As a tennis fan, I feel privileged to witness what Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been doing for since 2003 and 2005 respectively. I initially preferred Federer to Nadal in large part because I hit a one handed backhand. I remember in 1989 thinking how awesome Boris Becker’s run was. In 1990 I saw Sampras and thought, “He has Becker’s game and Stefan Edberg’s physique (i.e. is naturally quicker than Becker).”
Federer struck me as another guy that could be marveled at in that general line of players. Nadal’s wolverine demeanor on court has won me over. He plays as hard or harder than any player I have watched. Being a lefty and his fighting spirit might make one think of Jimmy Connors, but Nadal’s desire to win does not extend to the vulgar. I loved Jimbo, but Nadal strikes me as a nice shy kid when he is off of the court and a gladiator on the court. The history each player is making will be fully evaluated once the dust settles, but as history is being written it is nice to appreciate these two players. If Federer has to relinquish #1 to Nadal, it is obvious that the ranking will be in good hands. Each player plays the game and exhibits his personality on court in different ways, but neither player dismisses the other’s style. That gives junior players a great set of idols to emulate. As I get older, that fact makes me appreciate these two players even more.
Nadal Near #1
Rafael Nadal may not hit 3 consecutive years at #2 in the world. That much was clear entering Hamburg with Novak Djokovic making a hard charge for #2 after winning in Rome. Now, Nadal has turned Novak back 3 consecutive times. He is playing the best tennis in the world right now. Victories over Ivo Karlovic, Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic on grass prove Nadal is playing great tennis everywhere. I still think Nadal’s draw is a key to his grass court chances as a player such as Karlovic, James Blake or Mikhail Youzhny could derail him at Wimbledon. If a player can return well and open the court, Nadal is susceptible to an upset. Also, unlike the past 2 years Nadal enters Wimbledon as an almost co-favorite based on the strength of last year’s final, his demolition of Roger Federer in Paris and his win at Queen’s Club. That is a new pressure to Nadal off of the dirt. I think he will handle that pressure well as his mental toughness is amazing.
Dominating Their Past 6 Tournaments
Nadal and Federer have shown themselves to still be the top 2 after questionable hard court seasons to start the year. Nadal posted good results in the early hard court season as far as reaching deep rounds, but the one sided losses he absorbed versus Tsonga, Roddick, Djokovic and Davydenko raised some questions. Federer’s losses Down Under, in Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami also left some wondering where Roger’s best form was hiding. In Nadal’s past 6 events he has won the French Open, won two clay court Masters Series events, a minor clay court event and a grass court event. His hiccup in Rome was the only injury induced stain on the record. In Federer’s past 6 events, he has won a minor clay court event, a grass court event, been runner-up at the French Open, runner-up at two clay court Masters Series events and had his worst showing with a tight quarterfinal loss in Rome. Nadal has been the standard bearer since Miami ended, and Roger has been the second most successful player. This battle that first started to bloom in 2005 is not going away. I do think Djokovic has something to say about this power struggle, but he is going to need to find an even deeper gear to match these two players over an 11 month season.
Nadal and Paris – Success in Dimensions
The dimensions of Court Central at Roland Garros favor Nadal’s continued dominance in Paris. As a 4 time defending champion he is unlikely to be placed on a side court. Court Central has incredible breadth and depth. Nadal can stay deep and run down any attempt to drive the ball through the court as well as run forward to blunt attempts to open up the court with angles. Nadal loves to run, and Court Central is a place where Nadal never runs out of court. Federer spent the clay court season working on hitting angles in order to hurt Nadal. At Monte Carlo and Hamburg, this strategy looked promising. In Paris, it had no chance of working. Maybe someone with insane hand eye coordination can try to half-volley ground strokes like Agassi. Maybe a physical specimen can hit the ball safely down the middle and try to wear Nadal down, but neither of these strategies is remotely plausible until injuries and age take something out of Nadal.
Federer’s Sweet 16
In January Roger Federer’s remarkable all-time streak of reaching 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals came to an end. Reaching the equivalent of 2 ½ years of Grand Slam finals is an insane number. Federer continued a second streak by reaching his 16th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal on Wednesday June 4. Such a streak amounts to reaching the Final Four at 4 years of Grand Slam events. Putting those numbers into perspective in the world of sport is difficult.
Reaching the Final Four in the 64/65 team NCAA basketball tournament is difficult. Consider that 2008 NCAA champion Kansas nearly failed to reach the Final Four when facing a major underdog in Davidson. That elite 8 game came down to Davidson missing what would have been a game winning last shot. Reaching the Final Four in Grand Slam tennis is even harder as the draw is 128 and only seeds the top 32 players. Top seeded NCAA teams can generally pencil their way through the first round match up against one of the bottom 4 teams in the tournament. Therefore, reaching the Final Four normally means winning only 3 potentially competitive games versus what are ranked to be lesser teams. Tennis does not prevent #1 from facing #33 in the first round. Consider that Federer faced Richard Gasquet in the first round of Wimbledon 2006.
MLB, NBA and NHL playoffs all revolve around best of 5 or best of 7 series that benefit the favored team by preventing one Herculean performance from ending a season. The NFL does have single elimination, but to reach the AFC or NFC championship game a team has to at most win 2 single elimination games. The college bowl system requires one bowl win and some politicking to be #1.
What Federer has done is to be one of the top 4 finishers in the biggest events of tennis for 4 years despite facing a system that favors upsets more than any major team or individual sport. I think evaluating Federer’s career before it is over is somewhat foolish, but I can’t help but think this record, along with the 10 consecutive Grand Slam final mark Federer set, is more impressive than his other records.
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