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Simply the best (Hindu)

In times to come, 2017 will be remembered by tennis fans as the year the Australian Open went retro. For, it featured the big-stage revival of two of the sport’s most storied rivalries. Roger Federer was pushed to the limit by Rafael Nadal’s relentless, shape-shifting style before the Swiss maestro’s sublime artistry prevailed in a classic — his third win in nine Major finals over the Spaniard, his 18th Grand Slam crown and his first since Wimbledon in 2012. And Serena Williams, playing sister Venus in a Major final after nearly eight years, continued her dominance, capturing a professional-era record 23rd title. The warm nostalgia these great champions evoked was accompanied by the thrill of the unexpected. Of the four, only Serena’s presence in the final was unsurprising. The resurgence of the old guard — the first time in the Open Era that all four finalists were over the age of 30 — might have had something to do with the faster courts in Melbourne this year. Federer, among others, certainly thought so. He said it kept points shorter than normal and made fewer demands of the body. He also felt that those who had started out before 2005 had an edge — they were more instinctively attuned to the quicker movement of the ball.

It takes singular skill and a certain ruthlessness, however, to make capital of the smallest advantages, and Federer and Serena, and to a marginally lesser extent Nadal and Venus, did precisely that. Federer, who missed six months last year with an injury, knew he could not allow Nadal time and space. With his opponent looking in excellent physical condition, Federer could not afford to be drawn into long, bruising rallies; he had to dictate the tempo of play. This meant taking the ball uncomfortably early, with a narrow margin for error, and it required all of Federer’s genius to pull it off. He also had to overcome the psychological scars of past defeats to Nadal. Federer’s nerve in big matches against his greatest rival has been questioned before, but on Sunday he displayed a calm resolve. Serena, too, had to master her emotions against Venus, who is both beloved sister and formidable threat. While her explosive athleticism is the most apparent facet of her game, Serena’s underrated tennis intelligence has contributed significantly to her capturing a record 10 Grand Slam titles after turning 30. With their triumphs in Melbourne, Federer and Serena, both 35, managed what only a few of the greats have. They quietened the voice of doubt that speaks in every athlete’s ear — a voice that grows more persistent with age — and raged against the dying of the light.

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