In sports, a measure of greatness is seeing just how a champion responds after getting hit. Well, Roger Federer got hit by Rafael Nadal in the French Open final, then five weeks later Nadal knocked him down in the Wimbledon final. You can make case that Nadal delivered the knockout blow to Federer in France, but I have to think that Roger felt a hell of a lot worse the Monday after Wimbledon than he did the Monday after Paris.
In Paris, the way Nadal was rolling entering the final, Roger had to have known his chances of actually beating Rafa were a long shot. But Wimbledon was a different story. That was Federer’s house, his turf, his property and he was arguably playing better ball than Nadal going into that final. And I think Federer was even OK with the tradeoff: Rafa you get your French and I get my Wimbledon just as it’s been. Deal? Well, not anymore.
Rafa’s Wimbledon win may very well signal a true changing of the guard in tennis. Time will tell. But time right now isn’t on the side of Federer. The Swiss who turns 27 in just a few weeks now faces what I think is his greatest challenge yet as a pro. For the first time really in his career he’s the one looking up, he’s the one that is giving chase in the current day.
The field isn’t catching up to Federer, it’s caught up and in Nadal’s case, it’s passed him. And within this competitive environment Federer still needs two Slam titles to tie Pete Sampras, three to pass. He needs three more year-end No. 1 finishes and he’s more 50 than weeks shy of the total weeks at No. 1. And there’s the French Open.
Clearly, Fed’s still got some work to do in the record books if that’s still part of his priorities.
Physically, after his early season woes Federer appeared fine and fit in Paris and Wimbledon. But after that Nadal blow two Sundays ago I’m not even sure Roger really knows where he stands mentally now.
How does he muster up the reserves when it looks increasingly bleak that yes, his best days are behind him while for Rafa, Novak and others their best is likely yet to come? And just how motivated can he be to keep practicing, putting in the hours, punching clock to get up for non-Majors like Toronto and Cincinnati?
For many of us lucky enough to either enjoy decent TV coverage or good tickets to these summer events, we’ll have a front row seat over the next 45 days or so to see just what Federer’s response is. I’m very eager to watch because right now I really have no sense of what’s to come from the Swiss.
As for Nadal, if you watched ESPN during Wimbledon you no doubt heard Brad Gilbert throw Rafa’s name right into the GOAT discussion, forecasting the Spaniard will end his career with 15-18 Slams if I him heard correctly.
18 Slams for Rafa? Wow. Gilbert may be ahead of himself a bit there, but I get where he’s coming from. As I said following the French Open, while many of us are looking at Roger as perhaps the greatest, maybe all along it’s been Rafa who will ultimately take that title. I don’t think it’s really that far-fetched a scenario given what’s Rafa’s already accomplished having just turned 22. (Ask yourself this, who’s more likely to win the career Slam right now, Rafa or Roger? In my mind clearly Rafa has a better chance.)
What I like about Rafa right now is that he’s learning and getting better. He’s on an upslope. He enjoyed his best start to the year in Australia and then followed with a very strong U.S. spring campaign. He had what I think was his best clay season. Then he had his best grass season. And now I think he rides that uptrend right through this North American summer circuit.
Nadal might not accumulate titles and run roughshod on the cement like he did on the clay and grass the last few months, but I still think he puts up his best numbers he ever has this time of year.
Mentally, Nadal’s simply in a class by himself, and now he’s focusing on other aspects of his game. As we saw at Wimbledon, Nadal’s really improved his court positioning and his serve, especially his second serve. And I think on hardcourts his second serve is his greatest vulnerability. With that weakness now strengthened – or perhaps better said, less weaker – it’s only going to help him and make him that much tougher. And if he can stay within the court and keep healthy I see no reason why he cannot continue to do well, finally claim No. 1 and reach at least the US Open Final Four.
True, on hardcourts many, many more players can step up and take it to Rafa. But the way Rafa’s been playing of late it’s tough to see him as the underdog really in any match for at least these next few weeks.
Roger is the overall tournament favorite in Toronto, but head-to-head should he and Rafa meet in the final Rafa may very well become the betting favorite.
As for the rest of the guys…
Novak Djokovic remains a real mystery to me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s got a lot of game. A lot. But something’s still isn’t right between the ears. After losing to Marat Safin at Wimbledon Novak talked about being “tired mentally”. How the hell can you be tired mentally in June? For a guy who tapped out at the end of year last season, such talk doesn’t exactly instill a lot belief that he’s going overtake a couple of greats like Federer and Nadal anytime soon.
On the positive side for Novak, before Rafa took over tennis back in April, remember it was Djokovic’s circuit the first three months. The Serb won the Australian and won Indian Wells. By all accounts he was the best player.
However, after all that work and after putting up some good results on the clay circuit, he’s still stuck at No. 3 and in some ways even a more distant No. 3 than he was at the start of the year after the recent resumption of the Roger-Rafa show.
Novak now faces perhaps his toughest test of his young career. He needs to get back into the Roger-Rafa spoiler conversation and he’s now under the gun to defend a substantial amount of ranking points from last summer. Also, might Ana Ivanovic’s Roland Garros triumph and her subsequent ascension to No. 1 added even more pressure on Novak? I’m guessing it doesn’t help.
I thought at the start of the year that Andy Roddick could steal a Wimbledon or a US Open title this season. I still do, though Roddick pretty much crapped out at Wimbledon, but I’ll still give him a look at the US Open. I think if Andy can keep his back in check, keep his SI model in tow, put up some nice results this summer and harness the form we saw from in Dubai and Miami, he can be a big factor at Flushing. Plus, with just about every top guy heading to China, Roddick, who’s skipping the Olympics, may very well be the freshest of the big favorites entering the US Open. And being fresh come US Open time might turn out to be a huge edge for those that are.
Beijing, though, really is the X-factor, the unknown quantity, this summer. How players who go deep at the Olympics react/perform at US Open is anyone’s guess right now. I have a hard time seeing any player winning both Beijing and the US Open given the tight the tight schedule, the distance and the physical demands.
Starting Monday the hardcourt summer swing grinds five tough weeks before we hit the US Open and asking the top players to play their best tennis and put up big results in three of them – Toronto, Cincinnati and Beijing – and then ultimately peak at the US Open is going to be a difficult if not an impossible task.
That’s why I think we may very well revert back to the utter unpredictability that we saw at the start of the year. With guys coming from nowhere like Nikolay Davydenko in Miami, Roddick in Dubai, Mardy Fish at Indian Wells and of course JW Tsonga in Australia.
The Roger-Rafa show is one of the best we’ve ever had in tennis, and I think we hit a near-term, season climax with their epic at Wimbledon. So I think now feels about right for a little break from their rivalry, allowing perhaps a return to the chaos we had earlier. And if it doesn’t happen, and we get even more Roger v. Rafa, who’s going to argue with that?
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