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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Funny, here we are 8 years later, and it's back to it: Nadal and Federer dominating tennis, but with a strange twist...Federer is 5-0 vs. Nadal for exactly the past 2 year, and there's no point in mentioning Djokovic (Although he has a winning H2H record vs. Federer and Nadal for some odd reason, and 68 titles. Nadal 75, Federer all alone in second place with 95).

Is there a reason for this? Is it because Djokovic and Murray are hurt? But then again, has Nadal and Federer not been hurt, too? Federer took nearly 6 months off, then promptly beat Wawrinka and Nadal back-to-back in the semis and finals of the Australian Open. Nadal, as predicted by you, won two Grand Slams...But Federer got another to erase Sampras' name from the Wimbledon record book. Think about it: The most prestige's Grand Slam and Federer has 8 titles, 11 finals and 12 semifinals. Wins over the following players: Sampras, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and possible future champions in Cilic and others!

But of course, Nadal is 79-2 at the French, failing to drop a set (Like 35-year-old Federer did at Wimbledon). You've suggested had Borg not retired so young, he could've been the best French Open player ever. Well, he'd have to go 31-0 in the next five French Opens. At Wimbledon, while he won 5, he barely beat McEnroe in 1980 and then fell to him in the 1981 finals in just four sets. Could he have ended up better than Federer on grass? Could he have won Wimbledon @ 35 in 1992 had he not stopped playing in the Grand Slams? Perhaps. I think not. Given the change in racket technology, he'd have been doomed against Edberg and Becker, Cash and several others who came along in and around 1985 (Becker won Wimbledon age 17 and 18 and again @ 22).

Getting back to it, I think what McEnroe said at the Australian Open in accurate: Federer is the GOAT and Nadal is the second best. Maybe if Nadal could have won some of those Australian Open Finals vs. Federer, Wawrinka and Djokovic, he'd be. He's still 2 US Opens behind Federer (Who would have clearly won it all this year had his back not flared up earlier in the tournament). Nadal will, however, finish the year #1, although with Federer only played half the year and Murray and Djokovic the same, one wonders.

As for Borg...Well...It all comes down to the US Open. Yes, he beat Connors in the semis of 1980, but that's as relevant as Lendl beating McEnroe in the '82 semis in straight sets. At the end of the day, Borg couldn't win the tournament, even when it was held on clay. Twice, he lost to Connors, not exactly the best clay-courter of all time. And certainly not in the top 10 of players on that surface. Nadal, Federer and Djokovic are better than him at the US Open. Could he have won 7 Australian Opens? Held under the current conditions, no. Borg's problem @ the US Open was simple, he couldn't play matches at night. He claimed this, and also claimed the surface (Hard, I guess) gave him troubles. Maybe the crowd bugged him, who knows.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You made some interesting observations but my overall view remains unchanged:

1) Federer is remarkably durable but I would not take him at his absolute peak over Borg at Borg's absolute peak.

2) Nadal has not only dominated Federer head to head but Nadal is more durable than many critics are willing to admit. For example, he won at least one Grand Slam title in 10 consecutive years (2005-14), setting an all-time record.

3) Failing to win the U.S. Open is the biggest--and perhaps only--blemish on Borg's resume but his unprecedented simultaneous dominance of Wimbledon and the French Open more than compensates for that blemish.

Anonymous said...

Federer is the oldest player to win a grand slam, and it was Wimbledon. In terms of longevity, that has to be the best in tennis. Oh...He was nearly 36 when he did it and he didn't drop a set.

He's 5-0 against Nadal in the last 2 years, and Nadal still has ZERO ATP YEC to his name. Simply put, Nadal falls flat on his face against Federer and everybody else indoors. And how, BTW, is Borg's French / Wimbledon unprecedented? Sorry, Laver did that in 1962 and 1969. Tennis did not start in the open era. It started a long time ago. Laver also won the Australian Open and US Open those years. In fact...He won the Italian Open and German Open in 1962...3 big tournaments on grass, 3 big tournaments on clay...

Borg was NOT the best player in tennis every year from 1976-1981, as you claim. No way, no how. Vilas, for instance, was THE player in tennis in 1977. He won 134 matches, won BOTH the French and US Open on clay. McEnroe and Borg were about 50/50 in 1980, but McEnroe beat him at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1981. Connors was the Year-End #1 from 1974 to 1978. Vilas, if anyone, not Borg, should be #2 in 1977. So there's TWO players better than Borg. I am aware of this Sandy Koufax-like comparison to Borg. But please. Koufax was THE pitcher in baseball. Even before he reached his prime, NO ONE ever fanned batters the way he did. He won 5 straight ERA titles, pitched 4 no-hitters, won 3 CYA...And won four World Series. In those, he posted a 0.95 ERA in 8 games. That's clutch. Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal and Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn, while great, never approached him in terms of wins, K's and ERA (The Triple Crown of pitching). Plus, again, the postseason domination. Gibson won 2 World Series, Ford 7.

(But in many of those Series Whitey Ford won, his TEAM was clearly the best in baseball. Didn't he have Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Johhny Mize, Elston Howard, Roger Maris and Bobby Richardson? How many times was Koufax's TEAM the best in baseball? He, and Don Drysdale, Podres and Larry Sherry made them great in 1959. In '63 it was Koufax and Drysdale and Podres. In 1965 it was Koufax, Drysdale and Osteen. They made it back in 1966, only to be swept because they couldn't score a run...Something that plagued Koufax throughout his career: Lack of run support. And he still won 150 games his last 9 years despite that, a poor ballpark and numerous injuries).

Back to the Federer stuff. He's still 5-0 in the last two years against Nadal. And...Would you believe it, 9-10 since the 2009 Australian Open finals. With age, comes experience, comes end of being dominated by Nadal. Nadal hasn't beaten Federer since the 2014 Australian Open. Federer has played on the tour 20 years: We are going to let 23 losses in those years be the deciding factor above 19 Grand Slams, including the big one 8 times? Hey, Federer and Nadal have losing records vs. Djokovic. Nadal hasn't beaten Djokovic outside of clay since the 2013 US Open (I believe he's 10-22 against him in their last 32 matches...OUCH!). Djokovic has also beaten Nadal and Federer at EVERY Grand Slam...So...Theoretically speaking, if he comes back (And why shouldn't he? Federer did. Nadal did) and wins 3 or 4 more, does that make him the greatest? I don't think so. But if H2H is the deciding factor...Unless Nadal starts beating him outside of clay (15-7, lifetime, meaning he's 9-19 against Djokovic, on the other surfaces all time...Um...). Now again, I put Djokovic third behind Federer and Nadal, but still...It's too close to call now. I believe if Novak comes back and picks up a pair of slams, that'll end the argument for good. He has the game to win on every surface. Don't forget, he and Laver are the only players in the last 50 years to win four grand slams in a row. Can Nadal and Federer continue to win Grand Slams? They'd better.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Borg won both Wimbledon and the French Open for three consecutive years. That is unprecedented. Borg was widely considered the best player during that time span and, indeed, was often spoken of as the best player of all-time at that point.

It is true that Federer is very durable and it is also true that he has enjoyed recent success against Nadal--but Nadal owns a decisive head to head advantage overall. That is not the only factor to consider but it is bizarre to suggest that it does not matter, particularly considering that Nadal wins Grand Slams at a greater rate than Federer and that Nadal conquered Federer at Wimbledon but Federer never beat Nadal at the French Open.