Strokes of Genius review: Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal documentary will captivate you even if you don't like tennis

Ujwal Singh
·5-min read

As Rafael Nadal dismantled World No 1 Novak Djokovic to conquer his 13th French Open at the Roland-Garros, the most touching tribute for the Spaniard came from his old rival Roger Federer.

The 13th Grand Slam title win in Paris was also Nadal's 20th overall which drew him level with Federer. They both are now the most successful men in the history of the sport.

The Swiss tennis maestro no longer stands alone on the pedestal but his message for Nadal had no regret, it would be a surprise if he tried to hide any. Because the mutual respect both have for each other is something that has come to define their rivalry. A rivalry that has come to define the world of tennis for the last one and a half-decade.

It was in 2008, during that epic Wimbledon final clash when the foundation of this rivalry was laid. Both the players were multiple-time Grand Slam winners by the time they reached the final at SW19 in 2008, in fact, Federer had 12 titles, but they were yet to lose in their own backyard.

Federer, who combines aesthetics and sports, ruled the grass courts and Nadal, who fights for every point as if his life depends on it, championed the clay surface. Things would change in July 2008. The change was a result of an epic five-setter that lasted for nearly seven hours with two rain delays and had a playtime of four hours and 48 minutes.

That monumental final is widely regarded as the greatest tennis match of all time and 'Strokes of Genius' is a documentary that revolves around that emotional rollercoaster. It is based on the book Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played by L Jon Wertheim. The book was originally published in 2009. The documentary, directed by Andrew Douglas, was released in 2018 but has now been made available in India as its streaming on Discovery Plus.

Any documentary on a Shakespearean drama like the 2008 Wimbledon final is bound to be great, isn't it? Even the highlights evoke so many different sentiments but this is where Strokes of Genius earns its money. While the tennis match forms the bedrock of the documentary, there's so much more to it, so much to learn, and more importantly so much to feel.

It starts with setting up the match. Nadal had given a scare to Federer in the last two finals at Wimbledon and defeated him in straight sets to capture the French Open title ahead of the grass-court Slam in 2008. On the other hand, Federer, who was in his prime, was aiming for a sixth straight win at SW19 to break Bjorn Borg's record.

Once the initial minutes of background information are over, the rest of the documentary is the highlights of the match stitched together carefully and beautifully with Federer and Nadal reflecting on the match, experts, commentators and former players analysing the battle, old footages showing the journey of young Nadal and Federer from their junior days to what they had become by 2008.

Those old footages are quite revealing. Nadal even in his childhood appeared as a pretty determined bloke who wanted to win but was humble in his approach. The junior days Federer was far from being a gentleman that he has been as a professional. He threw tantrums and his racquets.

Besides all of this, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg also speak about their legendary rivalries. This allows you to look at Federer-Nadal rivalry through a new prism. It widens your outlook as to how Federer and Nadal complete each other, shows you why there's so much love between the biggest rivals that the sport has ever seen.

Coming back to the match, the documentary, if anything, intensifies the experience of the emotional drama that it was. The terrific background score adds to the experience but most enjoyable are the thoughts of the athletes on the crucial moments of the match. When Nadal speaks about him wasting two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker, it gives you a deeper insight into what was happening on the pitch on that day, what went through the minds of the tennis stars.

There are some great one-liners too in the documentary, one of my favourites came from Federer's fitness coach Pierre Paganini: "Roger is an artist who knows how to fight, whereas Nadal is a fighter who knows how to be an artist as well."

Some you may not enjoy, like, "Nadal was put on Earth for the purpose of defeating Federer", but it's an exception.

Overall, it's a fitting tribute to the great rivalry between Federer and Nadal, showing you how they are so different and yet very similar. It would enable you to understand Federer and Nadal a little much better, and would introduce you to their value systems and ethics. And if you are not a tennis fan, this would definitely make you fall in love with the Federer-Nadal rivalry.

Strokes of Genius is streaming on Discovery Plus

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