Monday, June 9, 2008

Fantastic Four: Nadal Matches Borg's French Open Streak

With a resounding 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 victory over world #1 Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal won the French Open for the fourth straight time, matching the record streak set by Bjorn Borg from 1978-81. Nadal became the first man to win a Grand Slam without dropping a single set in the entire tournament since Federer swept through the 2007 Australian Open and the first man to win the French Open in this fashion since Borg, who is the only man to go through more than one Grand Slam unscathed--incredibly, Borg accomplished this feat three times (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 and 1980 French Opens).

For quite some time, people have been trying to anoint Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but despite his impressive accomplishments it makes no sense to confer that title on him when it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era: his main rival Nadal owns an 11-6 head to head record against him and has come much closer to beating him on the grass at Wimbledon than Federer has come to defeating him on the clay at the French Open. Considering that Nadal is almost five years younger than Federer it is entirely possible that he will eclipse what Federer has done; after all, five years ago Federer had just won his first Grand Slam, while Nadal already owns four Grand Slam titles, beating Federer along the way each time.

It is difficult to compare different eras in tennis but I still maintain that the most impressive feat of the Open Era is Borg's "triple-double"--winning the French Open and Wimbledon each year from 1978-80. No one else has pulled off such multi-surface mastery even once in the same year, let alone three years running. Not only that, but at one time Borg held the Open Era records for most Wimbledon titles (five) and most French Open titles (six); he still holds the French Open mark, while only Pete Sampras has exceeded his Wimbledon total (seven; Federer won his fifth last year). In light of Nadal's dominant performance against Federer in this year's French Open, it seems less likely than ever that Federer will eventually win that title. Although Federer has won 12 Grand Slam titles--one more than Borg, equal with Roy Emerson and behind only Sampras (14) on the all-time list--his total is padded by three Australian Opens; Borg only played in Australia once, forgoing that tournament during the rest of his career because he felt that there should be a break somewhere in the schedule. There is no doubt that Borg could have won that title a few times; for that matter, he had won four straight French Opens when he retired and he reached the Finals the last time that he played at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, so Borg could easily have finished with 14, 15 or even 16 Grand Slams had he played for a few more years.

Obviously, players can only be judged based on what they actually accomplished but that is a good reason to wait before anointing Federer: until this year many people simply assumed that he would shatter Sampras' career Grand Slam record but there is good reason to wonder about that now. Also, regardless of how many total Grand Slams Federer wins, if he never wins the French Open and finishes with a losing career record against Nadal then how can he be considered the greatest player of all-time? Borg had a 15-8 record against Jimmy Connors, a 7-7 record against John McEnroe and he was uniquely deadly on both grass and clay.

Frankly, a much better case can be made that Nadal is pushing Borg for the title of greatest clay court player ever than can be made for saying that Federer is the greatest player of all-time. Both Borg and Nadal won four French Open titles by age 22; Borg won two more and then retired, so it would seem that if Nadal stays healthy he has a chance to tie or even break Borg's record. Nadal's four year run of dominance at the French Open (2005-08) is very similar to Borg's 1978-81 performance: Borg went 84-5 in sets, 533-204 in games, had 24 love sets and 24 straight set wins, while Nadal went 83-7 in sets, 537-261 in games, had 21 love sets and 24 straight set wins.

Nadal pushed Federer to five sets in last year's Wimbledon Finals, so it would seem that he has a decent chance of winning that event this year and joining Borg as the only Open Era players to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. If Nadal accomplishes this then how could anyone say that Federer is a greater player than Nadal, let alone the greatest player of all-time?

Nadal's total dominance of Federer in yesterday's match was nothing short of amazing. After Nadal took a 2-1 first set lead Federer only won two more points in the rest of the set. In one stretch spanning the end of the first set and the early part of the second set, Nadal won 21 of 23 points and at that juncture of the match Federer had already committed 21 unforced errors. Federer finished with 35 unforced errors, while Nadal had only seven. Nadal had break points in 10 of Federer's 11 service games and he converted eight of them. Early in the match, McEnroe--now a commentator for NBC--said of Federer, "His body language is even more negative than in the past." You could tell just by looking at Federer that no matter how brave his words were before the match that once he got on the court with Nadal he realized that he had no chance to win. That is simply not how the greatest player of all-time looks, acts or plays. It is hard to think of a claimant to that title in any endeavor who looked as befuddled and outclassed as Federer did.

After the match, McEnroe interviewed Borg, who returned to Roland Garros for the first time since 1981, when he won the final match that he played there. McEnroe said that Borg and Nadal are the two greatest clay court players he has ever seen--earlier in the telecast he called Nadal the greatest clay court player ever--and he asked Borg how he would have played against Nadal. When Bill Russell was once asked a similar question about a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar he answered, "Young man, you have the question backwards." Borg replied that against Nadal it is important to be patient, to begin the match with the mindset that you are going to be out there for a long time and that you are going to make Nadal hit a lot of winners, as opposed to trying to end points early. It is fascinating that while many observers have recommended that Federer be more aggressive against Nadal on clay Borg advocates a completely different approach; of course, what Borg suggested is right in line with the style and mindset that helped him to be a great champion: Borg relied on patience, mental toughness and physical fitness to break the will of his opponents. Borg looked and acted unfazed if someone hit a great shot against him; his attitude was that his opponent would have to hit many, many such shots to beat him. It would be wonderful to see a match on clay between Borg in his prime and Nadal; don't automatically assume that Nadal would win such an encounter, because Borg was quite capable of executing the anti-Nadal game plan that he described.

McEnroe asked Borg who he thought would win Wimbledon this year and Borg said that Nadal has a great chance, which is what I wrote right after last year's Wimbledon Finals when I suggested that in 2008 Nadal might duplicate Borg's French/Wimbledon double. If Nadal pulls that off he has every right to be included in any discussion of the all-time greats but for now I still consider Borg to be the greatest tennis player of the Open Era because of his unique combination of mental toughness, physical fitness and multi-surface mastery.

9 comments:

eagleinyourmind said...

i agree that borg's triple-double is an extremely impressive feat, perhaps the most impressive men's tennis achievement of the open era. but i think you're being a bit unfair to federer, mainly because, as you admit, nadal seems on his way to being dubbed the greatest clay court player of the open era. since 2005, federer has lost only to nadal at his 'worst slam', the french open.

borg's game was more natural to clay, and though we obviously can't know how much trouble he would have had with nadal, we do know that he retired right after mcenroe defeated him at wimbledon. not to suggest that he didn't have to beat tough competition (mainly jimmy connors) in the five wimbledon victories he'd already stacked up, but he didn't have to deal with a natural grass-court genius, whose game was tailor-made for wimbledon the way federer has had to deal with nadal on clay. would borg have five wimbledon's if his prime happened to coincide with that of pete sampras or federer himself (or even mcenroe, becker, or edberg?).

as you said, though, in the end we have to judge on the accomplishments in the books rather than all of this speculation, which brings me to the main problem i have with your piece. questioning whether federer is the best of his era is absurd. his accomplishments far outweigh nadal's. fed may not have been able to complete the french open/wimbledon double, but nadal hasn't won a single slam outside of the french! also, your claim that rafa is the first player to win a slam without dropping a set since borg is simply not true. the last time it happened was...about a year-and-a-half ago, when federer ripped through everyone at the australian open.

and, finally, the head-to-head comparison between fed and nadal is a bit loaded, because federer has been good enough on nadal's favorite surface to meet him in three french open finals, one semi, and six masters series finals (one of which he won, against an obviously fatigued rafa). on faster surfaces, nadal has, by contrast, met federer in only the two wimbledon finals, no slam semifinals (he's only made one semi at either of the two hardcourt slams), two masters cup semis, one masters final, and one smaller tournament final, where he notched his only victory against federer on an final on ANY SURFACE other than clay. his one other hard court victory against federer occurred in the early rounds of the masters series miami tournament in 2004, which was before nadal's rise to the no. 2 in the rankings, after which time their respective 1 and 2 seedings in every tournament have allowed them to meet only in finals (except at the masters cup, where nadal's losses in the round-robin format have twice resulted in his facing federer in the semis). nadal simply hasn't been good enough on hard courts to end put himself in position to play federer more on surfaces other than clay (his grass game, obviously, has been better--but the grass season is extremely short). thus, their head-to-head is rather skewed in favor of clay-court matches, more than half of their meetings having occurred in this surface, which accounts for only about a fifth of the top-tier pro tennis calendar (there are smaller clay tourneys almost year round, but neither federer nor nadal plays them). federer's record against nadal on non-clay surfaces is 5-2: 2-0 on grass, 3-2 on hard-courts. and the last two times they've met on hard courts federer hasn't dropped a set, or even a service game.

i agree with waiting to assess federer's place in the history of the game, but the same games for nadal. best on their current merits, there is no reasonable argument as to who is the better player of their era. nor is there any reason to assume nadal will be able to approach federer's accomplishments on any surface other than clay, given his less-than-stellar career results on hard courts, and the recent and continuing rise of novak djokovic.

that said, i'm a huge rafa fan, and i'll be rooting for him to go all the way at wimbledon this year!

David Friedman said...

Eagleinyourmind:

You are of course right about Federer sweeping through the 2007 Australian Open. I guess I am taking after Borg in ignoring that tournament :) Seriously, though, thank you for pointing that out; I have corrected the sentence in the original post.

If you read carefully what I wrote, I did not say that Federer is not currently the best player in this era; I said, "it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era." In other words, if in five years (when Nadal is the age that Federer is now) Nadal has pulled off a French/Wimbledon double, taken over the number one ranking and pushed his career Grand Slam total to 10 or more then that combination of achievements would make a strong case for saying that he, not Federer, was the strongest player of the post-Sampras era. I guess one could still call Federer the best player from 2003-2007 and then say that Nadal was the best player from 2008-?? if that scenario pans out but what I am talking about is who will be considered the best player overall after Sampras and possibly the best player of the Open Era. For the reasons I listed in the post, I consider Borg to be the best player of the Open Era and it is not certain who will be considered the best player of the post-Sampras Era.

Nadal is much younger than Federer and even though their head to head matches have mostly been on clay he poses a much greater threat to Federer on grass than Federer does to him on clay.

Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i know bjorg had 5 straight wimbledon the other 6 was french did he win in us open or australian.

nadal only won on the french he hasnt won anything anywhere else because roger there you gonna bad on 1 of 4 surfaces pete sampras was terrible on clay he been to 4 straight french finals.

i got to see federer at wimbledon and us open to see if he right still and still by far best player on tour he hasnt won much anything i was putting him up there with tiger woods he fell a little bit so far. bjorg said he thinks he could go down as best ever wells see sampras was great and so was laver and bjorg and mcenroe.

i think you right about nadal if federer start slipping on grass and us open he could get at least 2 of 4 he already got 4 at 22 but federer has like 12 in 5 years and he been in final in grand slam like the last 3 years striaght 2005-2008 he is more dominant

eagleinyourmind said...

don't forget hard courts, the most plentiful surface on the schedule. nadal has a long way to go on hard courts, while djokovic is, right now, clearly the best player on that surface. djokovic's serve and return are also vastly improved now, so it will be very interesting to see what he brings to wimbledon (remember, even a seriously fatigued djokovic was able to take the first set off a nervy nadal in last year's semi). the oddsmakers already have him installed as the second favorite to take the tournament, and, even though i'd much prefer to see nadal dominate the game for the next few years, djokovic looks like a more likely candidate for a long-standing no. 1.

as far as "it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era". nothing is certain. that's why we can only base these judgements on earned results. the way federer's been cruising, people were jumping the gun a bit, but i think that tendency has ground to a halt with his spotty results this season. mcenroe and borg were both willing to call him the best ever IF he won the french because that would have given him only one less slam than pete, but the career slam that pete never earned--and with the french title claimed against the man who is already considered one of the two greatest clay courters of all time. he didn't win the match, so they're not annointing him yet. but, on every surface other than clay, he's proven a lot more than nadal has.

David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Borg only played the Australian once, very early in his career. Like Tiger Woods today, Borg played a lighter schedule than some of the other players and he focused on winning the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, where he reached the Finals four times but never won. At that time, the Australian was the last major of the year, not the first, and Borg always said that if he won the first three then he would play in the Australian to try to complete the Slam.

All I'm saying is that I think that it is too early to anoint Federer as the greatest of all-time. He has been the best player for the past few years but he has not won the French and he has a losing head to head record against his major rival. I can't say this for sure, but I doubt that any other serious claimant to the greatest of all time crown ever lost as badly in his prime as Federer did on Saturday.

David Friedman said...

Eagleinyourmind:

Well, "if" Federer wins the French then it certainly would make more sense to include his name in greatest ever discussions but he only won four more games in the French Open Final than I did.

Meanwhile, you are overlooking a significant point that I made in the post: Nadal has won four Grand Slams at 22, while Federer had only won one at that age. Nadal has made the Wimbledon Finals two years in a row and came very close to beating Federer there last year. By age 25 or 26 Nadal may very well own 8-10 Grand Slam titles and may have pulled off the French/Wimbledon double. If that were the case, I'd rank him ahead of Federer on the all-time list even if Federer had more overall Grand Slam wins, provided that Federer still had not mastered the clay in Paris.

Regardless of Borg's modesty, he still stands as the greatest Open Era player. I'd take Sampras next because of his years of dominance at #1 and because he holds the all-time Slams record and I'd put Federer third right now. I think that the '76-'80 Borg would beat either of those guys on grass--though I realize that point could certainly be debated--and I'm sure that we can agree that Borg would annihilate either of those guys on clay. The next few years will determine if Federer moves past Sampras and Borg or if he slips behind Nadal.

S.Tiku said...

David,

I understand your statements, but they are bold statements. For example, your last statement:

"The next few years will determine if Federer moves past Sampras and Borg or if he slips behind Nadal."

About Bjorg and Sampras, I agree that Federer might not surpass them, but to say that he might slip behind Nadal means that are you making many assumptions. Firstly, how are you so certain that Nadal will continue to play at such a high level. Just like how many analysts were predicting that Federer would easily surpass Pete Sampras' all time grandslam record, it is even more bold to predict that Nadal will continue to play at this level for a considerable amount of years. There are two major factors that could possibly hinder his rise to number 1. The first factor was touched upon by eagleinyourmind, that is Novak Djokovic. He has proven to be a more formidable opponent to Federer on hard court surfaces than Nadal, and when you take into account that the tennis schedule is dominated by the hard court season, then the future of tennis definitely holds bright for him.
The second factor is the style of Nadal's game. The nature in which he plays tennis is taxing on his body. If you have noticed the past couple of years, he has not stayed in top condition to be able to challenge Federer and other players towards the second half of the season. This is due to the way he plays, he is not like Federer, in the sense that Federer's game is about timing and movement, Nadal's game is based more power and strength. Pete Sampras wrote an article about how Federer's game is so effortless and so easy to watch, the complete opposite to Patrick Rafter, who had to fight and struggle for points. Nadal is similar, in that he has to work really hard to win points. His game is very demanding on the body, and this is why he repeatedly gets injured. And if he gets injured at this early stage of his career, then it is likely that he will get even more injured later in his career when his body will not be able to catch up with the physical style in which he plays the game of tennis.
Also, in your post, you mentioned that Nadal has posed more of a threat to Federer on the grass surface than Federer has to Nadal on the clay court surface. But one could argue that Federer has not played Nadal enough times on grass to get a feel for his game. Just like how Nadal has dispatched Federer during the last couple of meetings on clay, he had some tough 5 set matches with Federer earlier on. Similarly, it is possible that once they play more times on grass, Federer will be able to spot Nadal's weaknesses and attack them (since Nadal's game is less suited to grass than Federer's)

David Friedman said...

S.Tiku:

You make some good points, although the French Open Final did not seem to be particularly taxing for Nadal.

The difference between what I have said about Federer, Nadal and Borg and what others have said is that I couched my statements about the two active players in the conditional tense: for instance, I said that Nadal may surpass Federer in the upcoming years. In contrast, some people have already anointed Federer as the greatest player of all-time. I don't say that I know what is going to happen in the next three to four years. It seems to me that it is just as plausible to say that Nadal will surpass Federer as it is to say now that Federer is the greatest player of all-time--in other words, both statements are premature. Federer has yet to match Borg's multisurface dominance and Nadal has not done that either. It is my opinion that Nadal, because of his age and how he played against Federer last year at Wimbledon, has a good opportunity to surpass Federer, which I would define in this way: beating Federer at Wimbledon, taking the number one ranking and accumulating at least 10 Grand Slam wins (including French and Wimbledon, a combo that Federer seems unlikely to pull off). Just like I still consider Borg to be greater than Federer even though Federer has won more total Slams, I would consider Nadal to be greater than Federer overall--not just as a clay courter--if he beats Federer at Wimbledon and eventually bumps his Grand Slam total to at least 10 or so. Nadal has more Grand Slam titles at 22 than Federer did, so it is premature to just dismiss this possibility.

John said...

Thanks everyone for the excellent and lively discussion. Sorry for my late post.

With Nadal's win in Sunday's incredible Wimbledon final, he now has won a major Grand Slam beyond clay, achieved the very difficult French Open / Wimbledon double, and ended Federer's reign at Wimbledon.

Quite a day indeed for Nadal.

A few more years like that and I agree with David, Nadal will certainly be in the hunt for a spot atop the crowded "greatest ever" list.

Regarding Federer...he has spoken of wanting to win many more grand Slam titles - we shall see if that fire still burns in how he plays and if he wins at the US Open - a title he has owned for 4 years running.

David points out that Federer has not displayed Borg's multi-surface
mastery. I'd say that is true, but it is very close - Borg with 11 Grand Slam titles on two different surfaces (clay and grass). Federer with 9 Grand Slam titles on two different surfaces (grass and hard courts). Though hard courts are closer to the speedy grass surfaces of Wimbledon than Clay is - which is no doubt why the French / Wimbledon double has been so difficult to achieve.

I will say this too - you only need to read the bios of players like Sampras, Federer, and of my favorite Borg, to be blown away by what each has accomplished.

I think Borg still sits as the best ever. Some amazing numbers:

- 3 straight French Open / Wimbledon titles in the midst of the dominant runs he had at both championships, 6 at French Open, 5 at Wimbledon (straight).

- Won 11 Grand Slam singles titles out of 27 tournaments - a male open era record 41% winning percentage.

- In Grand Slam singles tournaments, Borg's match record is 141–16, giving him an 89.8 winning percentage, better than any male player ever.

-A 576–124 win–loss singles record, winning 82.29 percent of the matches he played.

-Davis Cup record singles winning streak of 33 consecutive victories.

- Bageled his opponents (sets won 6–0) 116 times from 1973 through 1981, compared to Federer's 55 bagels from 1999 through the 2007 French Open.

And all that success by the age of 26. Wow. My fav always.

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