"Whoa! Don't slip up or get got! (Why not man?)
I'm comin' for that number one spot!"--Ludacris, "Number One Spot"
The official computer rankings still say otherwise but Rafael Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7 victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon Final certainly seems to signal a changing of the guard at the top of the tennis world. Nadal became the first male player to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year since Bjorn Borg, who incredibly accomplished this feat three years in a row (1978-80). Federer retains his number one overall ranking but no one can really consider him to be the best player in the world now: Nadal not only owns a 12-6 head to head advantage over Federer but Nadal defeated Federer in this year's French Open and Wimbledon Finals. The clay at Roland Garros is Nadal's best surface and he has won four straight titles there, matching Borg's record (1978-81), but Wimbledon's grass had been home turf for Federer, who was seeking to break another Borg record by capturing a sixth straight Wimbledon title.
After Federer beat Nadal in a tough five set match in last year's Wimbledon Final, I predicted that Nadal would flip the script this year: "I think that Nadal is closer to beating Federer on grass than Federer is to beating Nadal on clay and that 2008 could very well be Nadal's opportunity to match another Borg feat: winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year." Then, when Nadal destroyed Federer in straight sets in this year's French Open Final, I declared, "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 interesting that it takes the combined efforts of the two best players of this era to challenge the marks that Borg set three decades ago; Nadal has been taking aim at Borg's French Open records, while Federer has been pursuing Borg's Wimbledon standards. By winning at both venues this year Nadal has elevated himself above Federer and if Nadal adds some more Wimbledon and French Open trophies to his collection then it will be possible to compare his career to Borg's.
Prior to the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon Final, three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe recalled his two Wimbledon battles with Borg. In the 1980 Wimbledon Final, McEnroe won the fourth set tiebreak and seemed poised to end Borg's Wimbledon winning streak at four titles, but Borg bounced back to capture the fifth set and thus earn his fifth Wimbledon crown. McEnroe recalled, "When I won that fourth set breaker, I said, 'This thing is over. I think I'm going to get it done. He's won four in a row. He can't dig that much deeper and want it that much more badly.' He taught me a lesson that true champions--great, great champions--find another gear and find some more willpower. He made me hungrier. I think there is a very similar situation with what happened last year with Federer. He was in the fifth set and Nadal had him on the ropes...I know Nadal thought he should have won the match and I know I thought that I should have won that match in 1980. Federer showed that extra will...(In 2008) Nadal has found another gear and he's gotten quite a bit better." McEnroe's words proved to be very prescient.
McEnroe added, "We should really appreciate this moment for what it is, the magnitude of the occasion for our sport. We do try to build up every Final but in this particular case I think that it is justified. When I played Borg in 1981 and won that match little did I ever think that that would be his final match here at Wimbledon. Who would have thought that (Justine) Henin would quit 10 days before the French Open? I'm not suggesting that's going to happen with Federer...but I think that we should enjoy this for the spectacular occasion that it is."
Nadal jumped on Federer right from the start, taking advantage of three of his first four break point opportunities to claim a two sets to none lead; Federer actually had more break point opportunities during those sets (six) but he only converted one of them. As ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe put it late in the second set, "Every crucial point somehow Nadal has found a way to win it." While Nadal was making points, Federer was making excuses, visibly upset that gusts of wind affected some of his shots; of course, the same thing happened to Nadal as well and Patrick McEnroe said, "Federer has to get it out of his head because nobody is going to remember that it was windy if he loses this match."
Federer did not convert any of his break point opportunities in the third and fourth sets but he scored "mini breaks" in both tiebreakers to win those sets. Nadal raced to a 5-2 lead in the fourth set tiebreaker and later squandered two match points, including one on his serve. Incredibly, after taking a two sets to none lead Nadal came within three points of losing the match in the fifth set before rallying to win the 14th game. Nadal then broke Federer--the first break by either player since the second set--and held serve to win the match.
Nadal and Federer both played at a very high level in this match and it is doubtful that any other player in the world could have beaten Federer on Sunday. Nevertheless, Federer's candidacy for the hypothetical title of greatest player of all-time has taken a serious beating this year. The lack of a French Open title is a giant hole in Federer's resume, as is the fact that his main rival is much younger than he is and has a dominant score in their head to head encounters; it does not seem likely that Federer will be able to do much to address either situation: if Federer could not win the French Open or have an overall advantage versus Nadal during his prime years then it is not logical to expect him to reverse those trends now.
Even when Federer was at the absolute peak of his powers Nadal still held the head to head advantage, a fact that some people dismissed by noting that the vast majority of Nadal's wins over Federer came on clay--but that is not relevant in a discussion about the greatest player of all-time, because the greatest player of all-time should be able to win on multiple surfaces and should not have a losing record against his main rival. Nadal is just entering his prime years but he already owns four more Grand Slam wins than Federer did at the same age. Just like I thought that it was too soon to call Federer the greatest of all-time two or three years ago, I think that it is too soon to call Nadal the greatest of all-time now--but in many ways Nadal seems to be making a more potent case to claim that title than Federer ever did. Who can say for sure that in four or five years Nadal won't own more career Grand Slam titles than Federer's 12? Nadal has more speed and hits with more power than Federer and Nadal is also in better physical condition; perhaps Federer has a more delicate touch on certain shots but that is not enough to cancel out Nadal's advantages. The closeness of the Wimbledon Final--Nadal scored just five more points than Federer--is a little deceptive because, as Patrick McEnroe noted, Nadal seemed to win all of the big points. Obviously, that is not literally true or else Nadal would have triumphed in straight sets but whatever mystique or aura that Federer has relative to other players simply does not affect Nadal at all.