Many people consider Roger Federer to be the greatest tennis player of all-time but the number one player in the world fell to a very pedestrian 7-8 in clay court finals after his nemesis Rafael Nadal beat him 7-5, 7-5 in the Monte Carlo Masters. Nadal is 19-1 in clay court finals and has captured this title four years in a row. Federer led 4-3 in the first set and 4-0 in the second set but he committed 44 unforced errors as Nadal won for the 98th time in his last 99 clay court matches.
Federer has held the number one ranking since February 2, 2004, the longest such reign in the sport's history, and he has won 12 Grand Slam titles, just two short of Pete Sampras' all-time record. It seemed like Federer was a lock to easily break Sampras' mark but there have been some signs of slippage this year: Federer's record run of 10 straight Grand Slam finals appearances ended when he lost to Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the semifinals of the Australian Open. Federer then lost in the first round of the Dubai Tennis Championships. He later admitted that he had been suffering from mononucleosis early in the year, so that may very well explain the chinks that seemingly started to show in Federer's armor but there is no denying two things: (1) Federer's two top rivals (Nadal and Djokovic) are younger than he is and are not intimidated by him at all because they have beaten him more than once; (2) Federer is not likely to master clay courts at this stage of his career. In other words, it does not look likely that he will add a French Open title to his resume and one wonders how many more Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open titles are in his future. That may seem like an odd thing to say about a player who has been so dominant and who will not turn 27 until August but, as I pointed out earlier this year, elite level tennis is generally a young man's game.
Confidence and hunger are hugely important elements in any form of competition. Federer's two rivals have certainly gained confidence based not only on their recent results but also because Federer no longer has an air of invincibility about him. Federer is a great champion, so his confidence has probably not been shaken much, if at all, by recent events but once one's rivals smell blood they will play harder longer; that genie is difficult, if not impossible, to put back in the bottle once it has been released. Nadal and Djokovic clearly hunger to win Grand Slams and attain the number one ranking in the world. Federer surely wants to maintain his spot on top of the heap as well as break Sampras' career Grand Slam record but it will be interesting to see if his hunger to keep his crown is as great as his rivals' hunger to take it.
Last year, Federer matched Bjorn Borg's record by winning his fifth straight Wimbledon title and Nadal broke some of Borg's clay court marks but neither player has demonstrated the incredible versatility that Borg showcased when he won both Wimbledon and the French Open for three straight years (1978-80); he won six French Opens overall in addition to his five Wimbledons. Borg retired at age 26 and he eschewed playing in the Australian Open because he thought that the tennis season was too long and grueling, so his 11 Grand Slam titles on two completely different surfaces are a remarkable accomplishment. "Greatest ever" is a subjective title in most fields but--as I mentioned in a couple earlier posts--until Federer wins at least one French Open title it is premature to elevate him past Borg.