Monday, February 2, 2009

Nadal Gives Federer Good Reason to Shed Tears

Can we officially place a moratorium on calling Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all-time? I have repeatedly insisted that it was premature to even consider Federer for such status in light of the fact that his main rival Rafael Nadal enjoys a dominant head to head record against him and it is becoming increasingly clear that I was quite prescient to say this at a time when the so-called tennis experts were throwing flower petals at Federer's feet. Despite having to make a quick return to action after surviving a record five hour, 14 minute semifinal victory over Fernando Verdasco, Nadal improved to 13-6 against Federer by beating him in a five set Australian Open final match that lasted well over four hours. Federer openly sobbed during the trophy presentation and for good reason--he, better than anyone, surely understands that the window of opportunity has most likely shut for him regain the number one ranking or to break Pete Sampras' career record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. The tennis world firmly belongs to Nadal, who has now defeated Federer in the most recent finals at the French Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

Don't let the closeness of the Australian Open match score deceive you--yes, Federer extended a fatigued Nadal to five sets and certainly had some chances to win but Nadal has proven that on the big points in the big matches he simply will not lose to Federer. This is not a fluke; Nadal has beaten Federer the last five times that they have played and is 5-2 against him in Grand Slam finals. For a brief time, Federer advocates could try to claim that he was still superior to Nadal on grass and hard courts but Nadal's Wimbledon and Australian Open wins have ended that argument.

Anyone who ever touted Federer as the greatest ever must look at the following numbers and concede that Nadal is way ahead of the pace that Federer set at a similar stage of his career. When Federer was 22 he had a 259-112 match record, had won 14 titles (including two Grand Slams), had spent 10 weeks as the number one player and had notched a 2-3 record in matches against players ranked number one; Nadal tops Federer in every one of those categories, enjoying a 344-78 match record, winning 32 titles (including six Grand Slams), spending 24 weeks ranked number one and posting a 12-6 record against the number one ranked player (with all of those matches coming against Federer before Nadal passed him in the rankings). Nadal is just the sixth player to reach the finals at three different Slams by age 22 and only the third player to win three different Slams by that age; Federer did not accomplish this, while Bjorn Borg reached three different Slam finals by 20 (the youngest to do so) but never won the U.S. Open.

Nearly two years ago, I made the case that Borg should still be ranked as the greatest player of the Open Era; Borg owns numerous records, including career won-loss percentage in matches (.855) and percentage of career Grand Slams won (.407, light years ahead of anyone else), but perhaps his most impressive feat is his "triple double": winning Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year three straight times (1978-80). When Borg retired, he owned the Open Era records for Wimbledon titles (five) and French Open titles (six) and his multi-surface dominance is simply unparalleled.

The real question now is when do we start considering the possibility that Nadal could prove to be the greatest player of the Open Era? Nadal's case is actually better than Federer's ever was, for two reasons: Nadal does not have a rival who enjoys personal dominance over him and Nadal has won a Grand Slam on all surfaces, something Federer has yet to accomplish. I would still rank Borg's eight year run of dominance from 1974-81--highlighted by his French Open/Wimbledon "triple double"--ahead of what Nadal has achieved but if Nadal continues to add French Open and Wimbledon crowns to his resume he could potentially surpass Borg. Like Borg, Nadal led his country to a Davis Cup victory. Nadal also won the Olympic Gold Medal in singles, a prize that did not exist during Borg's career.

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