Monday, September 8, 2008

The U.S. Open is Still Club Fed

Roger Federer convincingly defeated Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 to claim his fifth straight U.S. Open title and end a frustrating 2008 season on a high note. Federer now owns 13 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of Pete Sampras' all-time record. Federer is the first male player to win at least five titles in a row at two different Grand Slams; he also won five Wimbledons in a row, a streak snapped this year by Rafael Nadal, who beat Federer in the French Open final, snatched the world number one ranking from Federer and won the Olympic gold medal in singles, a feat that Federer has never accomplished (Federer won the Olympic gold medal in doubles this year, alongside partner Stanislas Wawrinka).

One Grand Slam title and two other Grand Slam Finals appearances contsitutes a very good year for most tennis players but for Federer 2008 was disappointing because his air of invincibility was shattered not only by Nadal but also by lesser players who toppled Federer in other events. Federer was slowed early in the year by mononucleosis, so his U.S. Open win raises the possibility that he can regain the number one spot in 2009--but I don't think that will happen. Nadal is a younger player who has won more Slams than Federer did at a similar age and Nadal has a winning head to head record versus Federer. Nadal's Wimbledon-French Open double is something that has not been accomplished since Bjorn Borg pulled off that double from 1978-80. The obvious X-factor in this equation would be if Nadal suffered an injury but if that does not happen it seems unlikely that Federer will reverse the natural course of history: a younger rival has already surpassed him and the two questions now are whether or not Federer will break Sampras' record and just how many Slams Nadal will end up winning; Nadal could very well put Sampras and Federer in his rear view mirror in the next four or five years.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

funny how half of your post is about nadal, when federer is the player who won the us open

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Funny how at the start of the year many people were prematurely trying to anoint Federer as the greatest player ever but Nadal won twice as many Grand Slam Finals, in addition to capturing the Olympic gold medal and the world number one ranking. We'll find out next year if this victory for Federer meant a reassertion of his dominance or was merely a last hurrah.

Anonymous said...

anymous regggie

roger is back he won 5 straigt us open 3 austarialn and 5 wimbledon when nadal do that then come talk to me. he barely lost to nadal in wimbledon and made semi 2 finals and won one nadal is great on clay good on grass but not as good on hardcourt there he will not pass up the great roger federer who will get a couple more before it's all said and done nadla has to win on all 3 surfaces mulitple times to catch roger he can just win a couple wimbledon and french every year. roger lost ot lesser player in meaningless tournaments in grand slam he only lost to nadla and djockovic which was fluke with djokovic he will win austrailian and us next year and possibly wimbledon agiain.

David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Nadal is still #1 and he had a better year than Federer. We won't know until next year if Federer is back or if this was his last hurrah (in terms of winning Slams).

Your comparison of Federer to Nadal is flawed; of course Federer has won more Slams--he has also played in more Slams. Nadal has won several more Slams than Federer did at the same age (5 to 1 by age 22) and Nadal has a huge head to head advantage over Federer. It is just as logical to say that Nadal will equal or surpass Federer's Grand Slam win total as it is to call Federer the greatest ever. I think that both statements are premature but one is not more premature than the other; it's all speculation at this point. The reality is that Nadal is the best player in the world right now. Since 1973, most players who reached the number one spot did not win the first Slam that took place after they attained that ranking. It is an encouraging sign for Nadal that he made it farther in the U.S. Open than he ever did before.

The clear and obvious pattern is that Nadal is improving, while Federer has peaked and now has declined somewhat, though his U.S. Open performance was most impressive.

Ilhan said...

David:

I agree with you (i) that the glowing lack of a French Open trophy hurts Federer's case for "GOAT" and therefore (ii) that it is premature to annoint him as having achieved that distinction. You are also definitely right that Nadal, in terms of numbers, is ahead of where Federer was at 22, and most probably correct in saying Nadal is better right now (meaning, Nadal at his best beats Federer at his best).

However I don't see how you can equate the prematureness/speculative-ness of the claims on behalf of each player. By the light of (some of) your previous arguments on this topic, all Federer needs is a Roland Garros trophy, which is still a possibility, albeit admittedly (barring a Nadal injury) a weak one. What Nadal needs, on the other hand, is a trophy cabinet! In order for him to surpass Federer, he has to display, at some point or another, a Federeresque (2003-2007) dominance. With the rise of a crop of possible championship material players (Djokovic, Murray?, etc.), and the corresponding rise in the level of play, would you take it granted that Nadal is up to that task? I would say, 'one's hypothetical best' being the best in the world does not necessarily amount to winning championships. It takes, tremendous amount of concentration, sustained focus, will and fortitude under pressure (and of course luck). Has Nadal convinced us of his possessing a sufficient amount of these qualities? Taking all this for granted is, dare I say, speculation of a qualitatively bigger magnitude than that on behalf of Federer.

I guess a possible retort would be the following: The lack of a French Open trophy in itself means, for our argument, not so much as the story of how that lack has come to be. That story is that the claimant (Federer) to GOAT has been regulary dominated by another player (Nadal) on a particular type of court (clay). You would say, Federer's claim becomes utterly untenable as soon as we look at Borg. Not only was he never, on a regular basis, dominated by any one player but he was also himself, in his prime, dominant on all types of court. I don't suspect Borg's greatness. I agree with you that if we are to decide GOAT by counting the number of masters won, Borg's early exit from the tour and his eschewing of the Australian must be taken into account. I'm, unlike you I'm afraid, just not sure how Federer's failures against Nadal are to be interpreted. Do they betray a want of an all-around game in terms of greatness regardless of the type of court (a sure prerequisite of GOAT)? Or is it merely that Federer had the ill-fortune that his prime coincided with the career of another player, whose game, especially on a particular type of court, was extremely disruptive to his own. Nadal goes on to win a cabinet full of Wimbledon, US and Australian Open trophies, then we can say he isn't merely a Federer-killer or clay-specialist. If not, then I would have Nadal as an asterix to Federer's claim to GOAT and examine Federer's performance on clay against players, who are not named Nadal, to determine whether or not he is good enough on clay to warrant an "all-around greatness" claim.

Alas!, all this just to say the commonplace that Federer's standing in the Pantheon will be determined as much by what Nadal from now on accomplishes as by what Federer himself does. I believe, nonetheless, that the discussion would benefit from a more careful distinction between the various issues at hand, which isn't so much commonplace.

David Friedman said...

Ilhan:

You make a valid point in saying that Federer basically needs one trophy (French Open title) to have a very valid "GOAT" claim, whereas Nadal needs to accumulate several more trophies. However, we have to take into account the likelihood of each of these things happening. Nadal is younger than Federer and Nadal is still improving. Assuming that he does not suffer a career ending injury or simply walk away from the game, it is reasonable to believe that the best player in the world is going to win multiple Grand Slam titles in the next few years. Federer has reached an age at which many great players either peaked or (in the case of Borg) stopped playing altogether. The one trophy he needs seems extremely unlikely for him to get since it requires him to win on his weakest surface, which also happens to be Nadal's strongest surface.

I've been saying for more than a year that it was premature to tab Federer the "GOAT." This year's results confirm that I was right about that. By the same token, I think that it is premature to assume that Nadal will surpass Federer's Grand Slam win total but that is no less premature than the assumptions that so many people were making about Federer. Basically, I don't understand why everyone was in a rush to anoint Federer but they seem to be so much more circumspect about Nadal. This is even stranger considering their head to head results.

You provided an interesting "rebuttal" as well. I would only add that if Federer's "misfortune" is that his career overlapped the career of a greater clay court player that this in itself raises questions about Federer being the "GOAT." When Borg was on top he did not have a particular surface problem. Yes, he did not win the U.S. Open but he won events on hard courts and, more importantly, he was dominant on both grass and clay. If Federer does not win the French Open then that is a serious hole in his resume.

As you said, we will not really know their rankings in the Pantheon until we see more of Nadal's career. Really, that is the point that I have been making for more than a year: it is premature to anoint Federer when we have already seen a younger player come along and enjoy a head to head superiority over him.