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Pebble in the Shoe 05/04/2009 - 4:37 PM

by Pete Bodo

At some point, the superlatives fail you, and just putting them down on paper makes you feel like a phony because they're not supposed to roll off your tongue (or fingertips) left and right. They're called "superlatives" for a reason - and dispensing them as if they were gummy bears seem, well, contrary to the whole notion of the superlative. So what am I going to say about Rafael Nadal, now that he's won his fourth Italian Open, and pulled ahead of all those other legendary players who once trod the golden clay of the Foro Italico?

Just this: Nadal might make us re-think how we view tennis history, and our collective baseline for greatness. That's what I found myself thinking this morning, trying to digest the full meaning of the news that Rafael Nadal had just won his third clay-court tournament in as many weeks, and bagged his 15th Masters Series title, moving ahead of Roger Federer - and just two titles shy of Andre Agassi's record 17 wins in those blue-chip events. All this, at age 22.

Rafa A few years ago, I wrote a post noting the odd (and counter-intuitive) way tennis in the Open era keeps churning out players who are are instantly hailed as unique talents of unprecedented dimensions, or once-in-a-lifetime grade champions. The claims hold water only if the "lifetime" in question is that of a dachshund. In my own career, I've seen half-a-dozen players singled out as potentially "the greatest," only to have someone come along in their own time to show the boast premature.

As I got my bearings in the game, I came to the realization that everybody can't be the greatest, ever. Some of this talk was just hype, some of it just an outpouring of enthusiasm. But there was also this uncomfortable disconnect at the bottom of it all: how could the game be that much "tougher," the standard so much higher, and the the players so much better when tennis keeps producing players who dominate, and accumulate major titles at a clip that puts many of their talented forebears to shame?

Pondering this, I came to one conclusion: the magic number that separates the top dogs from the not-quite-great is seven. If you've bagged seven or more majors, you're right there in the first rank with the best players ever, and whomever the GOAT is. Check out the theory; I'm pretty confident it's useful.

The other issue I resolved in my mind has to do with players of historic importance who did not get to play in the Open era. Our standard of judgment might be very different if, say, Pancho Gonzales had been able to play all the majors through the best years of his career. By refusing to allow professionals to compete at the Grand Slam (or other ITF sanctioned) events, the tennis establishment ensured that we would never have a truly accurate picture of the game's past, or establish a self-evident baseline for greatness. Hail, Pancho Gonzales, with his great grass-court game, might have won 20 or more majors (remember, he wa a force on the tour into his 40s) in that period with three of the four majors were on grass. How would we feel about Sampras, Laver, or Federer then? And how about Laver, the onlhy player ever to record two Grand Slams, one each in pre-history (the amateur era) and the Open era.

It's just something to think about. Anyway,Bjorn Borg had the entire world spellbound and lying on its back with four paws in the air until John McEnroe suddenly came along. Pete Sampras made us forget McEnroe (as well as McEnroe's own nemesis, Ivan Lendl), but then along came Roger Federer, piling up Grand Slam singles titles so fast that at one time, a fan could predict that Federer would wind up with 20 majors and not get laughed out of the room.

And then came Nadal, to perform one of the most visceral and graphic reputation demolitions we've ever seen. The Nadal vs. Roger Federer rivalry started as a charming pas de deux, danced out on clay (where Nadal led) and grass (where Federer led) with great discretion, politesse, and a ritual formality that did not challenge the status quo - that is, the notion that Federer was safely advancing toward GOAT-hood. Oh, Nadal might be remembered as the "go figure" guy - the exotic dude with the crazy strokes who just happened to present Federer with problems no other player could articulate. Sheesh, Roger lost that semifinal at Roland Garros to that kid Nadal, with the clamdiggers and ugly strokes. . .Go figure.

This theme was simple: Nadal was the pebble in Federer's shoe - more of an irritant than threat. And it was a good thing that Federer had some push-back from him, because you wouldn't want the prospective GOAT's journey to be too easy. So what if Nadal's  prowess on clay, even two, three years ago, made a powerful statement about Federer's mortality? Sampras never won the French either, and many pundits felt that his collection of 14 major singles titles wiped out whatever caveat his failings at Roland Garros suggested. So let's say Roger never wins Roland Garros, but ends up with 16, 18 majors. . . surely he has to be the GOAT, right?

Right. Or is it? Over the past year, the pebble in the shoe has become the boulder on the chest. Maybe it's just me, but everything Nadal has accomplished in the past 12 months has seemed just as relevant to, and a comment on, Federer's quest for Goathood. It all goes back to the perceptive line Mats Wilander dropped at the U.S. Open of 2007: How can a guy be considered the greatest player ever if there's a guy he can't beat in his own era?

Almost everything Nadal has done since I first published that remark (I paraphrased it here, but it's very close to the original) has underscored the oxymoron at the heart of this rivalry. Nadal's success couldn't be more damaging to Federer's case if the express purpose of Nadal's existence were to besmirch Federer. That realization has helped me understand why fans are so polarized when it comes to this rivalry, and it's made me question if this really is a "rivalry" at all. Rivalries usually involve two parties who are more or less equal; this rivalry has never quite conformed to that model, at any number of levels, including the head-to-head (in which Nadal has a disproportionate lead, 13-6).

Up to this point, I haven't thought of Federer vs.Nadal as a rivalry as much as a chase - the saga of the upstart Nadal trying to lift his game sufficiently to catch Federer. It only became a rivalry last summer, when Nadal proved that he could take the measure of Federer on a surface other than clay. Those last two majors in which the men met in the finals represented major no. 14 and 15 for Federer. Is there a more telling fact when it comes to the dynamics of this rivalry? I hope this isn't the case, but this rivalry might be less about two stars on a parallel track than two trajectories - one rising, one falling - that happen to coincide for a few brief and glorious Grand Slam moments.

Sometimes it doesn't seem like either man is eager to engage in a rivalry - for instance, can you imagine Federer and Nadal doing anything like those "guerrilla tennis" television commercials featuring Sampras and Agassi?  Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, they knew how to use their natural rivalry as a way to simultaneously exploit and enhance each other. Their rivalries took on a life of their own, and they added up to something that was far more than a sum of the parts.  I haven't sensed that kind of synergy coming from Roger and Rafa. To me, Roger has basically tried to pretend that Rafa doesn't exist, and Rafa has tried to pretend that he's just a humble, hard-working lad, trying to improve his game.

A few hours ago, I filed a post for ESPN on Federer and how he'd be best served if he looked ahead to the next few weeks as a time of opportunity (and no, I did not write the teaser caption on the tennis home page). I understand that Roger is holed up in Switzerland with the mysterious Monsieur Pierre Paganini, and not because they're collaborating on a violin concerto. Nadal hasn't officially dropped out of the Madrid Masters yet, and I'm very curious to see exactly what he's going to do. When you analyze how playing - or skipping - Madrid might affect Nadal, or Federer, you begin to see how shoehorning an event of Madrid's status into the ATP tournament schedule has far-reaching implications.

Because Madrid is a Master Series event, Nadal is automatically entered. Will he withdraw? It's like a game of chess, sometimes, and some guys take more time than others, and not just because they need to adjust an undergarment.


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Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 04:47 PM

Holy Cow! I think I'm First!

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 04:51 PM

Hi Pete! I loved the reference to Paganini the Violin Virtuoso/Composer, and i have to agree, it's too bad we couldn't see Pancho at ITF sanctioned events till much later in his career.

I've recently seen footage of him. He had faster reflexes than anyone I've seen.

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 04:57 PM

I'm all alone :(

Posted by Master Ace 05/04/2009 at 05:00 PM

When Monte Carlo started in 2008, Rafael Nadal just lost to Nikolay Davydenko in the final at Key Biscayne. Last title was at Stuttgart in 2007 following a 5 set defeat at Wimbledon to Roger Federer. Most people were saying that he is only a great clay courter.
However, when Monte Carlo started in 2008 after playing a Davis Cup match, Rafael Nadal is 100-8 with 13 titles.

Titles
Clay: 2008 and 2009 Monte Carlo, 2008 and 2009 Barcelona, 2009 Rome, 2008 Hamburg, 2008 French Open
Grass: 2008 Queens, 2008 Wimbledon
Hard: 2008 Canada, 2008 Olympics, 2009 Australian Open, 2009 Indian Wells

Posted by Veruca Salt (birthday girl) 05/04/2009 at 05:00 PM

I think you came close to describing the rafa/fed dichotomy, Pete. At first, Rafa was thought of as just a challenger, then he became a nemesis, soon an arch rival, and then to most everyone's surprise; he became the conqueror.

As far as their head to head clashes, I've never taken the time to see at as anything but a rivalry. As far as it being a chase, who hasn't been chasing Federer? He was number 1 for 4 years. It's an occupational hazard of being the big man on top. I guess the difference is that Rafa chased the hardest and was able to eventually catch up.

Posted by Emma (insertwittymantrahere) 05/04/2009 at 05:02 PM

"How can a guy be considered the greatest player ever if there's a guy he can't beat in his own era?"
He can't.

Thanks Pedro, a very entertaining read. Very much enjoyed it.
(p.s, hope ur feelin' better!)

Posted by fedfan3 05/04/2009 at 05:07 PM

picked the name because I'm sure there are other fedfan posters

anyhow -- it was andy roddick who said for him to have a rivalry with roger he'd have to win occsionally -- now the shoe is on the other foot for roger and nadal.

I am worried that if roger cannot win two out of three matches, how is he expecting to win three out of five.

if you go back to tapes of roger's matches from acouple of years ago his look from across the net was positively intimidating now he looks apprehensive it's in his eyes and it's not good

Posted by shawnbm 05/04/2009 at 05:15 PM

If Rafa had been a better all around player in 2006 or 2007, these two would have met in more hard court finals and I don't think I am too far afield in suggesting most of those would have fallen Fed's way, but Rafael was not able to make it to the finals in many of those during that stretch--even though he was winning everything on clay. SW19 last summer was the watershed moment. So, I think there has been a great rivalry that has been dominated by Nadal because Roger is such a great clay courter himself, just not as great as Rafa. Federer has far and away been the better hard court and grass court player over these last four years, but his run is ending and Rafa has now become the favorite against whoever he plays, regardless of surface. Federer was in that position in 2004-2005--by 2006 it was clear that Rafa was the new top dog on clay, even against TMF.

Posted by Ryan 05/04/2009 at 05:16 PM

Re: "How can he be the best if he's not the best in his era?"

If Roger finishes his career with more Slams/titles/weeks @ no. 1 than Rafa, then he is the better player, regardless of their head to head. We can't assess a player's entire career based upon his matchup with one other player, even if Nadal is racking up tournament wins and tormenting him. If Roger finishes with 16 Slams and Nadal 15, Roger is better. Same goes for Nadal @ 16, Roger @ 15. At this point we just have to wait and see.

Posted by frances 05/04/2009 at 05:17 PM

PETE soso excited to read this!!!

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/04/2009 at 05:17 PM

Now Pete, if you wanted to guarantee a much greater flurry of posts you should have gone on to wonder aloud: what will be the pebble that disrupts Nadal. Sure *he's* going to reach 15, 20 slams? He's so young! What could possibly go wrong?! ;-)

Anyway, nice article.

I think Roger should decide to be patient until the Nadal Perfect Storm abates a bit, then nip in and win a couple more slams.

Posted by SilentP 05/04/2009 at 05:24 PM

Interesting post Pete. I think when all is said and done for Fed and Nadal they'll both be GOATS but Nadal will be the greater GOAT. (Hope that makes sense!). Probably not what Roger, or anyone, envisaged a couple of years ago.

I really enjoy watching them play each other. Would be nice though if it was a bit more even and Roger won a few more matches. Makes you wonder when he'll next win against Nadal? (At the moment I'm finding it hard to think of a situation or tournament where this will happen).

Posted by Ryan 05/04/2009 at 05:25 PM

True, shawnbm. Let's remember that what, 10 or 11 of their 18 matches have been on clay? That certainly skews things a bit--Nadal is without question the best on clay, probably ever. He's a more fully developed player now, in (what is presumably) the post-TMF era.

Posted by neil in toronto 05/04/2009 at 05:26 PM

LOL Cotton Jack, its been a hail of a long perfect storm.

These two men will be intertwined until one or both of them retire.

Its a great rivalry, because the two of them bring out an unprecedented level of play in each other that no one else does.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 05:34 PM

Pete Great post and analogy as usual

Pebble in the Shoe,hey you cant seem to leave out the shoes these days can you? lol!

Well I feel Rafa is not just a pebble these days he is becoming one huge Boulder.

After winning the AO Roger was visibly crushed.Well hey he had a chance to tie his Grand Slam record with Pete.

Rafa from that point on till now has just gone on to bigger things.

Though must say Rogers record in Grand Slam events is still great even though he has lost,well except the US OPEN 2008.

Yes people still remember tennis players with their titles and grand slams.

Forget the "Goat" issue at the present time that is Pie In The Sky.

I will sit back and watch Roger in future tournaments.

Hey he might just have to get another pair of shoes? maybe a larger size.

Posted by frances 05/04/2009 at 05:36 PM

Master Ace-- very nice info--and the stats 100-8 wow!!!!!! thanks!!

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 05:36 PM

Ryan: IMO, if you're going to ask who is better between two players, there is a whole set of areas to be addressed, not just the number of Grand Slams. The H2H is a very important aspect and can not be dismissed, and when i speak of head to head, I don't just mean the head to head between the two players in question, but also the comparison of their head to head with other players on the tour.

Other areas that need to be compared are weeks at number 1, Master series titles, and also surfaces.

Posted by frances 05/04/2009 at 05:43 PM

thanks for this post!! i love it-- you really do have an interesting approach!!!!! you barely discussing the tournament and analyses the game very differently -- luv it!!!

Posted by Griff 05/04/2009 at 05:43 PM

I think Nadal-Djokovic could be a good rivalry.Both play their utmost best against each other,both are very young.Nadal is currently better,but there is 7-8 years still left so..

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 05:44 PM

Cotton Jack do you have any ideas of who the pebble will be that disrupts Nadal?

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/04/2009 at 05:47 PM

I think Shawnbm made a very good point. In the period ending, say, with the AO 2008, Roger and Rafa were the 1st and 2nd seeds for every tournament.

By and large the following happened:
1. if it were clay Rafa would beat Roger in the final
2. if it were grass Roger would beat Rafa in the final
3. if it were HC Roger would beat *someone else* in the final.

Hence the skewed H2H. Just look at the Masters Cup semis in 2006 and 2007 for a true reflection of what was going on around then straight sets both times

Posted by elenas 05/04/2009 at 05:48 PM

Rafa hasn't looked as dominant on clay as he was say last year. He is still better than everyone by far. I think against this Rafa, 2007 Roger might have stood a chance at Rolland Garros.

Posted by jcm 05/04/2009 at 05:52 PM

According to an interview Nadal gave yesterday in Spanish after the match, he will be playing in Madrid.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 05:52 PM

Gee Rafa hasnt lost a title on clay so far this year

Ok lost 1 set in MC?

Gee thats pretty dominant to me?

Some people are just never statisfied,geez.

Posted by fangorina 05/04/2009 at 05:53 PM

Much more thoughtful and reflective on reality post than your ESPN Fed Dream Scenario blog from today. Finally giving Rafa his long-overdue, well, due.

Food for thought: Federer getting 15 slams with no French Open plus not beating Rafa = Pete getting 14 slam with no French Open. Two GOATS, with Rafa the potential 3rd GOAT.

Re Roger: I have noticed that he is really focusing on his serving issues/back issues lately. Maybe he noticed that much of Sampras' longevity was due to his serving dominance, even after the movement and stroke production slowed down a bit with age. Maybe Roger will take a page from that book.

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/04/2009 at 05:54 PM

Glenn - no, none at all. But runs can end *just like that*.

On the one hand: Rafa is young, driven, calm, still getting better and already has an awesome record

On the other: Laver 1970, Bjorn Borg 1982, John McEnroe 1985, Mat Wilander 1989...

This is what makes it so fascinating, no?! EITHER Nadal is going to make history OR something really bizarre and unforeseen is going to happen. Lucky us.

Posted by Samantha Elin 05/04/2009 at 05:54 PM

I would agree that if Roger ends his career with more slams than Roger, he is the better player. We have to use a certain criteria to judge tennis players and the slams is what we used. Kom nu, Caro, Scandinavia's#1!

Posted by Samantha Elin 05/04/2009 at 05:55 PM

should read more slams than Rafa.

Posted by jcm 05/04/2009 at 05:56 PM

Although Nadal hasnt looked as dominant as of right now as he did at RG last year, lets keep in mind that during last years clay court season he didn't look as dominant untill he got to Paris.

I am not sure what it is, maybe the court ideally suits him, maybe it is the culmination of the weeks on the surface, maybe he just opens up in a best of five, but I think he generally plays his best clay court tennis in the French Open. Given his record against Nadal on clay, I dont think Federer of 2007 or any year would stand much of a chance against Nadal at Roland Garros.

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 06:00 PM

Cotton Jack: So True! Runs can end like that.

I think a young gun who could potentially be very problematic(if he gets stronger) for Nadal is Kei Nishikori. He's smart, fast, and has a lot of heart. He took a set off Nadal at Queens last year.

Posted by Tennis Fan 05/04/2009 at 06:01 PM

Hence the skewed H2H

It can also be, that when Rafa and Roger meet it is most often on clay as the grass season is only 4 weeks and they don't play the same grass prep tournaments and no MS on clay. So they only meet on grass at Wimbledon.

So what is the H2H on (1) clay (2) grass and (3) HC.

What you can see is Rafa imposing himself on Federer territory grass and HC while conversely it seems Federer is back peddling on clay.

Posted by NDMS 05/04/2009 at 06:01 PM

Thanks Pete.

Nadal is playing in the Federer era but they are not contemporaries. Nadal (born 1986) is about 5 years younger than Federer (born 1981). Djokovic and Murray have another year's advantage.

What do 5-6 years of age difference amount to? The trio avoided meeting Federer at his very best. And if they did meet him, they were not afraid and they were young enough to recover and bounce back.

And to be very specific about Nadal. Early in the rivalry, Federer got to numerous key claycourt finals and couldn't get past Nadal at his best surface but Nadal didn't have the hardcourt prowess to meet Federer at hardcourt finals to get the reverse result.


Posted by Sherlock 05/04/2009 at 06:02 PM

"Just look at the Masters Cup semis in 2006 and 2007 for a true reflection of what was going on around then straight sets both times"

I can't remember which year it was, but I've heard many people say that the Rog-Rafa match was one of the best they'd seen. It's not like Rafa got double bagelled. :)

"if it were grass Roger would beat Rafa in the final"

Ummmm, wasn't 2007 a 5-settter also?

Posted by jcm 05/04/2009 at 06:02 PM

Here is an interesting question, putting aside any notion of who has had the greatest career or who is the GOAT. Since Laver won the slam forty years ago, has anyone had a more dominant last twelve months than Nadal? We have three grandslams on three different surfaces, five masters titles and an olympic gold medal.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 06:04 PM

Look Rafa is just pacing himself

Remember too he has a lot of points to defend even after RG this year

He has changed his approach,hey cant play at a level all the time.He has been conserving a lot more on the court thats plain to see.Thank goodness for that I say.

Remember too his knees will always be a ongoing problem in mamagement.Thats a most important issue.

He still hasnt had to use his A game on the clay,hey why should he? that just shows you how good is Really is on the clay.

Theres no need to go out and play lights out tennis in every game,burn your self out and get injured? hey lets remember Paris 2008.

Gee Rafa your still OK to me.

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 06:05 PM

Samantha: Have you ever seen the out-takes from the '07 US Open Series commercials?

I wanted to post it for you because there is a very cute JH moment, but unfortunately they've pulled the video over copyright issues.

Posted by Droshot Dragon 05/04/2009 at 06:06 PM

shawnbm-
"If Rafa had been a better all around player in 2006 or 2007, these two would have met in more hard court finals and I don't think I am too far afield in suggesting most of those would have fallen Fed's way, but Rafael was not able to make it to the finals in many of those during that stretch..."

True, but Rafa was only 19 in 2006. He grew up on clay and had his first wins there, but he was still evolving and improving as a complete player and by 22 he has now made the formal transition to all surfaces. For someone who crashed the scene at 17/18, this seems like a normal climb. Though "the critics" like to the use the whole "he didn't make didn't reach many hard court finals back in 06/07" it doesn't carry much weight to me. He barely came out and he was improving. This does not have to reflect poorly on Roger(b/c of the h2h) or Rafa(b/c of his lack of reaching hc finals- it's just a product of their age difference. It's what it is. Roger is 4 yrs older so it add a wrinkle to the rivalry.

That's why I never really thought this to be a perfect "rivalry" in the true meaning of the word. 4 years in the tennis world is more like 10 in the real world. I would say Nadal/Djokovic or Nadal/Murray are more indicative of a rivalry.

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 06:07 PM

Sherlock at 6:02 WORD x 2 :))

Posted by deeps 05/04/2009 at 06:07 PM

Pete, great post. The 7 theory is an interesting one and I agree. I am of the train of thought that there is no real GOAT. You just have a collection of great players.

Cotton Jack, at the same time Rafa beat Fed on hard courts at Miami and Dubai and came close to beating him at Miami again in 2005. And if Rafa had been better on hard courts, would he have still lost those masters cup semis?

Posted by TennisFan2 05/04/2009 at 06:07 PM

The most interesting part of this rivarly/non-rivalry is that while Rafa has been respectful of Federer and his game, Federer has not given Rafa the same (which I believe has affected his preparation and mental ability to beat Rafa). By the time Fed realized Rafa was the real deal, Rafa was taking his game to another level and winning on HC and grass.

Now Rafa has pushed other players to up their fitness levels and training programs (if they want to play three or five against the new #1 they better be able to hang in as long as he can). The attention to fitness has taken off and players like Andy Murray have emereged. Armed with good skills, AND top fitness, players are finding they can beat Federer - I believe this is why Federer is taking some time to concentrate on his fitness.

The beautiful strokes and elegant game were enough for Fed until Rafa came along - now it's a more physical game (not to mention that Rafa has raised the bar on the mental games as well).

Posted by TNfan 05/04/2009 at 06:08 PM

As far as I'm concerned, Federer WAS and Nadal now IS the best. I personally think Fed's best days are done and Nadal's are still ahead. Tired of hearing about Fed myself. Ever hear HAS BEEN?

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 06:10 PM

" I am of the train of thought that there is no real GOAT. You just have a collection of great players."

I will second that a thousand times Deeps!

Posted by Jenn 05/04/2009 at 06:10 PM

This was an excellent piece, Pete. I rarely forward links to tennis articles to people who are only casual fans (they already think I am a bit "off" anyway), but this one I am forwarding because of the interesting analysis of the big picture implications. I was wondering myself after yesterday what more tennis writers can really write about Rafa on clay. I imagined people such as you and Steve wishing for a big upset so that the storyline would change. Otherwise another day to file an article about Rafa's clay prowess, with the obligatory cite to the gaudy stats, etc. Coming up with new angles on Rafa and Fed must be a huge challenge.

I had not really thought about the fact that the Fed/Rafa rivalry has not had the same "look at us - its war" element that the Agassi/Sampras rivalry had, for example. I don't think the on-court stuff is less intense or interesting, but its because Rafa is just not the type to court the spotlight or engage in showy off court behavior, and my impression of Federer is that he is very comfortable at the top of the game as the man, but would not actively seek to be part of a campaign in which he shared the spotlight. (Fed fans, this is not a criticism of him, more of a commentary on his unchallenged position at the top until recently).

In the end, I agree with all of the points in this article, yet I find myself thinking how blindingly quickly things can change in tennis. Let's just imagine that 5 weeks from yesterday a resurgent Roger Federer wins RG (either beating Rafa, or Rafa will have fallen unexpectedly to someone else). Then all of these perceptions do an about-face and he is back on top of the world, probably being named the GOAT by breathless broadcasters on the spot. Fed has not been playing too well, but he has 13 Slams... this is not far fetched. Or forget RG, but one can easily imagine him rocking Wimbledon this year and the US Open, leaving he and Rafa in a battle for "who's #1" for the year.

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 05/04/2009 at 06:12 PM

very nice article pete.

MA: thanks for those mind boggling stats. 100-8 is incredible. wonder what fed's stats were when he was on his invincible tear. Now federer hasn't won a masters shield since 2007. Rafa may match his ms record this season for all we know. I would like to see federer win a major this year but i'm starting to worry his trajectory is heading downward at quite a clip and it might not happen. i agree with fedfan3 that roger's demeanor on court since the AO loss to rafa has been shaky at best. He starts out with confidence like winning the first set against a murray for intance and then he starts to buckle and make crazy errors. I would be surprised if he can recapture his former form. surprised but very excited because it would be an incredible story. but rafa is younger and stronger and there are always new and hungrier players coming up so it would be a very tall order for fed.

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/04/2009 at 06:12 PM

Deeps - my point was that the H2H is skewed, not claiming anything else. But Masters Cup tournament is more important the Miami and Dubai, certainly was to Federer himself. I wasn't claiming that Roger won both those semis easily (nor Wimbledon 2007) but he won them. Victories are the only things that count. Ask Verdasco about his match with Rafa at AO this year.

Posted by steve 05/04/2009 at 06:12 PM

Another great article, but...
"...and whomever the GOAT is."
Umm I think it's 'whoever' - subject of verb, not object...

Your thoughts on rivalry remind me of the Hingis quote when asked about her 'rivalry' with Kournikova: "What rivalry? I always win!"
:)

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 05/04/2009 at 06:15 PM

i think most people would agree that fed's best chance for another major is if rafa is taken out before the final and fed meets someone else. rafa is pretty deadly when he gets to a final.

Posted by Mr Rick 05/04/2009 at 06:15 PM

Rafa and Roger have played seven grand slam finals together in the past three years - they are rivals and they are contemporaries of each other - sheesh

Posted by jcm 05/04/2009 at 06:15 PM

I do not see Federer rocking Wimbledon or the US Open later this year as it seems to me that there are now three players who are clearly better than him.

However, if Fed somehow manages to win RG (a big if) I do not know if that would make him the GOAT, but it would certainly make him better than Sampras. 14 grand slams plus career grand slams tops 14 grand slams and no career grand slams. Heck, at this point even with 13 I say he is better than Samphres because of the fact that he was actually a factor on all surfaces and if not for the fact that he had to play at the same time as the greatest clay court player of all time, would have won the FO four times.

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/04/2009 at 06:17 PM

"What rivalry? I always win!" :-)

This reminds me of Wimbledon 2003. The BBC had been getting itself nicely flustered over Roddick, behaving like he was the man to beat. So the interviewer asked Roger, "how are you going to beat Andy?" To which Rgoger replied "the same way I beat him the last five times"

Posted by neil in toronto 05/04/2009 at 06:18 PM

Cotton Jack, if i may use your logic, then how is it skewed at all? Rafa won those matches and the head 2 head is 13-6. Like you said, victories are all that count. :)

Posted by CL 05/04/2009 at 06:20 PM

TennisFan2 - maybe you are right, but my memory is that the very first time Rafa and Fed played...on HC in Miami...and I believe Rafa won... Fed said that Rafa was a force to contend with on all surfaces and he has restated several time...most recently to the BBC just the other day, that what Rafa has accomplished at his young age is "phenomenal."

As for lacking fitness, this is a base canard that I am getting more than a little tired of. Fed has ALWAYS worked hard at this fitness. He isn't "taking time now to concentrate on is fitness." With the exception of 2008, he has alway been fit. He didn't win those 13 Slams just gliding around the court playing pitter pat. He lost fitness in 2008 due to the mono knocking him out of his usual training regime and the residual affects thereafter. Back problems, which he has finally fessed up to, do doubt took out another chunk of time for fitness preparation. Just because he doesn't boast six pack abs...which actually reduce flexibility and can cause core strain, doesn't mean he isn't fit or training hard.

I had to laugh just a little at Muzzah flexing his bicep at Wimby last year to show how buffed his arms were and then going out and losing his next match. A bulging bicep does not a GS winner make. Pffft.

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/04/2009 at 06:20 PM

Neil: see message at 5:47

Posted by Cotton Jack 05/04/2009 at 06:20 PM

Neil: see message at 5:47

Posted by bluesunflower 05/04/2009 at 06:21 PM

but this rivalry might be less about two stars on a parallel track than two trajectories - one rising, one falling - that happen to coincide for a few brief and glorious Grand Slam moments.

This is a very valid point as the rise of Rafa when he ended up taking the no1 spot of Federer saw Federer have some bad results. Rafa made the finals in Toronto and the olympics and Federer didnt make those. Rafa then didnt make the USO finals but they met in AO. Just as this was getting interesting, Federer has then missed the last 3 finals they could've met. Indian Wells, Monte Carlo and Rome. When they were being judged to be rivals Rafa was more of a precocious talent and hadn't trully come into his own.

This is what makes his achievement all the more remarkable as Federer and Rafa were not really competing on an equal footing and yet he was coming out on top. Now that they can compete on an equal footing Federer is on the decline, unfortunately, and probably 'Fedal' finals are in the past. If Federer drops below no2 then we may see more meetings between them but as things stand this rivarly is probably over.

Posted by Sam 05/04/2009 at 06:21 PM

H2H by surface:

Clay: 9-1 Nadal
Hard: 3-3
Grass: 2-1 Federer

Posted by deeps 05/04/2009 at 06:23 PM

Cotton Jack, I don't disagree about the victories. I also agree the H2H alone doesn't tell the whole story. Rafa wasn't the second best on hard courts - Fed was the second best on clay and that makes Fed the better player of that period. I was just questioning the argument that if Rafa had reached more hard court finals, the H2H would have been less skewed. If Rafa had been capable of reaching more hard court finals, there was a good chance that the H2H record on hard courts would have still stayed close to an even split.

Posted by FCF 05/04/2009 at 06:24 PM

Excellent post. Every GOAT had different circumstances so is not possible to compare them on equal basis. Fed had the benefit of reaching the top of his game when the GOAT of the previous era was on the way out and his peers didn't rise to the occasion. Fed took full advantage of the situation.
Rafa peaked earlier than his peers, Djokovic and Murray, so he confronted Fed until he finally ended dictating the terms. But his circumstances will be different in the future because his peers are learning to confront him as well.
How tennis history will evolve in the coming seasons seems at least fascinating. Having such a nice group of top players seeking supremacy will be mouthwatering!!

Posted by Eric 05/04/2009 at 06:27 PM

The "humble, hard-working lad" description of Nadal is accurate. He certainly portrays himself that way, and athletes these days are so skilled at presenting themselves any which way they choose (as opposed to, say, Lendl, who badly needed some PR help in his heyday). The thing is, we buy into the portrayals that the players sell, so it becomes second-nature to think of them as what they connote. Somehow, I think Nadal is secretly thinking: "Dude, my game is superior to Roger's now on every level and every surface, and I'm well ahead physically as well as mentally. I know it, and he knows it. But that's not the way I'm going to sell this, I'm going to key my tagline about hard work and humility and in the meantime, I'm simply gonna get mine." It's a fascinating dynamic. I said in the comments section after one of Tignor's posts that I started losing some respect for Federer at the same time I began holding Nadal in higher esteem. But that might've been a strange thing to say, because technically I should respect them both. Technically, and in that same vein, I should even have to respect the guy that beats me in straight sets at my country club too, right? So it isn't about respect or what they're portraying or how we buy into them as iconic atheletes or whatever. It's simply the fact that Nadal has eclipsed Federer in every way, and though their overall tally of Slam titles doesn't reflect this, I would venture that they both personally feel this way in private. How could they not?

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 05/04/2009 at 06:28 PM

CL: agree that fed's fitness has never been an issue. he's gone 5 tough sets against rafa regularly and no fading or retiring at all. He needs to tweak his game to meet nadal's much like rafa did to match fed.

Posted by Veruca Salt (birthday girl) 05/04/2009 at 06:32 PM

"So the interviewer asked Roger, "how are you going to beat Andy?" To which Rgoger replied "the same way I beat him the last five times"
===================================================
total pwnage!

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 06:33 PM

Anyone to think Roger dosent train or hard enough is complete madness to me

Hey please go and check out his records

They just speak for themselves

Hey Roger with big,huge Bi-Ceps?

No way Jose.

Posted by TennisFan2 05/04/2009 at 06:33 PM

CL and Annie, in terms of Fed's fitness I am speaking of his back issues and I do believe the mono he had last year affected his fitness. I think the rain at Wimbeldon greatly favored him last year. Wasn't '08 the year Fed was shopping and going to the movies while Rafa was playing back to back days?

Posted by sic (¡este chico es Pata Negra!) 05/04/2009 at 06:35 PM

jcm @ 5:56 PM:

Exactly. I've said the same thing during Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Rafa works his way into form and he definitely struggled in MC and Hamburg and Rome (he lost!) last year.

I was a bit surprised at how tight he became in the second set in the final at Rome, considering how well he was playing for most of the first set against Novak. I'm not sure if he was just a little mentally played out after three straight weeks of tennis, or if it was just because he respects Novak's game so much. Either way, I expect to see him play up and down (for him) in Madrid and then dominate in RG.

Nice article, it's a bit shocking when you sit back and think about the enormity of what Rafa's doing at age 22. The same way it was shocking to think about what Fed was doing a few years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if we aren't similarly shocked in a few years by some other rising great. Thus the beauty of professional tennis.

Posted by deeps 05/04/2009 at 06:35 PM

TennisFan2 - that was 2007.

Posted by Glenn 05/04/2009 at 06:35 PM

Bye Everybooty! have a phantasmagoric day!

Posted by neil in toronto 05/04/2009 at 06:37 PM

Ok Cotton Jack, i've read your 5:47 and even shwawnbm's post that you referenced. I infer then, that the only "true" period of rivalry between Rafa and Fed was 2006-end of 2007? Or am i missing something?

Posted by frances 05/04/2009 at 06:38 PM

About the rivalry- as many of us fans try to explain it, mostly the reasons will be skewed based on who be liked better. If you are a Fedr Fan- most may rationalize that Rafa never reach finals in HC so the H2H dominance is skewed. If you are a Rafa Fan, you might be more incline to say somewhere along the lines of Rafa beating TMF in all of his slams.. etc etc.

I wanted to point out what the “Muzzah” Andy Murray answered in one oh his interviews in the 2nd half of ’08 when he started to find his form and emerged as a top dog. He said that he thinks that most tennis players usually find his/her form and potential around the age of 20, 21 and up. He thinks that his progression is normal and that what happen to RaFa, who may be considered as really his true rival in their time (one year difference), is one of those special early development, like a prodigy of some sort.

I think I agree with him. The truth is I think Federer amongst his rival in his age range, is the most dominant. Rafael Nadal is 5 years younger than him and no doubt the most dominant amongst his age range. As Nadal finally approaches the time when a tennis player finds his most potential (ie. Around 21 and up), he was able to eclipse roger.

The more interesting scenario would have been if roger and rafa had been born in the same time, what would have been their H2H record? Maybe Rafa emerging as the dominant teenager and eventually being challenge by TMF one they reach the age of 21—now that would be interesting:P

Posted by CPM 05/04/2009 at 06:39 PM

I think this line -- "this rivalry might be less about two stars on a parallel track than two trajectories - one rising, one falling - that happen to coincide for a few brief and glorious Grand Slam moments" -- is probably just right. The period from the clay-court swing of 2007 up to AO'09 will probably be seen as the period of intersection, when you can really talk about the two as at their best (or close enough) to talk about a real, bona fide rivalry.

There might yet be a Fedal coda, but the song is likely over.

Posted by bluesunflower 05/04/2009 at 06:39 PM

Federer is lucky in a way that he is not the same age as Rafa. The ones I m looking to see what goes on from here is Nole and Andy Murray. More so Djokovic, how many titles could he have won had he not been in the same era as Rafa. Their 4:13 head to head has some very tough loses for Djokovic and unfortunately for him he doesnt have the cushion that Federer had of titles pre Rafa.

Posted by SilentP 05/04/2009 at 06:41 PM

CL - Have to say your post made me laugh, "He didn't win those 13 Slams just gliding around the court playing pitter pat." V funny.

However there was a discussion about Fed's fitness a couple of months ago on TW and someone said Fed wasn't that fit and everyone came down on them. Pete then said tennis players aren't as fit as they make out to be. I'm not saying Fed isn't fit, just, perhaps, that he could be fitter.

Posted by deeps 05/04/2009 at 06:43 PM

frances - word on your post and I think that's the same thing Pete was trying to say with his rising and falling. Right now as it stands, Federer has the better overall record than Nadal. Who knows? - it maybe Murray or Nole who end up with the official GOAT status in the end.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 06:44 PM

I honestly doubt if we will see in the future a player like Roger was when he was just so dominent

Roger was the Benchmark for some time

He hasnt won the French Open,ok a blip on his resume

If we didnt have Rafa.Roger would have that RG title.

Posted by Eric 05/04/2009 at 06:45 PM

Frances that's an interesting thought...

Posted by elenas 05/04/2009 at 06:48 PM

Rafa had horrible blisters last year in Rome. How else would he loose? No offense to Ferrero but Rafa wont loose sleep if he draws him in RG.

Posted by jcm 05/04/2009 at 06:54 PM

Aussiemarg,

Although Nadal has only been on top of the game for a year, I will say that in the last year he has been more dominant than Federer was during any of his golden years 2004, 2006, 2007. So in terms of a year, we are already seeing a player as dominant.

Of course it remains to be seen whether or not Nadal can keep this up for more than just a twelve month period.

Posted by charles 05/04/2009 at 06:58 PM

Prior to Wim 2008 the rivalry off clay stood at 5-2 for Fed over Nadal. Now it is 5-4 for Fed off clay and 9-1 for Nadal on clay. Therefore I do not think that "there is a guy that Federer can't beat". Maybe he can't beat him consistently on clay, but then because of the age difference they haven't been in their primes at the same time.

Droshot Dragon at 6:06
I agree, the rivalry is not perfect because of the age difference. Actually the age difference is closer to 5 years (4 y 10 m - Aug 1981 vs Jun 1986)

Regarding who will push Rafa - I think Murray and Djokovic are the likely candidates - especially on hard, but just like Agassi couldn't ultimately overcome Sampras, I think it will take some new kid to come along who we maybe haven't even heard of yet, to push Nadal fully from the throne... probably someone born in the 1990's... just a guess...

Posted by RP 05/04/2009 at 06:59 PM

I think one more important and fascinating point to note about Nadal is that he started as a brilliant clay court player and and was able to beat Roger during the years when hardly anyone took a set of him on other surfaces. With his domination of Fed on Clay it began to take a toll on the Mental state of Roger who suddenly had to figure out a way to beat Rafa on Clay as his style just did not work against an unorthodox lefy like Rafa. Again Roger did not even do that well during his peak years since he was content in letting Rafa win on clay against him and trying to win everythng else. This was a dangerous strategy and the result is now the Rafa block he has along with improveed Rafa from year to year.
Sometimes i wish Roger was not a great Clay court player himself(like Sampras?) and thereby avoided facing Rafa so regularly on clay. Who knows maybe his mental state would have been better and would have prevented Rafa in gaining any mental edge over him which he clearly posseses now. A rafa mental block free Roger would i think have been in a better position to win the 09 AO open and even maybe 08 WImbeldon. Just speculation and thought for a fascinating discussion topic.

Posted by kiwibee 05/04/2009 at 06:59 PM

Roger needs a new coach and new attitude.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 07:02 PM

JCMI I agree with you in some parts

Though we now have the likes of players like Novak,Murray in particular who I feel really shines on the hard courts? gee check his records there.

I would love to see Rafa win the US OPEN,ok because my idol Borg could not? lol!

I have been a Fan of Rafa since he first came on the scene.I have seen him going from a one diemensional player to a tri diemensional player

Maybe as I have said in the past with Rafa

The best is still yet to come.

Posted by jcm 05/04/2009 at 07:03 PM

Interesting point RP. Although i think that fact that Roger was the second best clay court player for four years makes his accomplisments much more impressive than Sampras. After all, i might be in the minority, but i think the fact that Sampras was not an all around player capable of playing on any surface make him a very poor canidate for GOAT despite his 14 slams.

Posted by kiwibee 05/04/2009 at 07:04 PM

"...and not just because they need to adjust an undergarment."

Oh Pete! LOL

Posted by BlueDog 05/04/2009 at 07:05 PM

I've always thought that the Wilander quote was a load of c**p, for the obvious reason that it ignores the fact that Fed has beaten Rafa. Do wins count only if you are up in the H2H?

GOATs are mythical beasts, AFAIC.

Dro(p?)shot Dragon @ 6:06 is on the money.

Posted by jcm 05/04/2009 at 07:06 PM

Aussiemarg,

I agree who knows if Novak and Murray end up developing into better HC players than Nadal. Either way though, his accomplishments over the last twelve months (3 slams on 3 surfaces, 5 masters and an olympic gold medal) are the greatest since Laver won the slam.

Posted by Rosangel 05/04/2009 at 07:08 PM

In terms of his career progression so far, Rafa reminds me of Bjorn Borg more than any other player. Both prodigies who started out great on clay, then progressed beyond it. Borg won 11 out of 27 Slams played, and reached another 5 Slam finals, including 4 US Open finals. The Slam finals lost by Borg were all to either Connors or McEnroe - both of whom fall into Pete's "seven or better Slam titles = one of the greats' category.

I'm not sure that anyone can ever match this "bang for the buck", so to speak.

However, Borg won his first Roland Garros at around 18 - his birthday and Nadal's are three days apart, which makes this comparison easier to make. Nadal was just nineteen when he won his first RG, and even the great Borg didn't dominate the tournament in his first few years as Nadal has, with Borg recording two wins in four attempts. From that point Borg took two years to reach his first Wimbledon final - which he won, of course, against Nastase - while Nadal took just one year to reach his, after having already shown some early promise on grass (Junior Wimbledon semis, youngest player since Becker to reach third round, put out Ancic the year after Ancic put out Federer).

Rafael Nadal has only played five Wimbledons to date, and he's reached three finals and won one of them. He's the only player to extend Roger Federer to five sets since Pete Sampras, and last year he took the fifth.

Nadal's career winning percentage currently exceeds Federer's - 82.3% to 80.5%. That can change, of course, but it tells us something about his performance against the rest of the tour that isn't just Federer-related. Borg's career-winning percentage was 82.6%, Sampras' 77.4%, and Connors' (over a very long period compared to most players) 81.8%.

Incidentally, the men with seven or more Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era are Sampras (14), Federer (13), Borg (11), Agassi (8), Connors (8), Lendl (8), McEnroe (7) and Wilander (7). So Becker, Edberg and Nadal are all on 6 - doesn't look likely that Nadal won't join the group on 7 or more.

Posted by Jazmin625 05/04/2009 at 07:10 PM

aussiemarg - you can't make the argument/excuse that if rafa wasn't here,roger would be the best clay court player - that's like saying if roger wasn't here, rafa would be the best player on grass. mats wilander's quote was very telling - you have to deal with the circumstances you're presented with and federer hasn't been able to successfully overcome rafa, who is the only other player truly on his level right now (maybe also murray - but too early to tell).

also i agree with the point made earlier that slams are not and should not be the only factor in determining the GOAT - masters, surfaces, etc are all very important as well. and dominance does not always = GOAT. federer was probably the most dominant tennis player of all time in a short span, but that doesn't make him the de facto GOAT.

Posted by RafaK.A.D. FL 05/04/2009 at 07:15 PM

I'm surprised no one has posted the Fed stats for 2005 and 2006 season. So, the lurker will...

TMF only lost FOUR times in 2005 - 11 tournament wins (2 grand slams included)
1 loss to Safin (AO)
1 loss to Gasquet
1 loss to Nadal (FO)
1 loss to Nabalandian (Tennis Master Cup loss in the final)

TMF only lost FIVE times in 2006 - 12 tournament wins (3 grand slams and the Tennis Master Cup included)
4 losses to Nadal (FO)
1 loss to Andy Murray

I remember the incredible season Fed had in 2005 with only 4 Ls. I knew he had a stellar 2006 with 3 slams, but he also played a couple more tournaments that year as well!

Posted by TennisFan2 05/04/2009 at 07:17 PM

Rosangel: Nadal's career winning percentage currently exceeds Federer's - 82.3% to 80.5%.

Great post Rosangel. I am curious to know the percentages at the same age and also the number of matches. If anyone out there has researched the details I am sure many of us would be interested.

I can't imagine (with or without Madrid) that anyone is going to take this RG away from Rafa. I think as fans we are truly in for a great year from Rafa.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 07:18 PM

JCM Of course Rafa's record just speaks volumes in the last 12 months.

Hey I am just from the old school I suppose

Many people in the past have put these high execpectations on players,sometimes only to see them fail.

I have seen some of the greats play.I have been truly blessed from a tennis fans point of view.

In saying that,I still sit in awe of this young man at 22 yrs of age and what he has achieved.

He has brought back the passion in me? I have seen him play live gee what a expierence that is in itself.

Watching him on tv one cant compare when you see him live on that court.He takes you for this incredible ride.Also hisfacial expressions are to die for.

Hopefully as I said before.Rafa can continue to take us all on thos incredible ride.Remember though to wear your seat belts.

Posted by aussiemarg [Madame President in Comma Rehab for 2009] 05/04/2009 at 07:23 PM

Jamin 625

I never said Roger was the best clay court player.Please read my post again.

Hey Roger is no slouch on the clay at all.Check his records there

My point being If Rafa hadnt been so dominent Roger could have won.Ok Could have is also a question mark for sure.Theres no doubt there.

Posted by Rosangel 05/04/2009 at 07:25 PM

I think it's at least mildly debatable whether Federer was clearly the second best claycourter in 2007-8 - certainly 2008 - given that Djokovic ended up in Nadal's half of the draw at Roland Garros both times, and certainly made more of a match of it than Federer did in 2008. Then we can also look at Djokovic winning Rome, and the mighty Hamburg semifinal vs. Nadal, that at the time was widely agreed to be some of the best tennis of the season.

In the end I'd probably say that the gulf in quality between Nadal and either of these two was noticeably greater than the gulf between the two during that period.

During that time the two never met at Roland Garros, and neither lost to anyone but Nadal there.

Posted by RafaK.A.D. FL 05/04/2009 at 07:26 PM

"I wouldn't be surprised if we aren't similarly shocked in a few years by some other rising great. Thus the beauty of professional tennis."

Well said sic!

Posted by Rich 05/04/2009 at 07:30 PM

The head to heads are significant. First, Nadal has one win on grass in three attempts and has pushed Roger every time. Nobody seems to remember that Nadal got hurt in the fourth set of the 07 Wimby final and lost 10-15 mph on his serve in the fifth set. Roger has had ten shots on clay with only one win at Hamburg when it was so dry that the court played very quickly. Also, Roger's head to head against Murray is 2-6. Finally, although it is not his fault (you can only beat who you play), Roger will forever be hurt by the fact that the depth of the game during his time at the top was not was it is today or during the McEnroe era, Borg era, Sampras era, etc.
Roger desperately needs a confidence boost somewhere in the near future. He needs to win a tournament where he beats two of the top four players on the tour and wins the title. If he doesn't do this before Wimbledon, his confidence will not be where it needs to be to win a major.
I do agree with Pete in that the pressure on Rafa is going to mount. I am looking forward to seeing how he handles it. I hope that he continues to embrace adversity and continues to beat it back.

Posted by imjimmy 05/04/2009 at 07:31 PM

""The truth is I think Federer amongst his rival in his age range, is the most dominant. Rafael Nadal is 5 years younger than him and no doubt the most dominant amongst his age range. As Nadal finally approaches the time when a tennis player finds his most potential (ie. Around 21 and up), he was able to eclipse roger.""

Frances: I think Rafa's case is different. He turned pro in 2001(almost 8 years ago). He's peaked right now at 22, when most players start getting into the groove. He doesn't have a comparable age-career trajectory as other players. He started much early and therefore will finish early as well. Is it likely that he will be singificant force when he's 27? So yeah, Rafa's in Federer's era (at least he's not off by 5 years, as the age indicates). So the comparisons are perfectly relevant.

Posted by CL 05/04/2009 at 07:34 PM

Silent P - Now THAT's a decent point. No doubt Fed's fitness has taken a bit of a hit lately. I was one of those who came down hard on Pete for his 'Fed ain't fit' post... and though I stand by my arguments I certainly could have made them more...um.... gracefully. So I don't want to go there again. But in any case, I just bristle at those who think that just because Fed at his best made tennis LOOK easy, that he took it easy. Just NOT SO.

But anyway, this should be more about Rafa than Fed, so .....

Posted by Wayne Hawkins 05/04/2009 at 07:53 PM

I still think Roger can pass Pete's 14. I am picking Roger to win Wimbledon and the US Open this year. I don't think he will ever win at Roland Garros. Time is running out for Roger. If he can't pass Pete this year I don't think he will ever do it. Meanwhile the Nadal tidal wave keeps rolling on. Who knows, in 2 years we might be talking about him as the potential GOAT.

Posted by Osegura 05/04/2009 at 07:56 PM

Great article Pete,

I really loved the part in which you said "To me, Roger has basically tried to pretend that Rafa doesn't exist, and Rafa has tried to pretend that he's just a humble, hard-working lad, trying to improve his game". I totally agree with that. To me Roger never took Nadal as a serious contender and that cost him the number 1 ranking, he was simply -by pride or whatever you want- not ready or not willing to take the challenge. On the other hand, Nadal's humble approach is nothing but a way to tell Federer: you THINK YOU ARE THE BEST PLAYER EVER, but I keep winning all our matches, not only on clay, TAKE THAT ROGER, IN YOUR FACE¡. To me there is one additional element to consider when looking for the GOAT: wining all 4 GS Titles. Let's see how these guys finish their respective carrers....another amazing thing to notice, Nadal is only 22 and we are already discussing if the guy should be considered a GOAT....incredible....


Posted by BlueDog 05/04/2009 at 07:56 PM

Rich-

For every caveat from a fan of one player, there is an equal and opposite caveat from the fan of another. "If only's" are very interesting in rationalizing a loss, or giving hope for the needed change, but there's always a reason that someone won or lost, and it should never diminish a win.

It easy to assume that the current dominant player will continue to dominate, but we won't know how history judges any era until several years after the main characters depart the stage.

Federer was written off last year after Wimbledon, and yet he beat Nole and Murray to win the USO (refrain from caveats, please). How many of us predicted that?

Posted by mwu 05/04/2009 at 07:57 PM

Re: "How can he be the best if he's not the best in his era?"

Given that a tennis player's prime is only 3-4 (maybe 5) years, I would argue Federer and Nadal are not in the same era. It's only after Fed has left his prime and Nadal entered his that Nadal began winning majors off the clay.

I'm inclined to agree with your conclusion -- Nadal's rise coinciding with Federer's fall for a few slams, as Nadal enters his prime and Federer leaves his behind. It's too bad -- I would have liked to see them play one another at their simultaneous peaks.

Posted by Mike 05/04/2009 at 08:02 PM

Takeaways from this thread, thus far ...

1) Rafa had a great year last year ... and is well on his way to having a better year this year, but Fed had 3 ... nearly 4, comparable years in a row ... so Rafa has a ways to go in that dept. (Jan - Dec. stats ... not clay season to clay season).

2) The Fed-Rafa match up is skewed by Rafa's dominant 9-1 clay record ... Fed still has the edge on grass, and Fed showed up at hard court finals that Rafa never made it to. Also, Fed has made it to 3 straight RG finals ... accounting for 3 of Rafa's 9 clay wins over Fed.

3) It's not the end of the Fed era, and the start of the Rafa era ... Rafa has played full time since 2003 (Pro since 01), so he's 6 years deep into a very physical style of Tennis. Can he even last 4 more years doing this?

4) The last GS final Fed was in he took Rafa 5 sets ... even though his game is actually better right now, he's mentioned after Murray and Nole to make it to the RG final, despite the fact that Murray has never won a slam, and Nole has only 1 (where he happened to play the best Tennis of his career).

Hmmm ... interesting. ;)

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