On the eve of the French Open, the rivalry which has animated the sport for the last four years has flickered back into life where it had seemed to be extinguished. Nadal and Federer have, for years, faced off in the Grand Slam finals as two titans in a battle to be repeated through eternity. Titans or... gods?
What exactly has made this rivalry so special? As with no other pair in the history of the game, Nadal and Federer faced each other on the biggest stages, to the exclusion of every other player of their time. That alone explains why so much attention has been paid to their rivalry, but it is not the only reason.
There has always been something more: with Borg/MacEnroe and Sampras/Agassi there was a similar dynamic of major rivals characterized by polar opposite personalities and on-court styles. This is a clue to the importance of the current duo.
It has become trendy of late to engage in revisionist tennis commentary: after Nadal had been characterized as a brute force for so many years, commentators now point out the thought which has gone into creating his game, the ongoing improvements, the tactical adjustments. Nadal is now called a thinker. All this may be true upon in-depth analysis. But let's look again at their games, superficially, and we easily see why they were categorized, typecast even, so quickly: Federer as God, Nadal as Beast.
Federer's game has been called the most beautiful, most perfect of all. His shots are immaculate. Aesthetically, he has no rival. At his best, he is like a painter, each shot adding colour and shape to the portrait which he alone sees all of. It is a game of perfect control, perfect balance. In short, it is an object to behold.
Nadal's game, despite the process which lies underneath creating it, appears as brute power. Primordial force unleashed. Watching Nadal is cathartic. He seems to pour ALL into each shot, as if he is channeling a greater power. It is an unshackling of the human body, each shot a release and explosion. It is orgiastic.
In Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, the philosopher attempts to unlock the secrets of the ancient Greek dramas of Sophocles and Aeschylus. The key to his thesis is the recognition of the integration of opposing artistic forces: the gods Apollo and Dionysus.
Apollo is the "shining light", the symbol of the "plastic" arts, such as sculpting and painting. The Apollinian represents the World as Appearances (i.e. the Grand Illusion, or the Veil of Maya). The gorgeous Olympic gods are manifestations of Appolinian culture. From Apollo, the beauty of order and appearances, and especially of individuation (the illusion that the world is made of discrete, separate objects and individuals).
Dionysus is the god of ecstasy. The Dionysian arts, the drumming, dance, and music of the Greek Dionysian festivals, are those which strip away the illusion of the world and reveal the unity between men, and between man and nature. If Apollo is the god of appearance, Dionysus is the god of That Power Which Lies Beneath. The archetypal Dionysian art is music, that which seems to communicate deeper meaning, to touch That Power Which Lies Beneath without our "Real World" as intermediary (as in the plastic arts).
Nietzsche saw, in Greek Tragedy, the union of these two arts: at once individuated and beautiful, in the characters we see on stage, at the same time touching the Truth and underlying unity of the world we live in through the mythic archetypes portrayed, the grand mysteries touched on through the story and the hero's ultimate realization of That Which Lies Beneath, all of which was aided by the very Dionysian music and chorus. To Nietzsche, this was the most powerful possible art, using Apollo to reveal Dionysus and vice versa.
And this is why Federer-Nadal touches us like no other! There, live and on court, we see the two great archetypes engaged in their own dance: with Federer we marvel at beauty and grace, with Nadal we are released through primal force. Their rivalry touches us at a mythic level; they represent basic categories of existence.
So, for the French.
Nadal vs Fed in the finals.
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