Don't turn out those lights just yet, Irene. It looks like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are going to keep a good thing going. That's the big takeaway from the championship match of the ATP World Tour Finals, in which Federer snatched the title away from Nadal in a not entirely epic three-setter, pulling away 6-1 in the clinching set.
This match was critically important for a number of reasons, so let's take them in order:
1. If Nadal had pulled off the win, it would have put an exclamation point on his career year and left us with one unfair but inevitable question in the backs of our minds: Does Roger still have it?
That question isn't just about Nadal's prowess, or the state of their rivalry. It's a larger question about the consensus Greatest Player of All Time. And if you take the long view, who gives a hoot if Nadal, this upstart who has barely half the number of major titles as his rival, is actually, secretly, obviously, theoretically, certainly, undoubtedly, apparently the better player? Tennis just wouldn't be the same without Federer, and his critical and sometimes puzzling lapses this year had been starting to suggest that maybe he just isn't the player he was two, three years ago.
We like having Federer around, we like counting on him to get to finals to meet Nadal, and we like him holding up his end of the rivalry. So hit the reset button for 2011 and hang on to the arms of your La-Z-Boy.
2. Nadal has nothing to be disappointed about concerning 2010. But while his ardent fans might look at this as the Year of Coronation, his failure to win the WTF even once in his career will certainly stick with him and rankle. Oh, he'll say it's all about the majors, and about that he's right. But just as he knows he has two things Federer never earned (Olympic Games singles gold and a Davis Cup champion's trophy), he knows the historical importance of Federer having won his fifth WTF title (placing him in a tie with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl).
Just as important, Nadal now has further incentive to improve. He trails Federer by an enormous margin in the Grand Slam title count (although Nadal is nearly five years younger), and unlike Federer he's already had to deal with injuries serious enough to sideline him for extended periods. Nadal needs every big title he can get, unless he's willing to finish his career with asterisks and "if onlys" -- much like Federer had to manage those qualifiers before he completed his own career Grand Slam in Paris.
3. The Federer-Nadal rivalry is a gift that keeps giving back to the game. Sampras often said that tennis is at its best when the game is dominated by one or two rivalries that penetrate the media echo chamber even more fully than the pure excellence of a dominant player.
So if you're a Nadal fan, I can see where you were pulling for him to win Sunday -- it would have provided something like closure for the year in which it looked very much like he might eclipse Federer for good. But the concept of closure works better in bitter divorces and jury trials than in sports. If you're a fan of the game in general, you had to both hope that Federer could pull through and send the message, "Not so fast, bub."
That message was delivered Sunday, loud and clear.