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February 08, 2017 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily

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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 child-

hood 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 recov-
ering from lengthy injuries, the two weren’t supposed
to make it this far.

These two men are among the greatest tennis play-

ers 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

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 dis-
appointment 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 fig-
ured I might as well watch.

Nadal was up two sets to one, so naturally I want-

ed 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 back-
hand 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 pret-

ty 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 clash-
es 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 tourna-
ment 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 unfamil-

iarity 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 whole-
hearted 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 spec-

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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 // The Statement

Personal Statement: Turning Back Time
By Syed Fahd Ahsan, Daily Sports Writer


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