So just who is the better player, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer? Well, I think the answer is crystal clear. Right now it’s Nadal. After winning the Australian Open the Spaniard has amassed Slams on hardcourt, grass and on clay to go along with two Davis Cup titles and an Olympic Gold. And he’s done it all by the age of 23. Wow.
Would you rather have Federer’s resume or Rafa’s with the possibility the Spaniard’s best may still be yet to come? It’s debatable now.
Before looking ahead, I do want to look back one more time at that stunning final Sunday morning. After a few days to digest I am still amazed at the outcome. Sure, I picked Federer to win the title and to beat Nadal. Yet given their history, Rafa claiming victory wasn’t a major surprise or upset (taken head-to-head one could argue it should have been expected). For me the surprise was how Rafa did it and how Fed didn’t do it.
As many of you know I am a Fed supporter, however after seeing him go down the way he did to Rafa I’m left with a lot of doubt as to whether he’ll ever return to the No. 1 ranking. My guess is no. That loss had to be absolutely shattering on so many levels. And to think it follows a similar gut-ripper in their Wimbledon meeting has to make it all the more painful for Federer and that much more sweeter for Nadal.
You can argue that at least Fed didn’t get blown out like he did at the French Open. He was close and well within reach of Rafa during much of the match, but in the end it comes down to scoreboard. And regardless of the scoreline or how it got there, that scoreboard was once again in Rafa’s favor. That simple.
When it counts the very most, Nadal clearly has been the better player having now won four of the last five meetings against Federer in Slam finals. The only loss of course was the five-setter at ’07 Wimbledon which Rafa could have also won and made it a clean sweep the last couple years.
What was so starting about this Australian final was just how badly Fed fell apart in that fifth set. Throughout the match Fed was struggling with his serve, but I thought his ground game was holding up better than I expected and his backhand was firm against Rafa’s onslaught. However, once he got into the fifth everything in his game virtually disintegrated. It was like watching someone play their very first five-set match on a major stage. Mentally he caved in. Like he went James Blake. It seemed all at once the moment, the opponent and the stage were too great for Federer, and that’s something we haven’t seen that from him in eons.
And the way he checked out in that fifth simply doesn’t bode well going forward for Federer, especially when he next faces Nadal. How can that confidence be there the next time he’s in the fifth against Nadal?
Nadal, though, is simply astounding. I really didn’t think he played at his highest level during that match, but when he needed to raise his game on the big points he really stepped up. There is no one mentally tougher than him right now in tennis. Saving all six break points late in that third set was high and mighty.
And even though Fed grabbed the fourth set and the momentum, Rafa didn’t blink whatsoever, simply refusing to lose in the end. Fed use to be that guy with the mental edge, now it’s Rafa. Full credit again to Spaniard. What I wonder is just what the other players were thinking watching back home. I’m referring to Murray, Djokovic, Roddick and the rest of the chasers who will likely have to beat this guy to win a Slam. They had to be shaking there heads in disbelief and maybe even in horror. Nadal doesn’t crack.
Regarding Rafa’s fitness, on the other threads there’s been lots of chatter about steroids. Well, from what I’ve read tennis does some serious, exhaustive drug testing so until I’m told otherwise Rafa’s clean. That simple. Might he be using some new-age, undetectable wonder drug? It can’t be ruled out. But he’s being tested and nothing has turned up. So until something does it’s disappointing that people would make such remarks and accusations. This isn’t baseball back in the day when they didn’t test. In tennis, they test.
Many players have won grinding, back-to-back, if not back-to-back-to-back five setters. So what? Is it no longer possible to play consecutive five-set matches with a day off in between anymore? Please. Unless there’s some hardcore evidence – like he’s growing a third arm – I really don’t want to hear about steroids and Rafa.
As for the GOAT talk. Well, this does change things.
There’s of course the possibility of a calendar Slam this year for Rafa, but I don’t see that happening. Far more plausible is the career Slam.
Rafa’s got about five good years to win the US Open which would give him all four Majors. As I said before I think he’ll get it, maybe not this year but at some point. After a draining summer last season he still came within six sets of the title. With fewer obligations leading up to the Open in the next few years he should enter the tournament far fresher and more motivated – what else is there for him to do? If it isn’t already, the US Open will become Rafa’s No. 1 goal and if you give this guy enough time and he stays healthy I think he can do just about anything.
Now he might not reach Pete Sampras’s 14 Slams or whatever number Federer ends up at. But if Nadal does get the US Open and he keeps beating Federer in Slam finals it’s awfully hard to put to the Swiss above Rafa regardless of final Slam count. Plus, five of Rafa’s six Slam titles have already come at Roger’s expense. That poor record is not the mark of the greatest and I’m sure Roger would agree. You can’t be the greatest when you are second fiddle in your own peer group.
Sure, Sampras took some hits from Andre Agassi, but Pete had the 20-14 advantage plus in Grand Slam matches he’s ahead 5-3. Rafa leads Roger now 13-6, 6-2 in Grand Slams. If Roger wants to cement his status as the greatest he’ll need a few convincing wins over Rafa at the Majors, and right now that prospect doesn’t look promising. So as I said previously, while many of us have been looking at Federer becoming the GOAT, perhaps Rafa will ultimately sneak in and lay claim to that title. Doesn’t sound as crazy as it did before, does it?
That said, Rafa will have to stay injury free because it’s hard to imagine him playing into his 30s. So his peak playing window will be much smaller than a Federer, Sampras, etc.
I do, however, think Federer will eclipse Sampras, maybe even this year. I still pick him to win Wimbledon and then the US Open is always a chance, that is as long as he can avoid a healthy Nadal.
I will also be interested to see just how motivated Federer will be now to play in the smaller events like Indian Well, Dubai, Miami, etc when those tournaments outside of hard cash will really add little value to his legacy.
And as many speculate, perhaps Roger will make some changes. Maybe he gets a coach who can help get him mentally ready for the next time he plays Nadal. Maybe he focuses everything on getting that French Open title, or he starts paying more attention to Davis Cup. Hell, maybe he just takes a few months off, marries Mirka and returns a new man. Or maybe he just plays through the pain.
It’s really anyone’s guess, and I right now I doubt even Roger knows just how he’ll respond. What I do know is that this most recent result sure makes this tennis season that much more intriguing. And if nothing else, that’s a good thing.
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