Friday, August 1, 2008

Number One Stunner: Federer's Record Reign May be Over

Ivo Karlovic, the 6-10 Croatian who is the 22nd ranked tennis player in the world, defeated number one ranked Roger Federer 7-6 (6), 4-6, 7-6 (5) in the third round of the Cincinnati Masters tournament. Karlovic blasted 21 aces past Federer, including a 140 mph screamer that nearly knocked the racket right out of Federer's hand. Federer has been the top ranked player in the world for a record 235 consecutive weeks (Pete Sampras still holds the all-time mark with 286 total weeks as world's number one player) but the end of his reign is very much in sight; if Rafael Nadal wins the Cincinnati Masters he will officially pass Federer in the rankings.

It seems like Nadal has had to endure the Trials of Hercules to get to this point; Bum Phillips used to say that Don Shula "can take his'n and beat your'n or he can take your'n and beat his'n" and Nadal has done something similar to Federer this year: he beat Federer on Federer's favorite surface--the Wimbledon grass--and Nadal smoked Federer on the French Open clay that Nadal has tamed like no one since the great Bjorn Borg. Despite those victories in the two biggest tournaments of the year and despite an active 31 match winning streak Nadal still has not officially surpassed Federer even as the allegedly best player staggers from one early tournament exit to another throughout the year. Someone needs to take the ATP ranking formula back to the lab, because you don't have to be a tennis expert to figure out that Nadal is clearly the best player in the world and has been for several months at least.

Last year I said that Nadal had a great chance of pulling off the French-Wimbledon double--a feat that had not been accomplished since Borg incredibly did it from 1978-80--and I have repeatedly made the observation that it was extremely premature for people to trumpet Federer as the greatest player of the Open Era, let alone the greatest player of all-time. As I mentioned in a January 8, 2008 post, Borg has an edge over Federer in several key areas:

1) Youngest player to win 11 Grand Slams (25).
2) Career Grand Slam winning percentage (.898, first all-time).
3) Winning Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year (Borg did this three straight years; no one else had done this even once until Nadal accomplished the feat this year).
4) Winning three Grand Slam events without losing a single set (only three other players have won a Grand Slam without losing a set and none of them did it more than once).
5) Borg won at least one Grand Slam title in a record eight straight years (Sampras matched this feat).

Borg remains the greatest player of the Open Era; he was king of both the French Open (six titles) and Wimbledon (five titles) in an unprecedented fashion and he achieved that mastery by the age of 25, retiring from active play shortly thereafter following a year in which he made three Grand Slam finals and won one Grand Slam title. Sampras, due to his longevity at the top and the fact that he holds the career Grand Slam singles record (14), ranks second; Sampras did not have Borg's multi-surface versatility and played several years longer than Borg to move past him on the career list of Grand Slam singles winners. For now, Federer is third but Nadal is several years younger than Federer, owns a decisive head to head advantage and has already won five Grand Slam titles at an age when Federer had just claimed one Grand Slam title; Nadal certainly has a chance to surpass Federer not just in the current rankings but in the mythical Open Era rankings. I will not make the mistake that others did with Federer and prematurely crown Nadal but Nadal's achievements are very impressive and he seems more than capable of winning several more Grand Slams in the next few years.


sanjeev said...

Yup, sad as it sounds. Federer had a great run as Number 1 in the world, but unfortunately Nadal is within reach. I support Federer - because he has started to lose due to a lack of consistent coaching and practice. Nadal on the other hand has really worked to get here, and it has shown in the last two major tournaments - French and Wimbledon. Nadal has a couple of tough opponents if he expects to win the tournament - Djokovic and Murray. Anyways


Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

at 25 it was over for bjorg like nadal now mcenroe was nadal then he was starting to beat bjorg consistently and at 26 he retired my dad watched both and he told me bjorg was great i said was federer better than bjorg he said he would take bjorg over federer saying bjorg had connors and other tough guys to have to beat as well.

federer won 12 in 5 years and was in like 13 straight finals he was dominnant not better than bjorg laver is best all time though not bjorg also bill tilden in the conversation one of the big 5 in the 20's with ruth dempsey red grange bobby jones even though he was shunned by tennis because he was gay he was still great player and was considered best player of the first half century

David Friedman said...


Tennis was so different before the Open Era (1968) that I usually avoid making comparisons between the pre and post Open Eras. I still have Borg as the best Open Era player, with Sampras and Federer right behind him. Nadal has a window of opportunity to join that discussion if he keeps winning in the next 2-3 years. Right now Nadal is the best current player. It would not surprise me if Federer is done winning Slams or if he just wins one more like Sampras did near the end. Nadal is younger than Federer and is pounding him on multiple surfaces so what reason is there to think that this will change? It's just not natural to assume that the older, less versatile player is going to start beating the younger, more versatile and better conditioned player. Maybe Nadal's style will cause him to wear down but that has not happened yet.