statement: Turning Back Time

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 - 7:19pm


Illustration by Katie Spak

What if I told you that, for one day, I was able to turn back the clock and be a 10-year-old kid again. That for a few hours, I was able to take a break from a world that increasingly felt like it was becoming too much to handle.

The spell was cast at the Australian Open final by two sorcerers of the highest order: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. They played under the heat of a summer Melbourne sun as I sat bundled in blankets, under a Michigan winter sky. Physically, they were as far away from me as possible, but never had they been closer to my heart.

You know you’re getting old when all of your childhood tennis heroes are either retired, or losing to kids younger than you. Over the past few years, that’s become a reality for Federer and Nadal. Roger seeded 17 at the beginning of the Australian Open and Rafa barely made the top-10, coming in at nine. Both recovering from lengthy injuries, the two weren’t supposed to make it this far.

These two men are among the greatest tennis players of all time. They defined the sport and pushed it to new heights, but their time was truly supposed to be up. Heck, even the next-generation Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were supposed to be running out of time. To see both Federer and Nadal reach the final of a grand slam together for the first time in six years was highly improbable.

I stayed up to watch each of Federer’s games. They started at 3:30 a.m. and would end — at the earliest — at 6 a.m. I consumed exuberant amounts of coffee and skipped many classes, but watching him turn back time to beat three top-10 opponents was worth every minute of sleep I sacrificed.

I had an exam three hours after I saw Federer beat fellow Swiss no. 4 Stanislas Wawrinka. It was an hour and a half long; I was out in 40 minutes. Make of that what you will.

On the other side of the bracket, Nadal struggled against 19-year-old Alexander “Sascha” Zverev, barely outlasting him in five sets. But after that close call, he roared through the rest of the bracket, and I, just like the crowds in Melbourne, “vamos-ed’ every time he won a match, making a “Fedal” final that much more realistic.

The first tennis match I ever watched was the 2006 French Open final, which was coincidentally the first Federer-Nadal Grand Slam final. It was June of 2006, and I was a 9-year-old enjoying summer break and excited to watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” (My parents introduced it to me that summer, and it was the first show I ever binge-watched.) Imagine my disappointment when I walked into my parents’ room to find them watching two men hitting a ball back and forth while making strange grunting noises.

It was already close to midnight, and I knew I wasn’t going to watch any “Fresh Prince,” no matter how many times my parents said they’d put it on after the match. My complaining got me nowhere, so I figured I might as well watch.

Nadal was up two sets to one, so naturally I wanted him to put the game to bed so a young Will Smith could make me laugh. But as much as I wanted that to happen, every time Federer hit a one-handed backhand or served an ace, I couldn’t help but admire his brilliance. By the time he tied the set at 6-6, I wanted him to win the tiebreaker and keep the match going. This was definitely better than the “Fresh Prince.”

I got my first wish. Nadal won the tiebreak pretty fast, and the game ended. My parents still kicked me out of the room, and I didn’t get to watch Uncle Phil throw Jazz out of the house either. I was mad at my parents, but — in hindsight — it was probably the only time they did something because “it was better for me.” They introduced me to Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and tennis.

For the next six years I watched Rafa dominate on clay and Roger weave his magic on grass. Their clashes on the court would put the battle between Perseus and the Titans to shame — don’t believe me? Just watch Wimbledon 2008. I always wanted Federer to win. Nadal beat him more often than not.

Before long, though, Federer entered the twilight of his career, and injuries threatened to deny Nadal the rest of his. The two entered tournament after tournament only to fall short well before they were meant to. Every subsequent defeat would become that much less disappointing, that much less shocking. They were considered legendary relics of the sport more so than actual contenders for the throne.

Not even in my wildest dreams could both men have reached a final this year, so when they finally did, emotions I hadn’t felt since I was 15 suddenly came back to me. These emotions brought with them memories of what were some of my fondest years.

A lot has changed since 2011, though. I put on a couple of pounds, grew a few inches and a beard now sits on my once bare face. I moved half-way around the world to attend college, too. Federer and Nadal weren’t immune to the effects of time either.

Back then, Nadal was bare biceps, long hair, long pants. Now, his hair is thinner, his sleeves have grown out, and his shorts are, well, short. But what about Federer? He was once graceful elegance and fluid perfection, and now, well, he’s still just that — maybe just a tad bit slower.

So when the final arrived, it had an eerie unfamiliarity around it — it was the ninth time the two were meeting in a Grand Slam final, but it had been so long that it felt new again. Like the return of a long-lost friend you thought you’d never see again.

The story wrote itself. With the match tied at two sets a piece, Nadal broke Federer’s first serve and took a 3-1 lead. Roger waived his racket like the wand that it is and turned the clock back farther than he’d ever done. He replied with five unanswered points and found himself serving for the championship.

During that last set, I jumped around my couch, shouting at the TV for every unforced error, and holding my hair in awe at every ace. And when Roger finally hit that last forehand winner, I couldn’t hold back the tears. For those few hours, there was truly nothing else in the world that I cared about. I felt like I was 9 years old again.

On that day, everyone was a winner, except for Rafa. He brought out his shining megawatt smile, tossed aside disappointment to showcase humility, and paid his victor, rival and friend the most generous of compliments. “Roger deserved it a little more than me,” he said.

Exuberant after his win, Federer jumped around like it was his first Grand Slam. It was his 18th Grand Slam title. That’s more than anyone else and four more than his closest competitors, Sampras and Nadal.

For all the intensity, competitiveness and historic meaning behind their matches, there is no hint of spite or malice in their relationship — only wholehearted respect, and reverence.

At a time when the world seems full of public immaturity and division, the matchup between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal reminded me that it didn’t have to be that way.

As Federer made his lap of honor with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, I was on my feet in my living room, in tears, applauding what I had just seen, just like everyone else at Rod Laver Arena. The standing ovation was meant for Roger, but it was for Rafa too. Because we needed both for this extraordinary spectacle.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, thank you from the bottom of my heart. For all those finals that marked my fondest years. For sticking around, even though you were past your best. For finding it in you to be the best again.