28 November, 2010

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Who’s the greatest of them all?

There have only been seven men to win the Career Grand Slam in tennis and two of them happen to still figure prominently on Sundays.  Informed tennis fans often talk about the balkanization of the sports’ ruling bodies.  The ATP, WTA, ITF and various national associations all moving in differing directions with different agendas.  A separation has also become the modus operandi in our beloved sport for the majority of fans.

A civil war of sorts has broken out among netheads, and the figureheads, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are doing little to quell the firefight.

Each camp has their claims, Fed fans chant “16″ with increasing determination, in reference to the Mighty Fed’s success winning a record 16 major tournaments.  The Rafaelites, however, say “14,” the number of times Nadal has downed Federer in head-to-head competition (vs. 8 wins for Federer).

Before September, Fed fans had another taunt, “Career Grand Slam,” at their disposal, but the fiery Spaniard destroyed that epithet with his four set deconstruction of Novak Djokovic at this year’s US Open, accomplishing the same feat.  Well, Rafaelites will quickly correct you.  Nadal, unlike Federer, has the career Golden Slam, all four majors, plus an Olympic singles gold.  In the last couple of weeks, Fed fans, flushed out of all other quarter, have exalted the importance of World Tour Finals.  The Spaniard stormed that citadel as well, only to be turned back at the last gate, losing a three set final to Federer, who captured the ATP WTF for a fifth time earlier today.

Partisanship aside, all fans should recognize that this is an unprecedented era in men’s tennis.  In the last six years, only five men have won majors.  Three of those men (Safin, Djokovic and Del Potro) have won one apiece.   Translation: there’s been Federer, Nadal and every one else has been relegated to fighting over table scraps.

Roger Federer’s 16 majors is no doubt an unprecedented feat; while it is still quite an exclusive club (only Federer, Sampras, and Borg in the Open era) who have surpassed Nadal’s haul of nine majors.  The difference is that, none of those other men inhabited the same era.

The Sampras/Laver conversations are great pub talk, but there are too many qualifiers (the racquets, the string, the physicality, the competition, the court surface, the beginning of the Open Era, etc.) to truly say who would have been the better player if all things were equal.  All things could never be equal.

Similarly, it could well be reasoned that it’s all Rafa’s fault that Federer hasn’t won 20 majors.  Nadal’s defeated Fed six times at majors.  He’d only have needed to win four of those six to hit the magic number, 20.  I should note, Federer’s only lost one major final to someone other than Nadal.

On the other hand, Nadal has been thwarted twice in major finals, both times by Federer, both times at Wimbledon.  To wit, the last four times Rafa’s played Wimbledon, he’s lost no earlier than the final.   Without Federer, it’s logical that Rafa would have won Wimbledon before 2008 and then,  wouldn’t he have shifted his focus to improving on hardcourts earlier?  Take Federer out of the equation, Nadal’s easily at 10 majors, maybe more.  At age 24, he’d still have years to surpass Sampras’ 14.

The reality, however, is the reality.  Roger Federer has built a virtually unassailable resume.  16 Majors including the Career Grand Slam, 17 Masters, five years as World No. 1.  At age 29, he’s not just a Hall of Famer, but he’s arguably the greatest man to ever pick up a racquet.

At age 24, Rafael Nadal has finished two years as World No. 1, won 9 Majors plus Olympic singles gold.  He’s also claimed 18 Masters titles and helped win the Davis Cup for Spain three times.  Disregarding the future,  as it’s always uncertain, Nadal has already put together one of the strongest resumes in the history of the game.  He’s numerically a beat beyond Agassi on the list of all-time greats (more majors, more masters) and has a more complete resume than Sampras or Borg, two of the other GOAT contenders.

…and they’ve done it while facing each other.

The first time they two played was in 2004, at the Key Biscayne Masters, on hardcourts.  Federer had just won his first Australian Open two months prior.  Nadal, ranked 34th at the time, won that match in straight sets.  The next year, they would meet again, Nadal, due to injury still ranked in the 30s.  They pushed each other to a classic five set final, with Federer the eventual victor.

Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003, and has amassed 4 majors by the time Nadal won his first, the 2005 French.  To take that title, Rafa had to defeat Federer in the semifinals before taking out Puerta and asserting himself for the first time as King of Clay.  Much would be made of Federer’s inability to win Paris in less knowledgeable circles, but this wasn’t Sampras struggling to get to the 2nd week.  Federer lost four consecutive years (and three Roland Garros finals) to Nadal.

Nadal would eventually win Wimbledon and expand his reach to own the Career Grand Slam, but twice Federer stared down his rival in the finals at the All England Club.  Federer would beat Nadal to claim the grasscourt major for the 4th and 5th time.  Their third match would be a reversal of fortune and also, one of the greatest tennis matches in the history of the sport.  Bare minimum, it was the greatest match since their 5-and-a-half hour clay court slugfest at the Rome Masters two years earlier that left both players too exhausted to show up the following week in Hamburg.

They each would complete the Career Grand Slam in the significant absence of their rival.  Federer taking the 2009 French Open when bad knees and Robin Soderling conspired to upend then four time champ Nadal; while Nadal would take the 2010 US Open after Novak Djokovic faced down matchpoints to topple five time champ Federer.

Nadal re-gained the Number 1 ranking this year one week before Federer would have tied Sampras’ record of weeks of 286 weeks at No. 1.  Nadal, on the other hand has his own record, most weeks at No. 2 (160) all of them behind a certain Swissman.

In terms of greatness, at it stands today, they are No. 1 and No. 1A.  This isn’t a series of champions separated by years and the evolution of the sport.  These are two combatants whose careers, as brilliant as they have been and still might be, will be defined by the presence of the other.  Like that other pair of tennis royalty, Evert and Navratilova, you can’t have a serious conversation about Federer without discussing Nadal and vice versa.  Each has done virtually everything the other has, within the same era and often by beating their most significant rival.  Each, individually, is one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Yes, there are still differences to parse, does the World Tour Finals mean as much as Davis Cup?  How do 5 French Open titles stand up versus 5 US Open titles?  Is Olympics doubles gold the equivalent of Olympic singles gold?  Those questions are in the eye of the beholder and I wouldn’t doubt either man may fill the minute holes in their resume that make for even that bit of conversation.

When all is said and done, I hope all tennis fans can step back from whichever side of the great divide, or Fedal wars, if you will, on which they stand; stop shouting and enjoy the view.  The game has never been so beautiful as to have two all time greats playing alongside each other…and it may never be again.


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