01 February 2009

Clash of the Titans

I spent four hours Saturday night/morning watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal slug it out in the finals for the Australia Open. There was a time when I watched a lot of tennis. Heck, there was a time when I played a lot of tennis. Nowadays, my tennis game is confined to video games. George has a Dreamcast and we've been on a major Virtua Tennis 2 kick. It's incredible how fun and satisfying playing doubles on this thing is, even though it's a decade old game system.

Federer is often spoken of as the greatest player of all time. If he won this match, he would have tied Pete Sampras' record of fourteen Slam championships, all at the age of twenty seven. The only thing standing in his way was Nadal. Of course, as any casual tennis fan knows, Nadal is kicking some ass right now. The two of them are the definitive rivals of this generation and lately, Nadal has expanded his clay dominance to include a five set Wimbledon win over Federer that was hailed as the greatest tennis match of all time.

To be honest, I've never really seen Federer or Nadal play. I wouldn't have seen this match either except Helen got all excited at three in the morning and flipped on the television for the live broadcast. Everyone else I was with ended up falling asleep, but I kept watching because prime time for me is the middle of the night. Plus the match was just so damn good.

Throughout the whole thing, I couldn't help comparing the relationship of Federer and Nadal to Superman and Batman. All through the match I was trying to draw similarities in their games and their competitive relationship to their superhero counterparts. For awhile, I couldn't even decide which one was Superman and which was Batman. I flip flopped a few times before settling on Federer as Superman and Nadal as Batman. This comparison was pushed along by Federer's choice of blue shirt and Nadal's black (sort of) getup.

Watching Federer, it seems like he would be impossible to beat. He has every shot in the book, incredible touch from every angle, and no discernible weaknesses. He's been described as nigh invincible by writers and opponents. I read that he doesn't even have a full time coach because he's just that good.

Nadal, on the other hand, has fewer weapons at his disposal. He has blistering groundstrokes, incredible defense, a few tricks up his sleeve, and is tenacious as hell. Coming off the longest Australian Open match ever two days prior, Nadal had a dinged up thigh muscle that threatened to hurt his mobility and endurance. But while the injury was certainly a factor, it didn't prevent Nadal from prevailing in another classic five setter.

At first I wanted Federer to win because he could tie history, but as it got past the third set, I noticed I was admiring Nadal's game more and more. He just kept pushing, kept running around, and wouldn't give up. He seemed to be on his heels quite a few times but always managed to grab the momentum back. It's exactly how Batman always beats Superman. Supes gets a little frustrated because he knows logically he should crush Bats but all his crushing blows keep whiffing. He's starts to lose his mental edge and suffers from a bit of insecurity.

If you're a fan of Superman and Batman, you know that Batman almost always wins in their head to head matchups. Bruce Wayne's just a weak human but he recognizes his disadvantages and works around them, enabling him to out-think and out-hustle Superman every time. He carefully pre-plans, picks his spots, and only engages when he's sure he's got the advantage. He knows he can't fly, he doesn't have heat vision or super breath, but all those things can be negated with forethought and fortitude.

Superman's arch-nemesis is Lex Luthor but his arch-rival, Batman, is clearly the more compelling story as evidenced by fans' insatiable appetite for their battles. As the two greatest heroes in the DC Universe, they team up as often as they face off but there's always an ongoing subplot of who's better. Because of this, they make each other better in comparison and reflection, driving their "games" to new heights. Federer and Nadal have the same sort of quality about their relationship (even though they never team up) and without the other, we might not be able to fully appreciate their respective strengths, weaknesses, and legacies.

Question: If Nadal is Carlos Moya in Virtua Tennis (they both just pound the shit out of the ball), who is Federer? When we play Virtua Tennis, it's conceded that Moya and Tommy Haas are the two best characters in the game. It would be nice if virtual Haas' game was like Federer's but it's not. So my question is, who is Federer?