There isn't anything in any sport better right now than the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. This morning they produced another five set epic that was a fitting conclusion to the best Australian Open in years. And, for the fifth match in a row it was the Spaniard who emerged victorious. Not for the first, nor one suspects the last, time Nadal defeated Federer physically and mentally. This was a match Federer will feel he should have won: he had a legion of chances to break and win the third set but each time either his own timidity or, more often, Nadal's seemingly inexhaustible supply of fortitude prevented the Swiss from making the vital breakthrough.
All of which leaves us in quandary: if Federer is the greatest player since Laver, how come he's only won six of his 19 meetings with Nadal? Even away from the clay the record has been narrowed to 5-4 in Federer's advantage. In non-clay Grand Slam finals it is 2-2.
If Federer is a Derby Champion, all grace and elegance and poise and acceleration, Nadal is a Gold Cup winner; equally classy in his own way, inexhaustible, courageous, inspirational. Federer's game is built upon such fine margins that the slightest mishap can have ruinous consequences. And as he gets older such mishaps must become more common. Yet it's this fragility that makes Federer's tennis so appealing; the line between seemingly effortless brilliance and collapse is thin to the point of being all but non-existant. There are times when watching Federer play tennis reminds one of watching Brian Lara or David Gower bat: beautiful but, as I say, fragile.
As for Nadal? His is a different kind of brilliance. If Federer seems to float over the court, Nadal pounds it. Mentally, as they say, Nadal is the stronger beast. He may not have Federer's range of shots or gift for expression, but his tennis is sure-footed, fierce, brave and, in its own way, terrifyingly audacious. By rights he should have been beaten today (Federer squandered 13 break points), but his ability to hold his nerve and play fearlessly on the biggest points was astonishing. He draws upon a deeper well than Federer.
That's to say that though Federer may be the greater tennis player, Nadal is the greater match-player. Right now it's the steeplechaser who has an advantage over the flat-racer. Arkle is beating Nijinsky. Nadal's heart seems bigger than Federer's and that, coupled with the unique challenges Rafa's game poses Roger, is enough to give him the advantage. It's no great surprise that Nadal has a much superior record in matches that go the full five sets. (Though of course it's also the case that in the past five years Federer was, except against Nadal, generally only taken to five sets if he was playing poorly and, consequently, vulnerable.)
Can Federer recover from this latest shattering setback and prevail at Wimbledon or Flushing Meadow to win his 14th Grand Slam? Only, perhaps, if he can play someone other than Rafael Nadal.
It's no slight against Andy Murray, however, to observe that a Wimbledon final that is anything other than another episode of the Roger and Rafa Show will be a disappointment. Right now, it's the greatest, most fascinating, extraordinary show in sport. It's a privilege to be able to watch it and these matches will still be talked about fifty years from now...