Truth and beauty

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The Australian Open provided another reminder that comparisons between the Big Three go beyond tennis.

In some ways the Australian Open was mundane. Routine. Novak Djokovic won (for the 8th time), Roger Federer reached the semi-finals (for the 15th time) before losing to Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal reached the quarter-finals before going out to eventual finalist Dominic Thiem. Federer and Nadal may not have won the Open this time (though they have 7 titles there between them) but remain at the top of the game, both defying age, injury, and the odds in still being there. They can’t be for much longer. At 33, Nadal is already old for a tennis player, and Federer is a veritable Methuselah of 38 – so it’s worth savouring the latest iteration of their extraordinary professional rivalry.

Who is the greatest of all time? Federer or Nadal? There are plenty of other greats in the men’s game and many have their advocates, but in terms of both metrics (titles, especially Grand Slams) and common consensus, Federer and Nadal are and always will be two names that are automatically mentioned. One reason is that their dichotomy goes beyond just tennis.

Federer = grace, effortlessness, no sweat. Federer sweating would be like a god bleeding (think Sean Connery in “The Man Who Would be King”). Federer grunting would be like Natalie Portman farting. His aura is one of immaculate superiority, his opponents beaten because they’re simply not operating on the same level.

Nadal = hard work, effort (the grunts!), exertion, sweat, determination. Everything faster, harder, deeper. Wallop, wallop, wallop. His aura, like Arnie in “The Terminator”, is one of relentless indefatigability. His opponents are beaten, and beaten into the ground, because they simply cannot sustain the same level for the same duration. 

It’s not as clear-cut as that, of course. The Becker-Edberg rivalry in the 80s was a genuine clash of styles – serve and volley versus baseline – but what makes the Federer-Nadal comparison so rich is that (as noted by David Foster Wallace) they both play essentially the same power baseline game. Federer isn’t just wafty floaty grace and artistry – he can hit as hard as anybody. And anyone who characterises Nadal as just a slugger with more topspin revs than anyone else hasn’t seen enough of his matches to appreciate his on-court finesse. 

But what fascinates about the pair, and why they invite lazy distinctions like the ones made above, is that they represent archetypes. Fundamentally, the way that Federer and Nadal are perceived to play the game symbolises the opposite poles of approaches to competition, work, and life itself.

Nadal, if you will, exemplifies the American work ethic. Work harder, for longer. Achieve success through grit and determination and application. Federer, conversely, represents what Richard Fortey ruefully characterised in “Life: An unauthorised biography” as the British work ethic. Work hard…but pretend not to. Downplay the exertion, and try to make the achievement look like effortless genius.  

It’s because they represent these two poles that Federer and Nadal dominate debate. Djokovic could and right now probably will surpass both in terms of Grand Slams, but somehow he never gets mentioned in the greatest-of-all-time debates because he doesn’t represent anything besides being good. He doesn’t transcend the game. He’s not bigger than tennis. 

Great books have value because they go beyond simply telling a story and illuminate something about the human condition itself. Literature is replete with wonderful storytellers (Le Carré and Robert Harris to name but two) that will never be mentioned in the same breath as Dostoevsky, Eliot, and Hardy because despite their skill in writing and their unerring grasp of human psychology and behaviour, they don’t transcend their narratives. They brilliantly capture a moment in time but they don’t capture a moment for all time. 

That timelessness, that profundity, is always something elusive. And it can pop up unexpectedly, too. It’s why “Pulp Fiction” is still Tarantino’s best film, and why “Drive” has a weird unearthly power that goes way beyond its rather simple storyline. 

With Federer and Nadal, the implied comparison is between grace and power. Between elegance and efficiency. Francis Crick famously exclaimed upon solving the structure of DNA that it had to be true because it was so beautiful, but that same logic didn’t apply to the protein structures that Max Perutz revealed. Haemoglobin was, and is, ugly, functional, squat, and powerful. It’s a ball of string wrapped around an iron atom, but nothing beats it at its job.

You can do something beautifully, or you can do it powerfully, but what ultimately counts is that you do it well. Beauty without quality is meretricious; power without quality is brutish. The Federer versus Nadal debate goes on because there isn’t a right answer, it just depends on what side of the spectrum you sit. Both approaches are right, and both philosophies are valid – it’s just a question of which approach you instinctively subscribe to. The debate is there because ultimately, Federer and Nadal are both very very good at what they do, and they represent two ways, two different inspirations, for us to seek success in our own lives. Thats the truth.

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