Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Reading the Readers: Masters Class
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Reading the Readers: Masters Class 04/21/2010 - 4:26 PM

Rf Yesterday, between discussions of 16 vs. 6, 13 to 7, those two strange beasts, Fedal and the Goat, and who had the better career, John McEnroe or Ivan Lendl (it was Lendl by a hair, by the way), there were a couple comments that got me thinking.

From bmars250:

Well this is interesting the way steve is now talking about Rafa ending up being the leading all-time masters champ. The reason for this is simmple. Rafa is better than anyone on clay and given the number of masters on clay well it’s kind of obvious and a bit unfair. Imagine if there was an equal number of masters on grass as well, cld you then imagine how many masters fed would have got by nw???????

Well, ys I cld begin to imagine!!!!!!!! Federer would have a lot more, and, if there were as many as three grass Masters a year, Nadal would likely have a couple more by now as well. There’s no doubt that the lack of grass events skews this comparison, but there’s no room for them at the time when they would logically be played, right before Wimbledon. A grass circuit in the fall would be fun, but I don’t see it on anyone's radar. At the same time, I don’t think the Masters set-up is “unfair” to Federer in particular. Six of its nine events are held on hard courts, a surface on which he once had a 50-something-match win streak. The Masters Cup is also on hard courts, and Federer has reaped the benefits with four titles to Nadal’s goose egg.

Elsewhere in the comments—I can’t find it now—someone mentioned that they thought that hard courts were a “neutral” surface, and thus the one that should be weighed most heavily when we look at a player’s accomplishments. Hard courts may have occupied a neutral position between grass and clay in the days when the balls skidded around the grounds at Wimbledon, but now that the style of play is basically the same everywhere, privileging hard courts doesn’t make sense. Nadal wins on grass, Federer wins on clay, they both win on hard courts. Look at the semifinalists at last year’s French Open—Soderling, Gonzalez, del Potro, and Federer. What unites them isn’t their specialization on clay, but that they’re four of the biggest hitters on tour. Tennis is played on various surfaces, and at this point in its evolution none of them is more of less important or central to the sport than any other. When you assess a player’s Masters titles—specifically, Nadal’s—there’s no reason to add the caveat that he's won most of them on clay, especially since he beat Federer in many of those clay finals. Everyone, except the Americans, of course, can play on dirt now. Nadal has won 16 Masters titles, 11 of them on clay; Federer has won 16, 11 of them on hard courts. They’ve each won 16, period.

From geellis:

I think the biggest point favoring the superior importance of the slams is not one of their empirical attributes (i.e., how many sets, number of hours on court, days of rest in between, seeding, etc.) but their intangible component, namely, how the players treat them. Put differently, I mean the emphasis or "pressure" that the players put on themselves to win at the Majors. That said, other than a couple of serious standouts (Fed, Serena, and now perhaps Nole and Murray) I'm not sure players today "try" any less to win a match at the Masters events than they do at the Majors. That said, I cannot disagree that the players consider the Majors to be a bigger deal than the Masters events.

In some senses, however, I would argue that this makes the Masters more not less difficult to win. And why? Because most players play their best tennis when there's less pressure not more. Thus commentators are so fond of saying player x can "swing freely" or player x is "playing with house money" etc. Why has Lleyton not won AO or Emelie not won RG? Because they were not good enough? Of course not. Because they could not handle the pressure (more on their cases later) and, therefore, could not produce their best tennis. Now I understand that some people will say it's exactly this quality of nerves that makes the Majors more difficult. I'd say, the factor of nerves is one that doesn't fall so neatly in the favor of the the Majors as more difficult. Or, rather, not a factor we should consider so highly. This is true because nervousness is not simply a result of a player's own predisposition, but rather also a result of the conditions around the player. Therefore, it's simply not fair to compare the pressure on Hewitt, Mauresmo, or now Murray at their respective Majors to the pressure on Rafa or the Fed.

As we said yesterday, the majors are the most important events because we’ve collectively agreed that they are. It’s a convention, but it's one that must become very very real in a player’s mind as he sets up to serve to win Wimbledon—it has to feel different from setting up to serve for Monte Carlo or Cincinnati, simply because of the lifetime-guaranteed prestige that goes with winning on Centre Court.

Along the way, I’ve also believed, subconsiously, that the majors were the “truest test” of a player. But are they? They’re 3-out-of-5 sets, which does force a player to win more sets and games and points against his opponent and to be fit enough to potentially play for many hours. But does that mean 2-out-3 sets is a less true test? It’s the format for the vast majority of professional matches, and no one believes that the vast majority of matches aren’t a true test of skill, do they? How could most pro matches not fully count on some level? Each player knows the format and plays accordingly. If longer matches mean truer tests, why not create a Super Grand Slam that’s best four-out-of-seven? Or why not abolish the tiebreaker? 

No, two-out-of-three is a slightly different test, but it’s just as true. It’s less about stamina, patience, mental fortitude over the long haul, and more about precision under pressure, about the ability to produce now. There are fewer games, sets, and tiebreakers, which makes each one that is played just a little more nerve-wracking. Roger Federer, the master of the 3-of-5, has talked about how that format helps him relax, but how many times has he needed to come back from two sets down during one of his 16 Slam-title runs? I can only remember one, against Tommy Haas at Roland Garros last year. Like most champions, he’s excelled in both set-ups.

Empirically, you can make a case for the superior difficulty of winning a Slam or a Masters event. A Slam requires two weeks of concentration and fitness; a Masters often requires a 24-hour turnaround between matches, and a hot player can put you on the ropes in a matter of games. A Slam forces you to beat seven opponents, but likely won’t set you up with as tough a first- or second-round assignment as a Masters. What separates them is what we began with: the historical weight that all of us put on the majors, which lands squarely on the shoulders of the players. Slams are more pressurized, for all 128 entrants, because they’re about history—the world is watching, and it may only remember what you did at the big ones.

But I’m not sure about the significance of geellis’s point about the special difficulties of home-country pressure. Yes, this makes it tougher for Murray, Mauresmo, and Hewitt at their Slams. But does that mean that Virginia Wade’s win at Wimbledon in 1977 or Yannick Noah’s at the French in 1983 were greater achievements than, say, Nadal’s at Wimbledon in 2008 or Federer’s at Roland Garros in 2009? From my perspective, the pressure on the last two—on Nadal to win Wimbledon after losing a five-set final the year before, on Federer to take advantage of his best opportunity in Paris—is hard to top. I’m willing to just say that tryng to close out a Slam will put the weight of the world on you. And that’s a lot for anyone to carry, whatever country you’re from.

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Posted by canadarocks 04/21/2010 at 04:44 PM

First ?

Posted by CanadianTennisGuy 04/21/2010 at 05:05 PM

"Roger Federer, the master of the 3-of-5, has talked about how that format helps him relax, but how many times has he needed to come back from two sets down during one of his 16 Slam-title runs? I can only remember one, against Tommy Haas at Roland Garros last year. Like most champions, he’s excelled in both set-ups."

But he has come-back numerous times in the last 2-3 years from a 2 set to 1 deficit (which if it were best of 3 sets, he would have lost). Or even in cases where he hasn't gone down 2 sets to 0, or 2 sets to 1, he has won a lot of 2nd set tie-breakers after losing the 1st set. Think of the 2nd set tiebreaker at Wimbledon 2009 -- Roger saved 4 set points against Roddick rather than 4 match points. Big difference.

Posted by Vijay 04/21/2010 at 05:09 PM

What's a huge difference between majors and masters? It's money. These are not PROFESSIONAL players for nothing. You win one round in a slam, you make nearly twice as much money. That alone will start drilling holes in your brain with each losing point. For many pros, a W in the 1st or 2nd round of a slam could be their biggest paycheck of the year. So tell me again, how or why would masters come even within a mile of the slams in terms of pressure and prestige?

Posted by BrooklynNY 04/21/2010 at 05:14 PM

I personally think the idea of "neutral surfaces" defeats the purpose of changing surfaces to begin with.

Different surfaces used to mean possibility of different players excelling during different events and times of the year.

Now I don't think it means anything anymore. Tennis is played the same way regardless of the setting and format.
Also, the Masters used to have a 3/5 set final. Which is probably why Andy Murray has won a handful of them, some of them against Roger.

Posted by Corrie 04/21/2010 at 05:16 PM

There's no question that Nadal would have less Masters shields and the H2H with Federer would be more in Fed's favour if there equal numbers of grass court Masters to clay. But although Nadal may been, and seems to be again, a clay court specialist, (apart from one stellar year) he's also pretty fantastic on grass. He'd definitely win some on grass if there were Masters tournaments, though it would have taken him longer to get into learning to play at the top level on grass, hence less Masters shields on clay and more for Fed.

Grass is a real test of skills too and it's a great shame there aren't more tournaments and at least a couple of Masters - even if it requires a drastic reorganisation. Tennis needs more variety of surfaces, instead there's less and less with the disappearance of carpet.

Posted by BrooklynNY 04/21/2010 at 05:27 PM

Yes Corrie, Agreed with the variety in the surfaces. A few years ago the year-end championships were held on Carpet. Now...matches are rarely played on carpet to my knowledge. Or even fast hardcourts anymore, only what Cincinati if you consider that to be a faster court

Posted by Master Ace 04/21/2010 at 05:32 PM

On the WTA side, I was wondering for years why the Russians can do so well in tournaments that require a one day turnaround on the weekend compared to Slams(Myskina 2004 French, Sharapova 2004 Wimbledon - 2006 United States Open - 2008 Australian Open, and Kuznetsova 2004 United States Open and 2009 French Open) and on the other hand, why do the Williams Sisters(mainly, Serena 12 Slams out of 36 titles won in her career) play well in the Slams? Could it be they know how to schedule themselves in b/w Slams or know not to give up away that extra notch in regular events. Justine and Kim are now trying the Williams Sisters model to stay on the Tour longer. Both ladies done well in the Tour model as they were very consistent(Kim leads all active players in hard court titles).

Posted by Carrie *¿Dónde está el Elfo? * 04/21/2010 at 05:36 PM

*There's no question that Nadal would have less Masters shields and the H2H with Federer would be more in Fed's favour if there equal numbers of grass court Masters to clay. But although Nadal may been, and seems to be again, a clay court specialist, (apart from one stellar year) he's also pretty fantastic on grass*

I am not sure if I agree that there is "no question" that Rafa would have fewer Masters titles if there were an equal number of grass and clay. What is the equal number. Say there were three clay, three hard and three grass. Two and two maybe. ;) I can agree with you about the head to head but Rafa has actually gotten some hard court Masters titles- starting in 2005. He has won the Roger's Cup twice, Madrid (when it was hard) once and IW twice. Some of those years where you say he was a clay court specialist. ;) If I recall correctly he has reached the finals of all hard court Masters except for Cincy...(although I may be wrong about Paris). If there were three grass Masters maybe Roger would gobble them all up. But Rafa himself has never gobbled up all clay Masters in one year. So I think that Rafa and Roddick may have grabbed a rare grass Masters now and then as you alude to. Maybe because Roger wasn't there- but heck- that has happened with clay and Hamburg.

And I have to say- there sometimes seems to be all the blame put on the three clay Masters as to why there are no grass Masters. I think folks should focus more on how there are six harcourt (I know two are indoor) Masters plus TMC is always on hard too.

Posted by Carrie *¿Dónde está el Elfo? * 04/21/2010 at 05:37 PM

* Or even fast hardcourts anymore, only what Cincinati if you consider that to be a faster court*

It's not a big tournament but I think Tokyo is supposed to be very fast.

Posted by Fed Fan 04/21/2010 at 05:43 PM

He was also down against Del Po two sets to one and CanadianTennisGuy makes a good point about the added pressure to win two sets. A lot of people can win two sets against another player but a best of five is superior to a best of three just like a best of three is superior to a best of one set.

Posted by Ryan 04/21/2010 at 05:49 PM

Steve, thank you for some of the most thoughtful, and thought-provoking, tennis writing on the web.

I for one miss the 3-of-5 set Masters finals. Take that away, and there's not much separating a Toronto from a Dubai or Rotterdam. The second-best match of the decade just might be the Fedal Rome '06 final.

Posted by Statician 04/21/2010 at 06:04 PM

Let's call a spade a spade please. If we are to name specialists, then Federer would definitely qualify as a hard court specialist or a grass court specialist, same as Sampras. And what makes 'longer' superior? Tradition, tradition says Tevye. Now if we were to lessen the amount of hard courts in the season, equal them with clay and grass, we're on a much more even keel. Just as Federer has been the #2 clay player, so has Nadal been the #2 grass player, and on the slower hcs #2 or #3 there as well.

Posted by 1963USCtennis 04/21/2010 at 06:10 PM

I don't think the question was ever whether Mcenroe had a "better" career than Lendl.
It was whether McEnroe was a better player.

Posted by Steve 04/21/2010 at 06:11 PM

thanks, ryan. 3 of 5 does make the slams special.

Fed fan: of course, if it's 2 of 3 in those situations, the mindset of both guys from the start is completely different. what i was trying to say is that it's not like federer has needed the 3 of 5 format to win very many times. you point to a couple times when he was down 2 sets to 1, but that's still a tiny fraction of his slam matches.

because more guys can win against federer in 2 of 3 than 3 of 5 doesn't make the latter format "superior." both players know the scoring that's being used that day, and play accordingly. if federer loses in 2 of 3, it doesn't mean that he just didn't have time to show that he was actually a better player than his opponent.

Posted by Chris 04/21/2010 at 06:15 PM

Steve, I enjoy your blog very much, but the first half of this post is not very thoughtful. As long as players have different relative strengths on different surfaces, of course the title count will depend on how many tournaments are played on each surface. Just because Federer can win on clay doesn't mean he's not disadvantaged relative to Nadal when moving from hard courts to clay. Seriously, if all the Masters events were held on clay, could you really say that the Federer vs. Nadal Masters title count was a good measure of anything other than clay court ability?

That said, I agree that it's too far to call the situation "unfair" to Federer or any other player. Is it unfair to Federer that no Masters are on grass and 25% of the slams are, or is it unfair to Nadal that 25% of the slams are on grass and only 10% of the calendar is devoted to grass tournaments?

Posted by Steve 04/21/2010 at 06:16 PM

career results tell you who the "better" player was, no? any other measurements are subjective

mcenroe: more touch, yes; "better" athlete, yes. better player, not necessarily

Posted by Steve 04/21/2010 at 06:20 PM

chris, 6 masters are held on hard courts. how is that a disadvantage to federer?

if all the masters were held on clay, federer, like the rest of the players, would have trained and practiced differently when he was coming up.

Posted by Andrew 04/21/2010 at 06:28 PM

I think in the top players' minds the Masters 1000 events and Slams pose different challenges, not least in terms of the amount of rest. In the Slams, with the exception of the US Open Super Saturday format, there's typically at least one day of rest between matches: in the Masters, you could theoretically (if the seeding worked out) play four matches in a row against top 10 opponents.

There's something of a chicken-and-egg element to why the Slams are the most important tournaments - the season (eg MC, Rome, Madrid, RG) is structured the way it is because RG is the most important clay tournament, and it remains the most important because the others (plus the US summer HC season) are used by players to prepare for the Slam.

All short series give the weaker opponent a better chance of getting lucky than longer series. The longer matches also give you more chance of an "epic" match - one where there are many swings of fortune, and the match remains balanced on a knife edge for what can literally be hours. Long isn't always better than short, and new isn't always better than old.

Posted by Pablo 04/21/2010 at 06:35 PM

I don't know what's so atracctive about hard courts: from an aesthetic point of view they have no interest whatsoever; it's like tennis played in a parking lot, whereas grass and clay are more evocative, both grass and clay are more pleasing to the eye, and to the ear, since you get to hear the dirt when the players slide on clay; and hard courts punish your body (unlike clay and grass), hence, the endless list of players with injuries.

And, there is more variety in clay and grass regarding playing conditions: when the AO was held on grass, you had a very dry surface (due to the hot weather downunder) which resulted in high bouncing balls and a truer bounce to boot, this allowed mats Wilander to be a two time champ in Australia, beating none other that Macenroe in the 83 SF's, lendl in the ensuing final and Kevin Curren in the 1984 final; OTOH, the wimbledon of hold was played in a lower bouncing grass where there were plenty bad bounces; regarding clay, playing on the low bouncing heavy conditions in Hamburg resulted in very different matches from the ones played in Montecarlo, for instance. IMHO, the differences between hard courts are not as signifficant.

Posted by Steve 04/21/2010 at 06:39 PM

thanks, andrew. think of the fall masters. the reason they aren't as important to the top guys is because they come after all the slams, and don't lead into one. key biscayne and indian wells at least come before the other majors, when everyone is getting their games ready.

Posted by Ali* 04/21/2010 at 06:39 PM

I hate Fedal wars, thats why I approve of Steve's comment of both having won 16 is a great achievement period!!!!!!

Anyway, why could Queens not be turned into a Masters 1000 event on grass?? Somebody please enlighten me.

Posted by Pablo 04/21/2010 at 06:40 PM

Not to mention that the playing conditions in Roland garros in the 80's were signifficantly slower than nowadays.

Posted by K 04/21/2010 at 06:48 PM

Andrew, surely you don't speak of luck when I was very publicly berated here for entertaining any such notions as luck being involved in tennis???? I wonder if you'll get the same mocking treatment.

I really like how interactive you are with your fans, Steve. and your piece was great, both the last one and this one.

Ali*, is Queens the same tournament as Artois? If so, I'm in agreement, I love that tournament! Come on Murray!

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/21/2010 at 06:59 PM

I'm perplexed that Steve has chosen to take Geellis's sophistry so seriously. If there is no doubt in the Open era that the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open are the pinnacle of the sport, how can an argument be mounted that Cincinnati or Indian Wells is just as "true" a test or just as difficult to win? Performing under pressure is the sine qua non of sport at the highest level. As has been pointed out, there is already a handy guide to judging which tournaments professional players most want to win: the ATP believes Slams are twice as valuable (thus more important and harder to win) as Masters Series tournaments and believes that the year-end championship, featuring the top eight players in the world, is also of significantly more value. The prize money on offer reflects this pecking order. Why the sudden urge to reassess the value of Masters Series tournaments? I know, dumb question.

Posted by Pablo 04/21/2010 at 07:02 PM

Steve, Federer defeated Tommy haas in the AO 2006 after loosing the first two sets.

Posted by Chris 04/21/2010 at 07:20 PM

Steve, the point is not that most of the Masters events are on hard courts and Federer does pretty well on hard courts. Point to his winning streak. Fine. Rafa has had a longer one on clay. That's the point: Nadal is more dominant on clay than Federer is on hard courts. The relative strengths of the players across different surfaces matters, therefore the distribution of tournaments across surfaces matters. You can't wipe that away by saying Fed and Rafa can both win on all surfaces.

I agree that players would train differently if the schedule were different, of course, but I'm not sure that would have allowed Federer to beat Nadal more often on clay.

Posted by Deborah 04/21/2010 at 07:35 PM

You know it's interesting that this conversation seldom includes the year end event that Roger won four times, defeating Nadal in the semis twice and where Nadal never reached a final and where the top eight players were in the draw. And was it this past year where Nadal didn't win a set in the year end championship? A couple of Roger's wins were on outdoor hardcourt and two on indoor hardcourt. And I believe the finals were best of five.

Posted by Carrie *¿Dónde está el Elfo? * 04/21/2010 at 07:44 PM

*And I believe the finals were best of five.*

Not all- the one in Houston in 2004 was best of three because they were trying to fit it in with all of the rain showers that day.
five USO in a row streakand whatnot. As Steve mentioned- Roger also had a 50+ match streak on the surface. So I have to agree with Steve- I can't say that the Master tiltes tally is unfair to Federer and favors Rafa when a good number of the titles are on hard court. Roger has won 11 Masters titles on hard court. Only 1/3 of the years Masters titles are on clay. And I don't think it is fair to Rafa to be honest to say his tally should not count or is tainted because it is on his best surface.

Posted by Ruth 04/21/2010 at 07:47 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. Your comments -- especially the middle three paragraphs of your reaction to geellis's comment -- represent some of the points that I've been making or trying to make, literally for years, in discussions of the Slams vs Masters topic (of which the 3/5 vs 2/3 topic is an essential part). This topic is, as I wrote yesterday, one of my favorite tennis topics.

Now, I can just cut and paste those three paragraphs of yours in my Tennis Stuff folder in My Documents and reproduce them -- with appropriate credit to you, of course -- when I get into similar discussions in the future.

Heck, I think I'll just save the whole post! :)

Posted by Carrie *¿Dónde está el Elfo? * 04/21/2010 at 07:49 PM

I really do hate the lack of an edit button here sometimes.

What my previous post was meant to say

Chris- I do think Roger has been pretty dominent on hard court. In particular during 2006- 7 era. And with his five USO in a row streak and whatnot. As Steve mentioned- Roger also had a 50+ match streak on the surface. So I have to agree with Steve- I can't say that the Master tiltes tally is unfair to Federer and favors Rafa when a good number of the titles are on hard court. Roger has won 11 Masters titles on hard court. That's pretty darned impressive.

Only 1/3 of the years Masters titles are on clay. And I don't think it is fair to Rafa to be honest to say his tally should not count or is tainted because it is on his best surface. You shaid it should not matter if Roger has been good on hard but should only matter that Rafa was good on clay. I just do not agree with the implication that Rafa's tally is somehow not worthy or unfair because it is on clay.

Posted by Carrie *¿Dónde está el Elfo? * 04/21/2010 at 07:52 PM

Oops- Chris, I see that you said that you did not agree with saying the tally was unfair. Just that Roger was at a disadvantage. Again- even with that I do not agree. Roger has managed to win five masters titles on clay. I don't see how that is a big disadvantage. 1/3 of the year's Masters titles are on the surface. 2/3 are on hard.

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 04/21/2010 at 08:03 PM

Steve: thanks for another great post.

Just wanted to add or interject that if there were more grass masters I don't think it would mean more shields for federer. Rafa loves grass and plays beautifully on it. I think the format going from 3/5 to 2/3 negatively impacts rafa who can out last anybody. If all the masters were on hard however, Fed would be the runaway title holder. But I'm a traditionalist and hate hard courts. I grew up on clay and grew up watching clay and grass tournaments. Every time they add a new hard court tourney to the schedule I cry!

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/21/2010 at 08:05 PM

I agree with Steve that "there's no need to add the caveat" that most of Nadal's Masters 1000 titles have come on clay. I have no major problem with the distribution of Masters 1000 tournaments beyond wishing for a promotion for either Halle or Queens and the demotion to Monte Carlo-like limbo for either Miami or Indian Wells.

I do find it odd that there is a rush to talk up the importance of Masters 1000 wins. Which Agassi fan delights in his record 17 Masters tournament triumphs? Is he going to be at Madrid to present the trophy in case Nadal or Federer are poised to break this clearly significant record? Masters 1000 tournaments offer an opportunity to see the top players face each other on a consistent, even frequent basis. They are fine tournaments that are markedly inferior to the four Grand Slam tournaments and the year-end championship and as a consequence not particularly important. No young tennis player, even now, is dreaming of winning Montreal (or Toronto, if it's the latter's turn). I can see the appeal, though, to Fedal fans spoiling for an argument.

Posted by Andrew 04/21/2010 at 08:06 PM

Pablo: Federer led Haas 2-0 in AO 2006.

Since 2003, these are situations in Slams where Federer has been down 2-0: RG 2004 R32 (l Kuerten in straights); AO 2008 SF (l Djokovic in straights); RG 2008 F (l Nadal in straights); Wimbledon 2009 F (l Nadal in 5 sets); AO 2009 R16 (d Berdych in 5 sets, lost to Nadal in final); RG 2009 R16 (d Haas in 5 sets, beat Soderling in final). I count six matches, with four losses and two wins, one on the way to a championship.

In response to an earlier question, luck does play and always has played a major role in all tennis matches. Other things being equal, the more sets you play the lower the luck factor (I note that Federer is 0-6 vs Nadal in 5 set matches on clay, and 2-3 in 3 set matches). However, other things aren't equal, of course, including the physical and mental fitness questions involved in playing 5 set vs 3 set matches.

Posted by ladyjulia 04/21/2010 at 08:08 PM


Interesting article. The debate of 3 vs 5 exists in other sports as well. In a much more dramatic fashion...for example, test cricket is played over 5 days, while one day cricket is played over one day and now we have twenty overs that gets over in a few hrs.

Its hard to beat Australia in test cricket, because of the consistency required for 5 days. However, in twenty over format...its easy to score an upset. You only need to play good for about 2 to 3 hours.

I think the same applies to 3 Vs 5 in tennis, though to a lesser extent. How many matches has Rafa lost on clay in a five set format? Before 2009, i.e. between 2005-2008 not a single one. He did lose three set matches though. As Federer once said, its easier to beat him over three sets rather than five. Sure, Federer can come charging and take one set 6-1 on clay, but the better player shines over a five set format. You have to be consistently that good...good enough that the opponent has many chances to come back and you still find a way to win.

I think the GS are worth their points because of this. In three set matches, its always easy to shut out an opponent.

If Rome final 2006...if the five hr match was a three set match, who do you think would have won that day? All Federer had to do was take two sets to win, which he did. But its fascinating to see a five set match end in the tiebreaker. Rafa was in the lead, then Roger was in the lead, then Rafa came back, then Roger came back etc. It was a battle of wills and consistency and drive.

Its one thing to defeat Rafa in two set format on clay. Its another thing to battle it out with him over a five set match.

For me, the five set format promises more entertainment, more drama, a more worthy test of wills and a more worthy test of consistency.

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/21/2010 at 08:14 PM

Annie... you say you grew up watching clay and grass tournaments. What surface did you play on? If you want tennis to be a sport available to all, and that means inexpensive public facilities, then you can surely see the need for hard courts. My favourite surfaces are grass and clay but I understand that well-maintained grass courts are impossible outside of private clubs. Unless you want the pros to play the majority of their tennis on surfaces inaccessible to the public.

Posted by ladyjulia 04/21/2010 at 08:15 PM

Also, if there were grass MS, I think Federer would be favorite to win them. He has lost one match on grass in six years while Rafa has lost many more.

So, the stats favor Roger for grass MS.

Also, Steve..I have a question. Was the 3 Vs 5 ever a debate in Agassi-Sampras era? Sampras had 14 GS while Agassi had 17 MS. Was it ever a topic for discussion?

Ofcourse, I think Agassi had a losing H2H against Sampras. So, my guess is that the 17 MS were never comparable to the # of MS that Sampras had.

Posted by Deborah 04/21/2010 at 08:16 PM

I have no quibble about the tally of Master's titles for Roger or Rafa. It is what it is. No matter how you slice it, the tennis world has decided that the standard for greatness is Grand Slam victories. There is a reason why the legends of the game are in attendance. Ask any tennis player (can you say Andy Murray) what they aspire to. I enjoy the Masters tournaments. As a tennis fan, I plan my schedule around the Slams. I wish there were more tournaments on grass because there is nothing in this world more beautiful than Roger Federer on a grass court. To see him dance across grass is a sight to behold.

Posted by Ruth 04/21/2010 at 08:17 PM

I just want to mention that some of us have been discussing (and arguing about) this business of Slams vs TMS and 2/3's vs 3/5's (and even clay vs hard courts) LONG before 2003 when Federer won his first Slam and before Nadal burst on the scene.

I can understand that it's natural for people to cite examples from Roger and Rafa's performances in a discussion of this topic, but there is one good reason why I choose to leave those two players out of my discussions of this subject -- a reason which I see being demonstrated very clearly here today.

OK, back to watching Nadal dispose of Gonzalez in Rome 2007!

Posted by SwissMaestro 04/21/2010 at 08:19 PM

Federer coming back from 2 sets down at a slam other than the match aginst Haas at the 2009 French Open?

He did it also against Berdych at the 2009 Autralian Open. I can't quite remember another.

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/21/2010 at 08:28 PM

"this business of Slams vs TMS and 2/3's vs 3/5's"

By now the referee must have stepped in and declared a 'no contest'. The greatest men's matches are all three out of five. And both men and women are measured by their performances in the Slams and their respective tours acknowledge the primacy of the Slams. What are you debating?

Posted by ladyjulia 04/21/2010 at 08:30 PM


So, what was the consensus before Fedal era for 3 Vs 5?

Fedal are current players so they are bound to be discussed.

Also, I think Fedal are a good reason to keep the 5 set format...we just have to see where they have taken tennis...given Rome 2006 final, Wimby 2007 final, Wimby 2008 final (greatest match ever or so I have heard), AO 2009 final.

These two deserve to meet in a five set match. Its electric...and fascinating to watch them for 4 and a half hours battle it out for five sets.

I already can't wait for Wimby!

Posted by Pablo 04/21/2010 at 08:30 PM

i stand corrected andrew.

Posted by ladyjulia 04/21/2010 at 08:31 PM

Federer came back against Nadal at Miami 2005 final. He was down two sets.

Posted by Chris 04/21/2010 at 08:34 PM

Carrie: Actually, I'm not really trying to say that either player is advantaged or disadvantaged when it comes to the Masters schedule. After all, the same argument could apply to the slams: way less than 25% of the tennis calendar is focused on grass, and yet Wimbledon counts for one of the four majors. So we could just as easily say Fed is advantaged when it comes to the slam count. My point was just that I felt Steve was too close to saying "the top players can win on any surface these days, so we can compare number of titles without worrying too much about the surfaces they were won on." I don't think it's that easy.

Posted by Bhai Mirzai 04/21/2010 at 09:00 PM

Nadal with Federer had not been so skewed if, Federer had not made all those finals on CLAY. And had Nadal made more finals on hard courts when Federer made all those finals, too it might not have been that skewed.

So it is Federer's fault that he made all those CLAY finals. He should have paid more attention to is H2H with Rafa!

By the way no one but Federer has made it o the final of ALL FOUR GS FINALS at least 3 times. And 3 GS finals 4 times (that includes FO). And 2 GS 6 times! Who else comes even close?

Posted by Ruth 04/21/2010 at 09:06 PM

"Fedal are current players so they are bound to be discussed."

ladyjulia: That is precisely why I said that "it's natural to cite" Roger and Rafa in this discussion. It is unfortunate, though, when the discussion becomes a Roger vs Rafa battle instead of a discussion of the characteristics of two different formats or surfaces or events.

To respond to your question, I don't think there ever was or will be a true consensus on any of the topics, but people have always had and will always have civil -- and, sometimes, not so civil -- discussions about them. Opinions will vary, and people will agree or disagree based on their interpretations (or manipulations) of the facts.

Example: In Pete Bodo's article about Tiriac in the latest Tennis Magazine, Tiriac expresses his view that how the best and most important events should have only the best players. Thus, he seems to feel that having 128 players contest the Slams is not as good a decision as having only the best 32 players included in the draw. This is similar to one of the points that some people put forward when they opine about the "superiority" of TMS over the Slams. There is always room for discussion and disagreement when OPINIONS are being expressed.

(Of course, people like YAL have announced that the "greatest men's matches are all three out of five." So, no further discussion needed on that topic, right? Gosh, I wish that all my OPINIONS could become edicts like that. LOL)

"These two deserve to meet in a five set match. Its electric...and fascinating to watch them for 4 and a half hours battle it out for five sets."

BTW Please don't forget, ladyjulia, that the FO 2008 final -- and may other very short men's Slam matches were also 3/5's. I remember noting one day during a Slam when the average length of the women's 2/3 matches was greater then the average length of the men's. But, since I've never thought that greater length meant greater quality -- or greater importance -- that fact was amusing, but not of major (pun intended) significance, in my book.

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/21/2010 at 09:12 PM

Bhai Mirza... I'm guessing, since Federer has won the Australian Open 4 times and lost in the final once, he has reached the final of three of the four grand slams at least five times (Wimbledon, 7 straight, US Open 6 straight), and the final of all four grand slams at least four times.

Anyway... this thread isn't about the head-to-head, is it?

Posted by Bhai Mirzai 04/21/2010 at 09:19 PM

Yes, you are right. I fogot the loss in the final of AO!

So, yes 4 GS finals of all 4 Grand Slams including 4 straight FO finals

6 straight US Open Finals with 5 victories

7 straight Wimbledon finals with 6 wins

and so many multi-slam finals

and a million straight GS semifinals...

And ... still counting

Posted by 1963USCtennis 04/21/2010 at 09:19 PM

"career results tell you who the "better" player was, no? any other measurements are subjective

career results tell you who had a longer run of sustained success... but all against lesser players.

The measuring stick for the truly great tennis players is agains the very top. In that regard McEnroe was imo a better player in that he had to "dethrone" not just his compatriot JSC, but also the formidabble wimbledon champion.

Lendl got "whipped" by the almost senior JC. (seniors starts at 35 in tennis)

so again, by your logic Roy Emerson then is the third best player all time correct? Because, as you mentioned "career results tell you who the "better" player was, no? any other measurements are subjective"


Posted by Bhai Mirzai 04/21/2010 at 09:19 PM


Posted by Bhai Mirzai 04/21/2010 at 09:23 PM

But yes, this thread is not about H2H ... or Fedal ...

My opinion on best of 3 versus best of 5 --- Best of 3 just lacks the drama and the thrill of best of fives. And a loss in a best of 3 close match just does not hurt as much as a loss in a close best of 5 match. And a a close loss in a best of 3 MS does not hurt as much as even a bad, lop-sided, loss at a GS. At least I can speak how I feel about it.

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/21/2010 at 09:27 PM

Ruth... yeah... I "announced" it, as if it were an edict (LOL). Feel free to list the 2/3 matches that compare. I see how the Nadal - Djokovic Madrid semi-final compares favourably to the Borg - McEnroe Wimbledon final. Since the men's grand slams are three out of five and the most memorable matches tend to go the distance and have the most at stake (again, the slams), it's difficult to imagine 2/3 matches that compare. Still, I defer to you and anxiously await your list.

Your Tiriac quote to bolster your "OPINION" is intriguing. So the year-end championship with the most controlled field (barring injury) must be the hardest tournament to win (LOL).

Posted by susan 04/21/2010 at 09:35 PM

Thanks for the post, and thanks for the comments from readers. Interesting all.

I could do without the smugness that often occurs from a certain....., but the concept of free speech is held dear in the US for good reason (although not always practiced). Live in a country where fairly heavy media censorship is part of everyday life and you'll appreciate it even more.

Posted by Russ 04/21/2010 at 09:35 PM

Did Fed not come back from 0-2 down to beat Berdy at last year's AO? Or did someone already point that out?

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 04/21/2010 at 09:36 PM

It's all a matter of context.

Posted by susan 04/21/2010 at 09:37 PM

someone pointed it out earlier.

Posted by Christopher 04/21/2010 at 09:45 PM

Russ and Susan-- Yes, but I think Steve's specific question was how many times Federer came back from love-2 in his 16 slam wins, so the Berdych match wouldn't count.

Earlier in the thread Andrew has a full list of times Federer was down love-2 in slams.

Posted by Christopher 04/21/2010 at 09:51 PM

"by your logic Roy Emerson then is the third best player all time correct? Because, as you mentioned 'career results tell you who the "better" player was, no? any other measurements are subjective'"

1963USCtennis-- No, by Steve's logic Roy Emerson is not the 3rd best player of all time. You are assuming Steve has a very narrow definition of "career results" that there is not reason to believe he has. Steve did NOT say "the number of slams won, regardless of time period or the slam in question says who the better player is." One aspect of Emerson's career results is that 8 of those slams were the Australian Championship (not the Australian Open) in which the fields were more confined (smaller and limited to amateurs) than AO fields were beginning in the 1980's. The Lendl v. McEnroe question is completely different from, say, Emerson v. Federer.

Posted by susan 04/21/2010 at 09:53 PM

"Roger Federer, the master of the 3-of-5, has talked about how that format helps him relax, but how many times has he needed to come back from two sets down during one of his 16 Slam-title runs?"

christopher, yes, he does say Slam-title runs.

my first reading was slam runs... possibly that's what he actually meant?!?

Posted by Ruth 04/21/2010 at 09:57 PM

"But yes, this thread is not about H2H ... or Fedal ..."

Coulda fooled me, Bhai Mirzai! LOL Got your point, and thanks for expressing your opinion (about 2/3 cf 3/5) as you did. Many of my tennis buddies, including my USO companion for the past 13 years, would agree with you on that.

Posted by Azhdaja 04/21/2010 at 10:00 PM

Well, masters tours are not that less difficult to win than GS.
To the some degree they might be even harder to win?! No kidding!

1. First Round at slams is just to face a qualifier or WC. No big dea. Great for warm up.
2. In slams players have one day rest between the matches, while in MS there's no rest; they play every day.
3. In slams a good player has 3 sets to beat some inspired underdog and get the quality eventually prevail, thus preventing a fluke winner. In MS best of 2 determines the winner, and if the underdog opponent has his day, a champion might be ousted before he noticed what happened.
4. Not even mentioning the money difference.

So, In my opinion the slams are bigger, yet the MS are undervalued.

Posted by Azhdaja 04/21/2010 at 10:02 PM

"In MS best of 2 determines the winner...."

Sorry typo here. It should stay " of 3 determines...".

Posted by susan 04/21/2010 at 10:26 PM

whoops. steve answered that earlier: "fed fan: Of course, if it's 2 of 3 in those situations, the mindset of both guys from the start is completely different. what i was trying to say is that it's not like federer has needed the 3 of 5 format to win very many times. you point to a couple times when he was down 2 sets to 1, but that's still a tiny fraction of his slam matches."

Posted by andrea 04/21/2010 at 10:37 PM

uhhh...fed was down 2 sets to love against nadal at the epic 08 wimbledon final....

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/21/2010 at 10:41 PM

Azhdaja... in slams, at least the top seeds have to play a first round match. Theoretically, there is a small chance of an upset. Don't the top seeds get a bye in the first round of Masters matches? And, the Masters Series are worth 1,000 points. Do you think they should be worth 1,500? I don't think many people would argue with you. After all, 2,000 pts doesn't really express fully the joy of winning Wimbledon, does it? I don't think anyone disputes how hard it is to win any tennis tournament, much less a Masters 1000 featuring all the best players in the world. But when the mythology of a sport (at least in the Open era) is wrapped up in four tournaments, it's natural that the shadow they cast is long.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 04/21/2010 at 10:42 PM

Let us not forget how often Bjorn Borg found himself down 2 sets before rebounding for the come-from-behind win. For a good stretch, this seemed like his M.O. In my mind, it's irrelevant. The better player almost always finds a way (or "a will") to win. What the best-of-five sets format does is afford a player some time to change strategies, try alternative tactics, find his form. It also tests that player's will and mental stamina far more than a best-of-three sets match. And over seven matches, those 21 to 35 sets take their toll.

Posted by Geellis 04/21/2010 at 10:45 PM

Great article Steve :)

Posted by K 04/21/2010 at 10:51 PM

So glad that mishap was cleared up then, seeing as it's only a matter of context, lol.

Also, didn't the slams just up the ante this year by adding more points? I can see where the *difficulty* of winning both can be compared, even with the pared draw of the Masters and the byes, but, before the change to best of 3, I would have to go with the Masters being more difficult because of the everyday play format. That's was tough, to play best of 5 every day against the top 50(?) players. Now that that's switched, best of 3 matches just can't be compared to best of 5, imho. But byes = 1st round qualifying matches, again imho.

Posted by ladyjulia 04/21/2010 at 10:56 PM


Thanks for getting back on that question!

"That is precisely why I said that "it's natural to cite" Roger and Rafa in this discussion. It is unfortunate, though, when the discussion becomes a Roger vs Rafa battle instead of a discussion of the characteristics of two different formats or surfaces or events."

Well, the fans will be passionate about Roger and Rafa. Its natural. Each of them has denied the other a considerable part of history and glory for years. So, I think both of them accept that they are going down together in history but fans will be fans.

"Example: In Pete Bodo's article about Tiriac in the latest Tennis Magazine, Tiriac expresses his view that how the best and most important events should have only the best players. Thus, he seems to feel that having 128 players contest the Slams is not as good a decision as having only the best 32 players included in the draw. This is similar to one of the points that some people put forward when they opine about the "superiority" of TMS over the Slams. There is always room for discussion and disagreement when OPINIONS are being expressed."

Wouldn't this hurt the revenue of the tournments?.

"(Of course, people like YAL have announced that the "greatest men's matches are all three out of five." So, no further discussion needed on that topic, right? Gosh, I wish that all my OPINIONS could become edicts like that. LOL)"

Who is YAL?

"BTW Please don't forget, ladyjulia, that the FO 2008 final -- and may other very short men's Slam matches were also 3/5's. I remember noting one day during a Slam when the average length of the women's 2/3 matches was greater then the average length of the men's. But, since I've never thought that greater length meant greater quality -- or greater importance -- that fact was amusing, but not of major (pun intended) significance, in my book. "

I didn't mean from the length point of view only.

I meant Rafa and Roger play exquisitely and consistently over long periods of time. Ofcourse, I am a bit biased as a fan...but their shots make me go "Wow!" while I don;t get the same enthusiasm with other matches. Not to say that other players have not provided jaw-dropping finals, but Roger and Rafa consistently deliver. They can play for 5 hrs and keep up the intensity, consistency and creativity. Sure, quite a few of their matches have been duds....2008 final embarrassingly so...but over 5 years, they have proved that they can play at a high level.

Its also the dynamics of the rivarly. There is so much history at stake when they play (six consecutive Wimbledons anyone?) and under so much pressure, they deliver.

So, yeah...greater length dosen't mean greater quality...but in Fedal matches, you can count on the quality. Even the 2008 RG final, Rafa was in fine form. You'd have to be, if you want to beat a player who didn't budge from the top position for 237 consecutive weeks.

Also, their individual consistency builds up a great story and given the fact,that they can meet and play only if they defeat all the other players in the draw (and they used to do so, year after year) only makes their meeting even more special.

I'd miss the five setters if they are gone. I don't know if there will be two players like Rafa and Roger again, but I would like to see them battle it out in a five setter rather than a three setter.

Posted by antoinette 04/21/2010 at 11:06 PM

It is very interesting to me that the value of the MS1000 are being elevated now that Nadal has the chance to break Agassi's record ( before Federer) ....I am not surprised, but amused, luckily for me as a Fed fan I have sweet 16 to console me now that Rafa will finally eclipse Federer as the GOAT.

I will just have to rewatch the FO 09 final a few more times to ease the pain and if that does not work I can overdose on the Wimby 09 final and the AO 10 final....oh the pain!

Posted by Alexis 04/21/2010 at 11:16 PM

Well, there is no doubt that majors have the most prestige, pressure, etc. All sports have games or tournaments that are deemed the most prestigious in their sports. Golf has four majors as well. Baseball and football have their playoffs and the SuperBowl. The bottom line is winning the most prestigious titles in any sport is what it is. Just because a certain format or venue may be more difficult at times doesn't suddenly make it equal to the 'biggies'.

Let's say a player ends up playing a tough 3-setter in every round at a TMS and has an overall tough draw. That win would be very satisfying but it is *still* a TMS. Now let's say that same player got a lucky draw at a major, seeds fall left and right out of his path, he basically wins easily every match only going the minimal three sets each round. A pretty easy two weeks BUT HE STILL WON GRAND SLAM.

Majors are the big measuring stick of tennis and other sports like golf. I don't care how many other tourneys you win, your major total is going to count more.

Posted by Alexis 04/21/2010 at 11:25 PM

Antoinette, you do make a good point. Where was all the hoopla about TMS versus majors during the Agassi/Sampras heyday? Agassi has 17 TMS and 8 GS. Sampras has 14 GS and 11 TMS (I think). I don't remember anyone going on about how 17 TMS somehow equated with 14 majors, etc. Maybe because it doesn't.

Posted by susan 04/21/2010 at 11:31 PM

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Posted by K 04/21/2010 at 11:35 PM

Oooops, I must have missed the posts discussing GOATs (looks again though to be sure).

There have been several examples cited of players who a) couldn't play Majors because of their 'pro' status b) skipped Majors because of it's unimportance c)won Majors because of a & b. So, while the 'value' of Majors now is unquestioned, it wasn't always. If this is the case, why shouldn't the value of both tournaments be re-evaluated, especially since both tournaments have undergone numerous changes since even the Open era?

Posted by Steve 04/21/2010 at 11:41 PM

susan, yes, i specifically meant coming back from two sets down during a slam title run. i know about berdych at AO and nadal in key biscayne, but neither happened during a major he won. but you caught my point later, anyway.

1963—no, i realize roy emerson's slam record is tainted. and i realize pancho gonzalez gets short shrift in these discussions. and i realize that not all tennis stats are equal. but lendl has a winning record against mcenroe, more slam wins, similar if not equal number of years finished at no. 1, more weeks at no. 1, more total titles, all in the same time period, with no emerson amateur-era taint. plus he won the french.

ruth and andrew and christopher and others—thanks for your comments, you're great

Posted by antoinette 04/21/2010 at 11:43 PM

Out of curiosity I wonder why the TMC( now the WTF) is not included in the re-evaluation process? The FEDKAD in me wonders could it be because Rafa has never won one, never even made it to a Final, but Federer has won 4? Hmm??

Posted by Steve 04/21/2010 at 11:47 PM

also, i did always have a special liking for agassi's masters record. just showed that the slams weren't everything to him. but you think i'm starting a rear guard action in favor of the masters just to help re-stoke the fed/nadal rivalry? may have a point

sam querrey, by far the best tennis tweeter

Posted by Syd 04/22/2010 at 12:00 AM

Fed himself has said that the Masters are "almost" harder to win than a slam. Just because the top players are met in the early rounds, and because three sets "are over before you know it."

Up until 2007, the Masters were best of five. Not sure how many masters Fed has won in best of three....but likely the majority were won best of five. Always thought that his game was built around five sets, if such a thing is possible, and possibly, one of the reasons that he's been less successful at the masters with the change of format.

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/22/2010 at 12:03 AM

Steve... sorry... does any player turn up his nose at winning Masters tournaments? Does any player consider the slams to be "everything"?

It's just that the chaps at the ATP have recently come up with a points system that considers the slams (under the aegis of the ITF) twice as significant as the ATP Masters 1000 tournaments. The ATP's also assigned the year-end championship more points. Seems like the ATP's made it pretty clear which tournaments it considers the most important in the tennis calendar and which professional players should most aspire to win. So while the slams are certainly not everything, they're most things.

Posted by zolarafa 04/22/2010 at 12:05 AM

So the number of master series on clay (3) skews the stats and the number of master series on hard courts (6+1)does not? Why can't Federer win the master series on hard courts?

And if there were another GS event on clay or grass, could Rafa win more GS titles?

Posted by Steve 04/22/2010 at 12:14 AM

yeah, yal, i do know that the slams are the big ones, no argument there. just trying to ask why, and it has nothing to do with what the chaps at the atp think. when federer is serving for wimbledon, something tells me he's not celebrating about the extra ranking points he's going to get over what he would get by winning a masters event. or maybe he's a lot more practical than i imagined, and that's exactly what he's thinking: "twice as many points as cincy, this is amazing!"

1963—sorry in advance, but the fact that lendl won the french wasn't my point; i know he never won wimbledon, which is kind of a big hole in his resume, i admit. my point was that he won three of four majors, while mac only won two.

i hate to say all this, too, as a guy who was a huge mcenroe fan and lendl detester back in the day.

see you tomorrow

Posted by antoinette 04/22/2010 at 12:19 AM

@ zolarafa

Federer did win the MS in Cincy last year...I was there to witness the HC masterclass he gave to both Murray and Djokovic.

Posted by Break Back 04/22/2010 at 12:20 AM

Nadal has won 2/3 of his masters shields during the 1/3 of the masters calendar that is on clay, and the remaining 1/3 of his shields on the remaining 2/3 of the calendar that is hard court. Federer's wins have not been disproportionate in this way. 1/3 of the titles on the 1/3 of the schedule that is clay, 2/3 of the titles on the 2/3 that is hard court.

Nadal makes semifinals of hard court events and gets bested by a better or hotter player in a close contest. Take the same two players on the same day, but put clay under their feet, and Nadal's opponents are challenged to even reach game point in their own service games. The level by which Nadal's play is enhanced by this surface is like nothing we may ever see again. He goes from being a top 5 player of today on hard and grass courts to being far and away the most dominant any player has ever been on any surface, when transported to clay. Federer doesn't have a savior surface like this. He is probably toughest to beat on grass, but he isn't much worse on hard and clay.

That is why Nadal's 11 of 16 masters shields and 9 of 13 wins over Federer on the surface are worth keeping in mind. Also, even though only 1/4 of his grand slam appearances are on clay, 2/3 of his grand slam titles came from clay.

If he were only slightly better on clay than on the other surfaces, it would not be fair to talk about these things, but his one-surface dominance allows him to squeeze an incredible amount of accomplishment out of a minority fraction of the calendar because of the special advantage he enjoys there.

Posted by Yet Another Lurker 04/22/2010 at 12:25 AM

Steve... I agree. That's why I said earlier that when the game's mythology is wrapped up in four tournaments, they cast a long shadow. The points spread is meant to underscore that gap between slams and non-slams.

Anyway, with regard to the difficulty of the draws at slams and Masters 1000 tournaments. Federer won the most recent slam. His path: Andreev; Hanescu; Montanes; Hewitt; Davydenko; Tsonga; Murray. Roddick won the most recent mandatory Masters. His path: Bye; Andreev; Vanatoru; Becker; Almagro; Nadal; Berdych. I don't really see how the draws at the Masters are that much more difficult, at least in this case.

Posted by zolarafa 04/22/2010 at 12:34 AM


Yep. My point is that instead of complaining about the number of MS events on clay, it would be good to note that there are 6 master series on hard courts which suits Federer's game a lot. he has plenty of opportunities to win on them.
It is not because he can't, but because he concentrates more on majors and there is no shame in that.

Same with the WTF! What if it was not on hard courts all these years? How many would have Rafa won if the surface rotated between clay/grass/hard from time to time?

Posted by Mia 04/22/2010 at 12:41 AM

Well put, Break Back.

Posted by felizjulianidad 04/22/2010 at 12:51 AM

I don't think it's a given, at all, that more MS tournaments played on grass would benefit Federer's overall MS tally and H2H in detriment of Nadal. Possible? Of course. Probable? Very feasible. But a certainty? Far from it.

Consider, first of all, that a 2-1 H2H on the green stuff is far too small a sample size to draw any conclusions. It's split the closest way a three-match comparison can be; the only other option is 3-0. The latter suggests dominance; the reality suggests competition.

Secondly, look at the scores. In 2006, Federer had a circus show with Nadal in their opening set, running off to a 6-0 start. 6-0! This was then followed by two tie-breaks, split by each player. Federer took the fourth match in the end, 6-3 I believe. 4 sets, two tiebreakers. The only blow-out was the first set. In 2007, it went the distance, and the two were dead-equal right until Nadal failed to convert two break points in the fifth set. Give Federer an inch and... 2008, again, the two went the distance, and Nadal won by the slimmest of margins, having squandered a 2-0 lead and match points in the 4th set. Throughout 14 sets in 3 matches, only two were won by a wide margin: Federer with a 6-0 in the 1st set of 2006 and a 6-2 in the 5th set of 2007, and Nadal with a 6-2 in the 4th set of 2007. The rest? To the wire. Their performance by sets mirrors their performance by matches: cut-throat competitive, with Federer being more likely to push his nose ahead for the photo finish.

Third, look at the context. In 2006 and 2007, Federer was arguably at the peak of his game. The growing pains were gone, the winning streaks were aplenty, and he was routinely mopping the field with his opponents, tournament after tournament, never surrendering a set. Nadal, on the other hand, still hadn't figured out how to beat JAMES BLAKE. He was unstoppable on clay, but save for the Madrid and Indian Wells MS shields (and some strong shows at Miami and Dubai against Federer), he had yet to make a big splash on a non-clay surface. I don't think anyone would've put money on Nadal reaching the Wimbledon final in 2006 (okay, someone probably did - I didn't!). His game didn't seem right, and he nearly lost to R. Kendrick in his debut! When the final began, he was absolutely dazzled by the foreboding sense of history that Centre Court, Wimbledon (with Federer in it) can impose on any player. Before he even knew it, the star-struck rookie was down 6-0. That day, Federer was clearly the better player, but a 4-set victory with two tie-breaks is not usually considered a cakewalk. In 2007, Nadal's game began to show the improvements that would eventually make him an all-court threat. He reached the final with much more authority than the previous year, and gave Federer (who was still at his peak) all he could handle. That was an electrifying match, and surely one of Federer's most treasured and hard-fought grass-court victories. 2-0 for Federer, but Nadal had already laid the sledgehammer on Roger's door; Roger was still able to push him out. In 2008, Nadal took just one more step forward, and Federer seemed a half-step off with his body. I actually believe that it was the great champion's wounded pride and sheer competitive stubborn-ess that allowed him to pull back from a 2-0 deficit, but it seemed written in the stars: Nadal was going to win it.

So we have three matches, one competitive, and two hotly-contested until the end. In the first two, one player was at the peak of his game, and appeared absolutely untouchable: Federer lost ONE set on the way to the final in 2007, and it took lights-out tennis from a former world number one to even scratch him along the way (and it was just that, a scratch). His opponent, on the hand, had "WIP" written all over him. Each time Nadal reached the final, he was qualitatively better than the last time. It showed in the scores: he required more and more from Federer to beat him, until Fed no longer could.

Personally, I think that over a larger sample size, Federer would solidify his grass-court lead over Nadal. But that's just a hunch, based on playing styles. Nadal's a false lefty and will never serve like Federer, period. Federer has the most gifted economy of strokes and sprints in the ATP; he's a more durable machine than Nadal, period. But if the world were left to hunches, what's the point of going out there and trying, right? As it stands, Federer has had two rivals on grass: Nadal and Sampras. I'm sure Sampras wonders what it would've been like to play Roger 5 times, with Pete 5 years younger. He wonders this for the same reason that we can't certifiably predict the H2H on more grass matches between Roger and Rafa: it's just too close a call.

Forgive typos.

Posted by Corrie 04/22/2010 at 12:59 AM

"Well put, Break Back", +1.

The media seems to totally ignore the Masters and WTF unless a player of their country does well, at least that's what I've noticed. For whatever reason, if that means the market has spoken, then it means it gives all the weight to the Slams. It is a bit of a puzzle, though, because the WTF in particular, really should be the toughest test, against the very best players. And just to fan the flames, Nadal has never even reached the final of one.

Posted by freddy 04/22/2010 at 01:01 AM

Joined the party late I see! Thanks Steve for putting this up as a separate post. My thoughts below:

1. Re Masters vs. Slams - I would like to frame this question without the polarizing Fedal lens. It is natural that Rafa fans will want to question why Masters wins don't get greater weightage, and equally natural why Fed fans will react the way they do. The problem with all GOAT discussions is that the values by which a future generation looks at performances in the past, are unknown to the players themselves when they are playing. If in future, it were to be agreed by consensus that Masters are equally important, that is bound to hurt Federer who blissfully sets his sights on values that exist at the time he is playing - which are that Slams are what count. In similar vein, surely Borg would have travelled to Australia more often, and Connors would have found it necessary to play the French.

2. Some posters have questioned the value of judging by Slams performance even within the Open Era, given that it is not assured that every Slam would have the best field (esp. with ref to the AO). I think it is safe to assume that from around the mid eighties onwards, when the AO switched to a Jan calendar, changed surfaces and shifted to the Melbourne Park facility, all Slams can be assumed to have every able bodied player competing. Naturally when comparing pre-and post this period Slam counts within the Open Era one has to be careful - ex. the value of Wilander and Edberg's AO wins with a depleted field (I believe even the draw was not 128). However, the Slams still remain the only largely consistent yardstick - there are simply too many format and relative prestige /importance issues with the Masters level tournaments to use Masters counts as a basis.

3. Apart from the factors pointed out by posters on Masters vs. Slams in terms of difficulty levels, I will once again like to point out the to difficulty of sustaining a certain performance level over a 2 week period, which the Slams require you to do. It's not just about the rest period, its also about turning it on consistently over the elapsed time - we have seen in many Slams, people going on a hot streak only to have a bad day in the SFs. That streak would have won them a Masters, but not a Slam.

4. Re the composition of Masters playing surfaces, I think we would all like to see a couple of grass court Masters. The grass court season is just way too short. I don't see any taint on Rafa's Masters because of the surface, and I say this as a longtime Federer KAD. However, when you point out that there are 6 Hard Court Masters vs 3 Clay, you run the risk of lumping all HC Masters into one basket. The 6 HC Masters are spread out over the year, on different types of Hard Courts (fast and slow) and 2 of them are in the indoor season, when everyone is winding down for the year, so there is definitely a motivation issue involved. The Clay Masters are together, leading up to the big prize of RG - so while the close scheduling does prove a physical problem (which all the players incl. Rafa have compained about for years), a player like Rafa on a hot run building up towards the FO can sweep them all (and he's come close a few times). For a player to do the equivalent in the 6 HC Masters will be near impossible - he'll have to turn it on throughout the year, and no-one not even Federer in his 2004-06 period came close.

Posted by freddy 04/22/2010 at 01:39 AM

Steve, Lendl vs McEnroe in terms of career performance (and you have rightly pointed out that this is the only way to judge that would be objective) is not ahead 'by a hair' but by a fair bit.

I've covered this in depth in a series here -
(This is the first part on the Open Era- those who want to see the entire series can follow the links on the panel to the left)

In summary, here's how the reasoning goes:

1. Firstly, the period of assessment has to be the entire playing career of the player, not sub-parts like a great year, great 3 year period and so on. Any such sub-period would be arbitrary, and can quickly be stretched to absurdity. For very select players, you may have to have special treatment - eg. Maureen Connolly who everyone would regard as a strong GOAT contender amongst the women, Monical Seles for obv, reasons, and perhaps even Borg (though this is obviously much more contentious). Otherwise, if a player has played out a full career with no extenuating circumstances, his entire career performance has to be looked at.

2. The primary yardstick is performance in the Slams in his playing career. For reasons pointed out in my earlier posts, # of Masters levels wins, performance in other tour tournaments and so on are difficult to compare across time even within the Open Era. Stats like Weeks #1, Year Ending #1 and so on are in a sense derivative - given the weightage to Slams in the ATP rankings, they derive from performance in the Slams to a significant extent, and so don't need to be considered separately. Doubles performance is not considered, because there is no way of equating doubles titles with singles titles. Some of these non-Slam achievements such as doubles, Davis Cup wins etc. could be used as a tie-breaker, if two players are neck and neck on the Singles Career Slam performance.

3. Performance in Slams cannot be reduced to # of Slams won. Anna posted in the earlier thread that Kim Clisters and Mary Pierce both have 2 Slams, yet their careers cannot be considered equal. Ditto for Andy Roddick vs. Thomas Johannson. The way to deal with this is to look at all results in Slams played, which means due weightage must be given to Finals appearances, SF, QF and so on. I have used the earlier ATP ranking points - 1000 for a Win, 700 for F, 450 for SF and so on to weight the performance results. After all, this is exactly the way the ATP measures how its players rank in a year, so the same method can be used across time,

4. What you will get at the end of this is 2 numbers that I consider important. First the aggregate points in Slams over the career. Second the average points per Slam played. You could get a high aggregate points number by having a very high average performance over a short # of Slams played (like Borg), or by a lower average performance over a large # of Slams played (like Agassi), or an in between combination (like Sampras). Its like the shape of diff mountains - a high, narrow peak or a broader, lower peak - both having the same amount of mass. Of course, if you get a player with a high peak which is broader, you get a more massive performance, no questions.

5. Results in summary below (updated incl AO 2010)

Connors 23335 Aggregate Points; 58 Slams Played; Avg Points per Slam = 402
Federer 23280 Aggregate Points; 43 Slams Played; Avg Points per Slam = 541
Lendl 22885 APs; 57 Slams Played; Avg Points per Slam = 401
Sampras 22030 APs; 52 SP; Avg PPS = 424
Agassi 21765 APs; 61 SP; Avg PPS = 357
Edberg 16675 APS; 54 SP; Avg PPS = 309
Borg 16585 APs; 27 SP; Avg PPS = 614
McEnroe 16520 APs; SP = 45; Avg PPS = 367
Becker 15425 APs; SP = 46; Avg PPS = 335
Wilander 14200 APs; SP = 44; Avg PPS = 323
Nadal 10280 APs; SP = 23; Avg PPS = 447

The Avg PPS can be interpreted as the average performance of a player in any Slam he played in his career. Since SF = 450, an Avg PPS of around 400 would mean that player would have nearly reached the SF in any Slam. Borg would have nearly entered the Finals in every Slam he played on an average!!

Two players stand out from this - Borg with his incredible Avg PPS and Federer with a very high PPS and APs.
Sampras, Connors, Lendl and Agassi are close in the APs - one could give the nod to Sampras because of his win %, then Connors and Lendl together (virtually nothing to choose b/w them), then Agassi.

As you can see from this, McEnroe is quite a distance back - he's closer to Becker and Edberg, than to Lendl and Connors.

The link above contains a much more detailed treatment, for those interested.

Posted by zolarafa 04/22/2010 at 01:44 AM

Valid point about the spacing of clay courts and HC. But it just depends on how you look at it. IW and Miami each take about two weeks and are a week apart and there are only a few players ( including Federer) who have won them back to back. Same with the master series leading to US Open. Players have a month to rest after Wimbledon and have the best motivation to win those MS leading to the US Open. But it is not easy. So having 3 clay master series in 6 weeks is more of a disadvantage than an advantage and Rafa has never won the three of them in a row. It is just too much on the body.

About the WTF, I can argue the other way, that if it was not on hard courts, perhaps it was easier for Rafa to win it. So the discussion always goes back to what we want to prove out of it. Unfortunately most of the discussion on this board is biased one way or the other.

no doubt a couple of MS events on grass are overdue. But it requires a complete overhaul of the ATP schedule and I do not think it will happen in my life time.

Posted by freddy 04/22/2010 at 01:59 AM

zolarafa -

Agree with you, and I said as much earlier - having the 3 Clay Masters together is both good and bad. In a sense, the IW-Miami, and the Canda - Cinci can be looked at similarly. Maybe the Indoors Masters should not be lumped together as HC Masters - its no surprise that the indoor season tends to throw up the most surprises - with the withdrawals and whatnots.

Re biases, I think there are a lot of posters here who can move a discussion along in a balanced way, while at the same time admitting their personal preferences. I see a lot of respect for Fed among Rafa fans, and vice-versa. Sure, there are posters who will present viewpoints that are coloured one way or another, but as long as you have enough of them from both sides, all viewpoints will tend to get presented. Unlike say on the RF site!!

Posted by zolarafa 04/22/2010 at 02:16 AM

Certainly there is lots of respect among Fed/Rafa fands ( not all!) towards both players. But I don't see why some people want to undermine Rafa's MS record? by posing all these questions about surfaces? My point was that similar questions can be posed towards Fed and this discussion can go forever.

I personally do not see any point in comparing Rafa and Fed before they both finish their career. Rafa's accomplishments do not diminish Fed's and vice versa. In fact I think it shows how strong they both are.

Posted by Ubertennisfan 04/22/2010 at 02:47 AM

Masters can be boiled down like this I think:
- 3 masters on clay and 6 hard, currently, plus YEC on hard
- "Fair" between the 3 surfaces could be 3 of each; or it could be 1 grass, 3-4 clay, 4-5 hard based on the current total distribution of tournaments
- So the change from current to "fair" either moves 3 hard to grass; or it doesn't change much at all
- Moving 3 hard to grass may advantage Fed (over Rafa) slightly, if you argue he is more dominant on grass than he is on hard. But it's only a tiny change in my view
- Moving 1 to grass will have MINIMAL change in the Fed/Rafa dynamic
- Rafa/Fed comparison and rivalry is FAR more impacted by Rafa's fitness than anything else, including the distribution of Masters' surfaces... so probably not worth HUGE amounts of debating
- Other than Rafa/Fed distribution of masters' titles, there isn't really any point discussing how the other guys would be affected, since you're moving even more into the world of mini benefits. Who really cares if Murray gets one or two more or less Masters if we have some grass Masters huh? We wanna know if he can win a Slam!
- Masters are fun to watch in the absence of a Slam but I know what I would be watching if they both occurred simultaneously!! And I know which one the top players would choose to play in!! Yes I'm clearly putting the Masters on a much lower standing
- However, I'd like to see the Masters gain in standing. 3 of 5 set finals appeals to me as the finals take on the dimensions of Slam finals, the "real proof" of who can last and play well over best of 5. Another best-of-3 just slips by without much notice, unless you have something like Madrid's last year.
- I do think the level of focus and effort would be lower at Masters than at Slams for just about all players, from the guy who desperately wants that 1st round paycheck to Fed/Nadal. Having to miss Wimby last year would have really disappointed Nadal. Missing Monte Carlo, much less so. This is not to say that Fed would ever play to lose in a Masters. But even he probably is affected subconsciously - a ball looks out of reach - will he run EXTRA hard (injury-risking hard) to get it? At a Masters, it's almost "who cares"? At Wimby, he's making history for all time. And you know. Some people say Fed would lose steam/hunger once he passed Samp. I don't think so. If you have 3 slams and are going for the 4th, you try very hard. Between 3 and 14 is a curve of increasing effort as you realise how close to ultimate greatness your record can be... If you have 13 and want to tie Samp, you try super hard. If you have 14 and try to beat Samp, you also try super hard. If you have 16 and are pushing towards a historical mark that may stand for ALL TIME, i still think you try super hard. Perhaps fractionally less than at 13 and 14, but more than at 3.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 04/22/2010 at 02:50 AM

"Why the sudden urge to reassess the value of Masters Series tournaments? I know, dumb question."

"It is very interesting to me that the value of the MS1000 are being elevated now that Nadal has the chance to break Agassi's record ( before Federer) ....I am not surprised, but amused, luckily for me as a Fed fan I have sweet 16 to console me now that Rafa will finally eclipse Federer as the GOAT."

Because Steve is part of the secret Rafa fan conspiracy that lives only to disparage Roger's records in order to place Rafa on the GOAT throne? That must be it!

Or perhaps, with two players on 16 MS shields and closing in on Agassi's record, and with people making interesting comments on the previous blog post that sparked off more thoughts, and no huge tournament going on, and in a part of a season which is MS-heavy, it's a good time to discuss the different challenges and feelings of the slams and the MS tournaments? I mean it's interesting in itself without reference to Fedal, no?

Something like that could work. :)

Alexis - I'm not sure where people said that 17 MS shields are equal to 14 majors, but having read through quite a few of the GOAT debates on TW, I am sure that there is some consensus that number of majors is not the only thing that can/should be taken into account.

Very much enjoyed reading the post & through the comments on this one. :)

Posted by TennisFan 04/22/2010 at 03:14 AM

The shorter the format, more the likelihood of the underdog winning. The longer the format fundamentally better player/team is more likely to win. This is why top ranked players may get upset at masters more often than in slams.

This is true of any sport. In basketball with best of seven games finals, one day's good fortune doesn't get a team a championship. In football it does - can you imagine Saints beating Colts consistently in best of 7 or Giants beating Pats in best of 7 a couple of years back? On a particular day the "fundamentally" better team may get outplayed - that can't happen on consistent basis.

In cricket weaker teams produce wonders in shorter version of the game way more often than in test matches which require sustained excellence.

Thus slams are about sustained excellence as opposed to streaky play.

Contrary to what Steve says, in addition to Tommy Hass, I think Fed had to use 5 sets against Berdych in AO'09, Andreev in USO'08, Delpo in French'09. Last one is the one Fed eventually one, and was probably the most important win of his career. In fact Delpo complained after the match that had it been best-of-3 he would have won.

Moreover psychologically it makes Fed (or, in general, a dominant player) relax knowing that there is a long haul. I am not sure Fed would have beaten Davydenko in AO'10 if it was a 3-set match, Davydenko was running away with the match, but couldn't sustain the high level.

Posted by Ubertennisfan 04/22/2010 at 03:21 AM

It may be that a bad 3/5 is worse than a good 2/3. I certainly think there's no point watching the 3rd set sometimes after someone got creamed 6-0, 6-1 in the 1st two sets of a GS. But 3/5 offers the potential for truly great matches which you cannot get in 2/3. About which are "the greatest" matches, there is only opinion, but you have to factor in "expert opinion" more heavily than "typical fan" which is heavier than "non-tennis fan". Overall, every piece of opinion I've seen points to most of the "best of all time" matches having occurred both at a GS and over best of 5.

To take another angle of thought, imagine how downgraded the Aus Open would be if it one day decided all the matches would be best of 3?

Or if Miami decided it would have "1st to 9 games", one set, instead of best of 3?

Each change offers less interest and less potential for a great spectacle. The one change where "less court time equals more spectacle" was the move to tiebreakers from advantage sets - that I fully support, EXCEPT tiebreaks in the final set - I still want advantage sets in the 5th. Roddick/Fed was legendary.

Sure, I can imagine a match that is best of 3, and is won 7-6 (112-110), 7-6 (235-233) by Fed over Nadal on clay - that would probably be one of the best of all time. But realistically, that isn't ever gonna happen.

Posted by Ubertennisfan 04/22/2010 at 03:45 AM

I havent checked the points system lately but if the slams are only 2000 while masters are 1000, then i think the slams are actually UNDERWEIGHTED given the primacy that tennis players and fans put on them, that is reflected partly in the prize money and certainly in the tv rights value and viewership numbers.

A while ago the ATP was accused of underweighting the slams and overweighting its own tournaments which didn't match what people thought about the relative values. During this period, I think the slams were still higher points than the Masters. But what this points out is that people would consider slams underweighted if they weren't SIGNIFICANTLY more points than masters.

In my mind the slams are worth about 4 masters. So if I was Fed, I would perhaps be willing to give up 16 Masters for 4 additional Slams. Actually I think he'd give up 50 Masters for 4 additional slams :)

Would he go the other way and give up 4 of his 16 Slams for 16 additional Masters for a grand total of 32??? NO WAY!

Would I as a fan choose to see Wimbledon once in my life, or see 4 Masters, if those were the only tourneys I could ever go to in my life? I'd perhaps take 10-15 Masters experiences to 1 Wimby. Or probably I'd still choose the Wimby. I have never been to FO, Wimby or USO, sadly.

My points system would give Slams about 4-5000 points. The current points systems tells you once again that the ATP is trying its damndest to have the Masters at least be some kind of viable second tier. Don't forget, it's in the ATP's interest to compete with the slams as they are ITF events, not ATP. They'd love it (and so would I, just because there'd be extra great tennis) if the YEC would reach recognition as equal to the slams. It never will, unless they rework the format. I've put forward a proposal before on this blog...

I can't recall the previous proposal's details, but if you had, say, $5m for the Champ, and a draw of 128, all best of 5, in a historic location (London, New York, Paris), potentially featuring multiple surfaces (higher ranked player gets to pick), you get a real extravaganza of a tournament.

Posted by Ubertennisfan 04/22/2010 at 04:30 AM

Freddy - i like your framework. Pretty robust. You could argue that Masters points could be added in as well, ignoring the others, but I'll accept that most players and fans define a player's record by how many Slams they won, followed somewhat by how they did at the Slams.

However, I think a win at a slam is worth twice that of a Final. I'd adjust the point rankings, which are ATP's necessarily artificial framework, and use something that's more reflective of how the players and fans value the achievement.

You can't convince me that 3 x 700 (3 Finals at Slams) is better than 2 Wimby Championships = 2x 1000.

Thus, "consistently very good performance" e.g. getting to Slams Finals several times, like Roddick, is not as good as "occasional great performance" e.g. if Roddick had won 4 of his finals and done nothing else for his whole career, in the long run that looks better than 1 GS and many other lesser performances.

I think the Winner gets double the loser's cheque. At the very least, the points you use should be double for the Win. I'd lean to more than double, myself.

2 semi finals is almost the same value as 1 win!!! I know which one I'd pick.

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