Bonding with Rafa


by Joey Agerholm

Do yourself a favour and Google the following words…. “Federer as Religion Experience by David Foster Wallace” and then read the essay that shows up in the search results. It’s a much better read than this piece will be. He argues a good case, and I’m persuaded, but if watching Roger Federer at his peak was a religious experience, what the hell was this year’s men’s Australian Open final?

I don’t feel I’d do it any justice by talking you through the match. If you watched it, you know what I mean. And if you didn’t you’ll get nothing more than a glimpse of what it was like by reading another person’s account. The day after the men’s Australian Open Final started I was completely drained, flattened, weakened by the stress my body was placed under into the early hours of the morning. Six hours of stress like that should not be endured alone but Ingrid holds no interest in sport of any sort and we have just moved to a new town where neither of us knows anyone. In the more intense moments, I was able to offload my anxiety onto others by way of text messages but friends replied with no reassurances, only understanding. Was everyone going for Rafa? Why? Moping around Geelong West the morning after I asked the newsagent, the butcher and the barista who they’d hoped would win. They each said Rafa. They each seemed tired. Smart punters backed Novak but even those I know that did so, wanted Rafa to win for the sake of a guilt-free, though short, night’s sleep.

Rafa in my mind nowadays is something like a younger brother – a younger brother that I look up to. When he first came onto the scene I didn’t like the attention he was getting. He was too defensive, too mechanical and too effective against Roger Federer. Over the years however I’ve come to appreciate him for the inspiration that he is. His insecurities, his doggedness, passion, self-belief, honesty and his humility make me wonder if there’s a more admirable character anywhere in competitive sport. Anywhere in fact, not just in sport. For the first time, during this year’s open, I felt I knew what it was like to have a member of the family compete at the highest level. It’s emotionally exhausting.

A bond was built between Rafa and me when he lost to Novak at the US Open last year. I’m not even sure it’s possible for one man to bond with another without the other’s knowledge but it sure has felt like there’s been something there ever since. Not in a fanatical kind of way. I don’t look at Rafa and marvel at his physique like the odd commentator does.[1] I just felt his shock and pain when he lost that final at Flushing Meadows. I could see what he was thinking. He wanted redemption,  revenge, immediately. So did I.

Watching this year’s final was like sitting through the Australia vs Uruguay world cup qualifier in slow motion. Really slow motion. At least at Homebush back then I had a hundred thousand fans standing around me riding the same roller coaster as I was. At least it made more sense back then. This time I couldn’t even understand what it was that I was so fearful of.

I knew I wasn’t really alone. I texted my mate Steve at 1:34 am, in the depths of the fifth set, and said “I can’t deal with this hey”, to which he replied “I know, I’m not sure I’ve felt like this about sport before.”  It’s not that Steve doesn’t have feelings for sport. He’s all over sport. Another friend who had every reason not to be interested is my mate Dane. Dane had open heart surgery not six months ago and was due to start his first day of work in almost two years the morning after the final. Dane’s the Gideon Haigh of cricket in my world and I’d have thought he was more likely to be watching Arsenal beat Villa in the FA Cup but he texted me at 12:24am, just as Rafa won the fourth set, “The guys a machine eh! Awesome tennis!” And it sure was.

I don’t know what it is about Novak. I have a lot of thoughts in my head but if I put them all to paper I’ll only look cheap and sour. He’s a phenomenal player. There’s no doubting that. As I watched him this tournament I thought a lot about something Dad says often about Rod Laver. He says he used to get the impression when watching Rocket as a kid that he used to let himself get behind in matches just to make things interesting for himself and the crowd[2]. Is Novak that good? Surely that’s not what all this cagey loser limping[3] business he carries on with is all about. Some unusual method of drawing his opponent into a false sense of opportunity? I will say one thing at the risk of offending the believers out there. In the spirit of Agassi’s reference to Chang’s belief that JC was on his side of the net, If Novak thinks God’s going to let him beat the other guy because he kisses a wooden cross around his neck more often, he’s going to have his faith tested big time before too long.

Tactics were discussed on the television throughout the night as Bruce led Leyton and Jim Courier into interesting discussions as to how one player might better overcome the other. I was convinced by the end of the third set that Novak is simply the better player of the two. Rafa struggles to force the issue from the baseline because Novak’s serve is too consistent to let him take the early ball when he’s receiving. And Rafa’s second serve in particular is too vulnerable to Novak’s mind-blowing ability to return serve at depth. Novak hits the baseline with ease off both wings, whereas all too often Rafa’s ground strokes, particularly his backhand, land too short to worry Novak. Others more rational than I probably worked out Novak’s superiority well before this tournament. In sets two, three and the first half of four Novak transcended into an unplayable opponent, no matter how hard Rafa tried. And though the highlight for me was the passage of play during which Rafa fought back from handing Novak three break points at 3-4 to seal the fourth set in a tie-break, there is no doubt in my mind that Novak is the more talented player of the two.

But doesn’t that ring true when you compare Rafa with Roger? No one doubts that Roger is the better player in terms of technical ability, but there’s also no denying Rafa’s got the edge when the two face off against each other. That wasn’t always the case, clay courts excluded. Rafa figured Roger’s backhand out. What if he figures Novak out? What if he doesn’t? He’ll die trying. Gees there’s a lot to think about. Is Roger really the best player to ever grace a tennis court? He’s got a monkey in his brain when it comes to Rafa. It’s not as big as Murray’s but it’s definitely a monkey.[4] Maybe Novak’s knows he’s better than everyone else. Maybe Novak is the next “best player ever”. Maybe there is no monkey inside his head. Maybe the loser limping is just a silly little habit he’s got when things aren’t really going his way. It’s not a weakness, just a mechanism. An outlet. So if we assume that neither Novak nor Rafa have monkey brain, we must be right to conclude that Novak will continue to dominate Rafa due to his superior tennis ability. Please let there be a monkey somewhere inside Novak’s head.

I don’t mean to get grim but once you’re done reading that Foster Wallace article about Federer, have a think about the fact that Foster Wallace committed suicide in August 2008. Think about all that he has missed since then. Sure he witnessed Rafa break Federer’s grasp on Wimbledon in a contest that was so enthralling folk spoke of it as the greatest tennis match ever[5], but that was just an early episode of what was to come – a transition from Roger to Rafa to Novak that has been so exciting and still promises so much that surely he’d be kicking himself if he knew what he was missing out on. And gees I wish he was still around to write about it all.





















[1] Bruce McAvaney deserves a paragraph to himself here. He has as good a general knowledge of sport as anyone I’m aware of in the business of talking about it. Furthermore, I’m yet to watch a tennis match under his guidance during which he hasn’t commented on the impressive physique of either one of the players or even a past player who might be sitting in the stands watching. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Bruce, nor do I insinuate anything untoward in his comments.

[2] Another thing Dad always asks with oomph is why don’t people acknowledge more often the fact that Rocket Laver didn’t play a slam between ’63 and and ’68 inclusive because they weren’t “open” to professional players. He won the Grand Slam in ’62 and ’69! Imagine what his record could have been.

[3] “Loser limp” is a term i hadn’t even heard of until I heard Gerard Whately use it on radio (sports coverage on Radio in Victoria is out of this world when you’ve just arrived from Brisbane).

[4] To borrow a phrase from Simon Barnes with regard to Murray’s apparent mental issues.

[5] L. Jon Wertheim wrote a book about it called Strokes of Genius.



  1. Peter Baulderstone says

    Loved your article, JA. The Almanac has been rather remiss over the tennis open. Suspect we are a bunch of middle aged misanthropes waiting for the serve/volley to make a comeback.
    My dispassionate view is that the Australian Open is the major sporting event of the year. There is no other sport where all the best players in the world (male and female) journey to the Antipodes for 2-4 weeks (and we can feast on their skills on Free to Air TV).
    In the 50’s and 60’s tennis was a wonderful but ‘white bread’ distraction for Americans and Australians. Since the Open era it has become a marvellously international game with now mostly European (and some South American – with Asian to come) champions.
    We have had eras of 1 champ (with maybe a rival) – Laver, Newcombe, Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras – but now the weight of numbers is giving us more at the top – and more pushing at the door.
    Vive le Open.

  2. John Butler says

    Joey, I’ll second that DFW thought. His writing on tennis (and many other subjects) was an education in itself.

    Federer is still the best player to watch in my casual observer’s opinion, and his record speaks for itself, but I don’t think he can be the greatest of all time when another man obviously has his measure.

    Djokovic is a strange one. Hard to relate his current dominance with the earlier version who withdrew from tournaments so often, apparently unable to cope with the physical and mental demands of the very toughest matches. It’s quite a transformation. Many think the loser limp stuff is gamesmanship, but I don’t think so. Unlike most top players, who seek to conceal their condition and emotions, I think Djokovic is just happy to let it all hang out. Hence, the emotional roller coaster so many of his top matches seem to become.

    I find Andy Murray the most aggravating player to watch.A total head case. Will Lendl make a difference? Or will Murray just drive Lendl mad?

    PS: What a match!

  3. “I don’t feel I’d do it any justice by talking you through the match.”

    You did justice to it without talking about it. Superb match and superb article.

  4. @Peter Baluderstone re “Suspect we are a bunch of middle aged misanthropes…”

    This Djokovich/Nadal match has obviously impacted me because I found myself on Monday pondering my own regression in interest in sports other than AFL, and trying to understand why?

    In my teens and twenties, I was all over sport – every sport; could not get enough of it. Over time my passion for AFL (and the Cats) has taken me to beyond tragic, yet interest has waned in tennis, cricket, golf, soccer, basketball, baseball, NFL, etc, etc.

    Not sure if it’s because I have less time, less interest, less brain cells, less testosterone, more kids or a missus.

  5. Skip of Skipton says


    It’s not so much becoming a misanthrope or a ‘Grumpy Old…….’, it’s just what happens with age. Discernment and a filtering out of things not truly important to you. I think you also start to become averse to what you are being ‘sold’, and interpret things more keenly.
    I didn’t watch one second of the Tennis this year, or more than about 10 minutes of it for the last 5 years. As someone said here the other day, everyone is Ivan Lendl now. Apart from Footy, some cricket and horse racing,( and often with the mute button employed); I never watch television. Ever. Please let me know when I am missing something.

  6. Skip,

    You won’t be missing much. Someone who didn’t own a television once said to me, “If I need to know something, someone will call.”

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