DUBAI: Records are there to be broken. Or, for now, to be equaled.
Sunday Oct. 11, 2020 will go down in history as the day that, only hours apart, two of sport’s greatest individual records were matched by two of their respective sports’ finest modern champions.
First, Lewis Hamilton won the Eifel Grand Prix at Nurburgring to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 Formula 1 race wins. Number 92, we can be certain, isn’t too far ahead, and neither is a record-equaling seventh title.
When Mick Schumacher interrupted Hamilton’s post-race interview to present him with one of his father's famous racing helmets, the Englishman, for once, looked overwhelmed.
At the same time that Hamilton was racing into history on Sunday, Rafa Nadal was halfway through what is already being called the greatest ever clay court performance, destroying Novak Djokovic 6-0,6-2,7-5 to win the French Open for an astonishing 13th time in 16 years, and equaling Roger Federer’s record of 20 grand slams wins.
Both Hamilton and Nadal would later receive further acclaim from those they now share the records with.
“Congratulations, an impressive achievement from a great driver,” the Schumacher family said in a message for Hamilton. “We can’t deny that we would have loved for Michael to set those records, but as he always used to say: records are there to be broken.”
Sure enough, Federer was the one of the first to acknowledge Nadal’s superhuman achievement via this message on Twitter:
“I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion. As my greatest rival over many years I believe we have pushed each other to become better players. Therefore, it is a true honor for me to congratulate him on his 20th Grand Slam victory. It is especially amazing that he has now won Roland Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport. I also congratulate his team, because nobody can do this alone. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it."
There was something fitting about the manner of the duo’s wins. Devastating, almost unchallenged. And so, so familiar.
This was both men at their stereotypical best. Rafa, the king of the clay courts dispatched the World No 1 Djokovic almost with disdain. It was like watching a highlights reel of his greatest shots.
Hamilton, leading from the front once he had overtaken Mercedes teammate Valterri Bottas, had built a formidable lead three quarters of the way into the race. Even when the appearance of the safety car wiped out his significant lead and meant it was a dash to the finish line against Red Bull’s Max Verstappen over the last 14 laps, Hamilton remained calm and won the race for a second time. The Englishman, as so often, only needs to overtake other cars when he’s lapping them.
But there was also, for those who have followed these remarkable concurrent careers, a tinge of poignancy in the air, a barely-felt melancholy even among the celebrations and applause.
We are witnessing the end of an era. Or two.
With few to no fans, alongside management and family, at either event, this was not how either would have, at the start of the year, imagined their big moments would be.
The devastation that the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt on every aspect of our lives, including sports, means the careers of Hamilton and Nadal may be on a downwards trajectory once normality truly returns, if it ever does.
Hamilton is 35-years-old. Nadal is a year younger.
Nadal won his first Grand Slam in 2005. Hamilton won his first Formula 1 race in 2007.
No doubt, their continued brilliance means they will still have a few more wins in them over the coming months and years. The shared records will soon likely become their own. Nadal’s record is even more remarkable when you consider he has shared an era with two bona fide greats in Federer and Djokovic and, crucially, the number of injuries he has suffered over the years.
Both Hamilton and Nadal will almost certainly retire as the most decorated men in their sports.
But in the middle of the celebration, of the joy brought about by the knowledge we are witnessing history, there will be some sadness in the air. And not just because the two champions are at a point in their careers where retirement is on the horizon and they are being chased by a new batch of young, hungry challengers.
There is an unavoidable end-of-days sense to the nature of their recent record-breaking feats. And, looking ahead, the beginning of a new, perhaps more sterile type of sporting era.
From now on, every achievement, every record will, rightly or wrongly, be preceded by the words “post-coronavirus”. Like it or not, 2020 has changed the nature of sporting competition forever.
Will fans ever roar the way they did for Nadal’s legendary five-set, almost five-hour win over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final. And if yes, when? How many titles will be won without a hive of humanity there to enjoy them?
Will there be that collective intake of breath that precedes that last winning shot down the line, before the explosion of joy and applause?
Many fans will find it disarming just how quickly we have become accustomed to a sporting landscape without those magical moments. Watching sports, for now, has become a digital experience.
It feels like these strange days, the first of the post-COVID era, will in the future be seen as the period that changed everything.
“Before” will be looked back on as authentic greatness. “After”, greatness with an asterisk.
Today Hamilton stands equal with Schumacher; Nadal with Federer.
It is one last, fleeting moment where this equality is a reminder of the incredible rivalries that the 21st century has given us, before Hamilton and Nadal (or indeed Federer or Djokovic) march into history by themselves in the years to come.
When they do, it will be in a world unrecognizable from the one they started their journeys in.
Those who walk in their footsteps will have quite a task on their hands to emulate them. Records are there to be broken. Enjoy them while you can - things might be different in the future.