Many in the tennis world shed tears at the close of superstar Roger Federer’s final match in September. A month earlier, Serena Williams, arguably the greatest female athlete of all time, likewise announced her departure from the game. And just like that, two of the most important and impactful tennis giants passed from news and headlines into history, legend and myth.

Ironically, the tears most visible at the end of Federer’s career were not his own, but those of Rafael Nadal — the Dionysian Spaniard to the Apollonian Swiss man. And Nadal will likely feel the effect of those tears strongest on Sunday, at the start of the Australian Open.

With the unfortunate withdrawal of Carlos Alcaraz due to injury, Nadal is now first seed at the first major tournament of the post-Federer era, looking to extend his reign as He-Who-Holds-The-Most-Major-Titles (only one beyond Novak Djokovic, and two beyond Federer — 22 for Nadal, 21 for Djokovic, and 20 for Federer).

As I watched Nadal weep in September (and shed my own tear or two), I wondered what might become of the man from Mallorca in the absence of his rival.

In Andrew Douglas’s fantastic 2018 documentary “Strokes of Genius,” both Nadal and Federer openly acknowledge that each molded the other into the greatness we know today. Federer said, “I had to embrace the idea of a rival. In the beginning I didn’t want to have one. And then eventually I realized there’s something good to take out of these situations. I maybe have to adjust my game a little bit — I don’t like to do that per se, but why not? Let’s go!”

Near the end of the film, American tennis star Martina Navratilova says, “I don’t know if Roger would still be around if Nadal hadn’t been born. It’s hard to stay motivated, and they kind of pulled each other.”

Echoing the sentiment, Navratilova’s own rival, Chris Evert, said: “What makes it stand out from any other rivalry is that they both are exceptional people; they both have such respect for each other; they both are very humble” (emphasis mine).

The question then remains: Will Nadal be able to stand on his own in the wake of Federer’s retirement?

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Nadal’s tears may foreshadow some variation of the “widowhood effect” in which, after the death of a spouse, the probability of death for the living spouse increases significantly within a relatively short period of time. Certainly, both Nadal and Federer have clung to each other within the higher dimensions of their game — neither Federer without Nadal, nor Nadal without Federer. There is a sense of deep mourning in those honest September tears of both tennis Titans, the loss of the mutual opposition that gave meaning to each.

Federer’s retirement marks a new era in tennis, but also mirrors contemporary America, where individuals evade rivals, resisting any and all opposition, ultimately forfeiting anything approaching greatness, or even mediocrity.

The sentiment is one of “they will never understand me, and I will never understand them. And I no longer care to try.”

Tucker Carlson, for instance, recently said that his “tolerance for atheism has really dwindled to nothing at this point.”  While I agree generally that there are dangerous errors in atheistic thinking, a non-tolerant religious view of atheism provides for a non-tolerant atheistic view of religion — and non-tolerance usually leads to divorce, which, in the social sphere, almost always leads to some form of violent exchange.

We see the non-tolerance of today reflected in sports at large, where the petty supremacy of the Lebrons and the Dončićs get fouls called for their opponents’ bad breath; where Neymar rolls his way in kitsch pain across the pitch into a meme; and, returning to tennis, where a Djokovic will whine his way out of a major tournament by driving a ball into a line judge’s throat, or a Tsitsipas, who, unable to handle the antagonistic opposition of Kyrgios, hits a spectator with a ball, nearly refuses to shake hands at the match’s end and calls Kyrgios a bully.

In a sense, we live in a widowhood of sports and life, where, to some extent, competition is not pursued but eschewed; our opponents and opposition in life have died (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, we killed them) and so must we along with them.

The paradox, however, is that we now shift nearly all real-world opposition to exclusively online opposition. Anything and everything behind the screen, no matter how lovely, of good report or praiseworthy, will ultimately receive hate ten-fold against it. The critic (anonymous or otherwise) hides behind the illusory pretense of moral critique, while receiving almost zero consequences for their negativity in the real world.

The illusion leaves an empty hole where fruitful rivalry once filled the soul. This results in real-world tensions, wherein we can’t simply close an app in an interpersonal conflict, so we whine to the refs. In this we gain nothing but a deep loss of love for the self, spewing forth erroneously as a loss of respect for the other.

The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton taught that “the wholeness and fullness of our lives is not revealed to us alone, and is not to be achieved without help: it is a wholeness and fullness that has its origins in the judgment and affection of those whom we encounter.”

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Similarly, some 400 years ago, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island; entire to itself.”

Indeed, as Navratilova said, there is no Federer without Nadal, nor Nadal without Federer; the wholeness of Federer came forth from Nadal, and the fullness of Nadal from Federer. As Chris Evert noted, their humility in acknowledging each other’s opposition is what led the two to spiral upwards, not down, transforming and transcending the game forever. Ultimately, it is this humility that we lack as a society, spiraling us ever downwards.

With the Australian Open upon us, and Nadal almost an island in his sphere, he turns to his family for strength, citing the bravery and stamina of his wife to see him through this tournament. Will Nadal be able to stand without Federer into the future? Come Sunday, Jan. 29, we may just find out.

Scott Raines (@scotthraines on Twitter) is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas. 

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