A night to be swept away

Eighteen at last: Nothing will beat the 2017 final for the emotional charge it carried. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It's just as well I don't write on tennis for a living, because Sunday wasn't the night for journalistic restraint and practiced unsentimentality. It was the night to be swept away, to let your emotions go, to cheer and clap and swear, to feel dread and hope, to rejoice and to shed tears.

It was the night to feel the full force of a titanic sporting experience.

It was, above everything else, the night to be a Roger Federer fan. It was a blessing to be there. And it was a blessing that professional obligations didn't come in the way.

My own family is divided over Federer and Nadal but, as always, the Nadal fans are outnumbered. At the Rod Laver Arena tonight, Nadal had to play the shot of the match -- a running forehand cross-court winner against a shot that was so dead-certain to be a winner that Federer had already started moving back towards the middle of the court -- to win an ovation that was routine for Federer.

The Federer fans scored even in disappointment: the collective groan after every failed challenge from their hero would have been audible across the Yarra. Not that Nadal would have cared, for he has conducted his whole career under such inequality, but at moments like these, the poignancy of his rivalry with Federer was most palpable.

It is not unusual for the fans to root for the underdog -- Federer himself has been at the receiving end in this very tournament, against Marcos Baghdatis in the 2006 final -- but the point is that Federer's fans rarely see him as that in relation to Nadal.

It is Nadal instead who is seen as the usurper, and that is among the most astounding phenomena in sport. This final took their rivalry ahead of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Sampras, with 20 wins in 34 matches, towered over his fellow American through the entire duration. With his latest win, Federer has managed to drag his win ratio beyond 0.5 against Nadal - Nadal still leads this rivalry 23-12 - but his hold over the imagination of his fans, and indeed the tennis cognoscenti, remains unshakable.

Greg Baum of the Melbourne Age last week described Federer as the greatest player, while making the concession that Nadal is the "greatest player of Federer."

The most plausible explanation for this apparent absurdity can perhaps be traced to the origin of their rivalry. Throughout his career, Federer has matched the description of the most perfect tennis player. Sampras had no obvious weakness in his game, but it lacked the grace and, consequently, the soul of Federer. Beauty matters in sport and when it allies with substance, its pull is irresistible.

From the beginning, Nadal was cast as the anti-hero. Aesthetics were never his concern; instead, he designed his game to counter Federer. The left-handedness provided the foundation, and he honed it to bombard Federer's backhand with wicked angles and bounce derived from his mastery of topspin.

Nadal based his game on defence and retrieval, covering more ground behind the baseline than any player Federer had ever encountered. It helped that a bulk of their early encounters took place on clay courts, the slowness of which suited Nadal, and which Federer never mastered.

But even as the victories mounted, Nadal forever remained the pursuer, both literally and in the eyes of Federer fans, the hustler against the aristocrat. It perhaps suited him too to position himself as the underdog even while he was dominating the relationship and to keep the impression intact that somehow Federer had more to lose every time they met.

In the scale of popularity, kryptonite never had much of a chance, and so singular was Nadal's pursuit, it seemed, that he perhaps didn't care as he grunted through his double-fisted backhands.

Over the years, Nadal won respect and admiration, but Federer retained the love. At his best, Nadal had you out of breath, but Federer made you feel good about life. Nadal earned your incredulity, but you watched Federer with a smile on your face. He outran, outwitted and outlasted Federer in most of their matches, but could never outgrow him.

However, to Nadal the Federer fans owe their greatest debt. No other player, not Novak Djokovic, not Andy Murray, and certainly not Grigor Dimitrov, who has sometimes been called Baby Fed, would have given this final the sense of occasion and the emotional heft that Nadal brought.

Throughout the tournament, Federer's backhand, its single-handedness being the emphatic stamp of purity in the eyes of his fans, sizzled. Without Nadal's relentless assault on it, Federer perhaps wouldn't have been pushed to polish and sharpen it.

However unremitting it was in excellence and tension, it would be hard, even in its raw immediacy, to call this the greatest final in modern history. For that, it would be impossible to look beyond the Wimbledon final in 2008 featuring these two rivals that Nadal won in the dying light. But for how unimaginable it was at the beginning of the tournament, and for the emotional charge it carried and the romance it created, it would be hard to find a parallel to tonight.

At 35, and without a Grand Slam title in nearly five years, this win for Federer would have been memorable anyway. But by pushing him to the limits, by forcing him to hit multiple winners for each point, by drawing level twice from a set behind, by breaking him in his opening service game in the final set, and by not letting him an easy point in the final game, his greatest rival made it a match for the ages. No one has done more to pull Federer down to the earth, but no one could have done more to burnish his image than Nadal through his valiance in this one match.

I have been entranced by Federer from the day I saw him, on television, ending Sampras' reign at Wimbledon with a series of dazzling forehands, and because neutrality was hardwired into following cricket, the sport that remains my favourite, as an individual sportsperson I have let Federer claim my heart.

Editorial meetings brought me to Melbourne, but I came nurturing the hope of watching one Federer match. Expecting anything more would have been courting disappointment, and to insure against it, I went to the final today steeling myself with the belief that he couldn't possibly win it.

And it was only when Nadal's challenge -- would he ever give up? -- was overruled that I allowed reality to take hold.

I can't imagine what could possibly beat this moment.

Sambit Bal is the editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo and ESPN India.