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.