As much as I have cheered for Rafael Nadal, because I am a sucker for Spaniards and upstarts, it took until this Australian Open for something to occur to me. A bit less than 4 years ago, I was marvelling at Federer's level of play and how, even on an off day, Federer was a hard fellow to beat. In the Australian semi's this year, Roddick threw the kitchen sink at Federer, then went out back and tossed the shed, a wheel barrow and a lawnmower at him, and it still did not come close to keeping the Fed from the finals. That's the thing about the Fed, that's always been the thing- some players can play flawlessly, can play at their best, highest level ever, and still lose to him.
But it took me until today to realize something. Though I've always thought of Nadal as more than a brute, more than just some little punk who keeps nagging at Federer, I really did not understand the shift that has occurred in tennis until today. He's been ranked 1 for a while, but still, Nadal had never won a Slam on hard court. What's more, Federer had nearly a full day of rest on Nadal: Rafa played a day after Federer's semi, and he had to battle through a 5-set, history-making-long match against Verdasco in order to get to the finals. He was less well-rested, he was playing on a court that Federer usually dominates. And throughout the tournament, Federer was playing the tennis that everyone always associates him with- effortless, beautiful, sorry-Roddick-see-ya tennis. Plus, he has some history of his own to make, since he is one Slam away from tying Sampras' record of championship wins.
He didn't play perfectly, mind you, in the finals, but he gave it all he had. When Federer and Nadal play, they push each other past their normal limits. They know they have to. They make more errors than they normally do, because of the way they push each other, press each other's buttons, shake each other up. In the end, there were no excuses. You could blame the rain delays or the failing light at Wimbledon, you could give the clay advantage to Rafa at the French, but at the Australian Open, there was only one conclusion that could be reached, a conclusion no one (not especially Rafael Nadal) is comfortable saying out loud- Rafael Nadal is currently the best tennis player in the world.
Also, who doesn't love bromance?