Nevertheless, I set my alarm to wake up in the middle of this night to watch what I feared would feel like the inevitable. And, although the first set was very close, that feeling of the inevitable was what I ended up with after sacrificing my sleep. To be sure, Roger didn't play his best match. He was much sharper against Tsonga and, to a less obvious extent, Murray in this tournament. But even if he had been at his best, I'm not sure he could have prevailed.
Nadal is a great player, one of the all-time best. No one has ever been more dogged in his pursuit of point-to-point excellence. Even though his serve has never been that impressive, he still manages to win the vast majority of his service games. And he plays defense with unparalleled intensity. For all that, though, I've never been a big fan of his game. I can appreciate its quality, yet am always left a little cold by the way it manifests itself.
What makes me root against him, however, isn't just the way he plays, but the facial expressions he makes during his matches. I realize that's a superficial reason to be turned off by someone, but I can't help it. What I call his "pirate sneer" drives me absolutely batty. Some dislike Federer's air of superiority; some Djokovic's way of smiling to himself; some Murray's inward-directed petulance. For me, though, those quirks of personality all win out over Nadal's.
Although I root against Nadal pretty much all the time, it's when he's playing Federer that my animus is strongest. That has been true ever since that remarkable Wimbledon final that ended in near darkness, when Nadal demonstrated that even grass was no impediment to his dominance. I've long had a soft spot for athletes on the decline who somehow manage to prevail in spite of their diminishment. While it's true that Federer's decline has been very gradual -- it was almost imperceptible at first -- I think his followers must now concede that it had definitely begun by that Wimbledon final, at least in relation to his closest competitors. So that's when I became a big Federer fan.
More than half a decade later, as that decline proceeds at a greater pitch, I find myself pulling for Roger all the harder, but also getting depressed at how often he now disappoints. Watching him play so well over the past two weeks in Melbourne gave me a real boost. But somehow that made his semifinal loss against Nadal today even more difficult to take. It seems silly to wish for Nadal to be drummed out by someone else, so Roger can have one more chance at winning a major, but that is probably the only way that it's going to happen.