Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nadal Cruises Through U.S. Open to Complete Career Grand Slam

Rafael Nadal dropped just one set in the entire tournament en route to claiming his first U.S. Open title with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 win over Novak Djokovic in the championship match. Pundits had eagerly anticipated a showdown between Nadal and Roger Federer but Djokovic wore down an error-prone Federer in a five set semifinal match. Federer has been so frequently referred to as the greatest player of all-time that it seems like that is part of his name--"Greatest Player of All-Time Roger Federer"--but that designation was always premature and now it simply looks fraudulent: Nadal has dominated Federer head to head right from the start of their rivalry and the scope of that dominance has markedly increased in the past few years as Nadal added grass and hard court mastery to his peerless clay court play.

Tennis has changed so much over the years that it is very difficult to fairly compare players from different eras; "Greatest Tennis Player of All-Time" is a mythical title but even if we confine the discussion to the Open Era it is not easy to choose from among Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Borg is the prodigy, setting numerous records (some of which have been broken but many of which still stand) for being the youngest player to accomplish various impressive feats, and he established an incredible simultaneous dominance at the French Open and Wimbledon: Borg won a record six French Open titles plus five straight Wimbledon titles and for an unprecedented three straight years (1978-80) he conquered both events. When he retired he held the modern record for titles won at both events; Federer and Sampras subsequently surpasssed Borg's Wimbledon mark but Sampras never even reached the French Open Final while Federer has managed to win that event just once (and only by avoiding a showdown with Nadal, who has bested Federer in three French Open Finals). Even after Nadal's most recent triumph, Borg is still the youngest player to win nine Grand Slam singles titles and he also did so in the fewest number of events (22). Borg won at least one Grand Slam for a record eight straight years (1974-81), a mark later tied by Sampras. He retired at just 25 years of age, after a year in which he won the French Open and made it to the Finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Borg finished with 11 Grand Slam singles titles but he played in an era when the Australian Open was hardly treated like a major by most of the top non-Australian players: Borg competed in that event just once. If Borg had played more frequently in the Australian Open and/or not retired in his prime he likely would have added several Grand Slam titles to his resume. The only significant accomplishment that he failed to attain is winning the U.S. Open crown; he reached the Finals there four times without success. Borg won 11 of the 27 Grand Slams that he entered (41%) and he won 141 of his 157 Grand Slam singles matches (89.8%); both of those percentages are all-time records. Borg made the Finals 16 times in those 27 Grand Slams, he never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam and he only lost in the second round once. Borg was renowned for his phenomenal conditioning and his emotional steadiness; he did not get rattled if his opponent hit a great shot because he figured that his opponent would have to hit many such shots to beat him, a task that most players were not mentally and/or physically equipped to do.

Sampras broke Borg's Wimbledon record by capturing seven titles there and he set records for most weeks holding the number one ranking (286) and most years finishing as the number one ranked player (six, 1993-98). Sampras broke Roy Emerson's career record by winning 14 Grand Slam singles titles but he played in 51 Grand Slam events so he was much less dominant than Borg; comparing Sampras' Grand Slam career to Borg's is like comparing Emmitt Smith's rushing statistics with Jim Brown's: Smith set the all-time NFL career rushing record but he played for many more seasons and had many more rushing attempts than Brown, so few if any football experts consider Smith to be the greatest running back of all-time. Also, while Sampras' powerful serve proved to be very effective at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the slow clay at Roland Garros made Sampras look very ordinary: in 13 French Open appearances Sampras made it to the semifinals just once while suffering three first round losses and five second round defeats.

Federer is the artist; even casual fans marvel at the way that he seems to effortlessly glide around the court. He started out his Grand Slam career slowly--amassing six first round losses before winning his first title (2003 Wimbledon)--but he made up for lost time by reaching the semifinals in a record 23 straight Grand Slam events and tallying a record 16 Grand Slam wins, including the career Grand Slam that eluded both Borg and Sampras. Federer dominated Wimbledon and the U.S. Open while padding his Grand Slam totals with four Australian Open titles in 11 tries; Federer has played in the Australian Open each year of his career but, as noted above, Borg--like most of the best players in his era--generally bypassed this tournament, while Sampras won there twice in 11 attempts but also skipped the event three times. Federer won each of the other Grand Slams at least once before he even reached the French Open Finals--and then he lost three straight times to Nadal in those Finals before winning there in 2009 after an injury-plagued Nadal lost in the fourth round. Federer's Grand Slam percentages are 16 titles in 46 appearances (34.8%) and a 208-30 match record (87.4%). Federer held the number one ranking for a record 237 straight weeks and he has been number one for a total of 285 weeks, just one week short of Sampras' record.

Nadal is the grinder; his physical conditioning and mental toughness are very reminiscent of Borg. Like Borg, Nadal started out as a clay court specialist but eventually developed his game to the point that he could win on any surface--and, like Borg, Nadal was a prodigy, tying Borg's record by winning 16 professional singles titles as a teenager. Nadal is the second youngest player to win nine Grand Slam titles, trailing Borg by three months and requiring four more appearances than Borg did. Nadal owns a sparkling 9-2 record in Grand Slam Finals, he has won nine of the 26 Grand Slams that he has entered (34.6%) and he has a 120-17 career record in Grand Slam matches (87.6%).

Borg never faced Sampras or Federer, while Federer played Sampras just once, beating him at Wimbledon in 2001 to end Sampras' streak of four straight titles (and seven wins in eight years)--but Nadal enjoys a 14-7 head to head advantage over Federer and he has beaten Federer five times out of seven in Grand Slam Finals with victories at three different events (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon). At first, "experts" dismissed Nadal's head to head dominance over Federer because many of those matches took place on clay--a distinction which never made sense, because if Federer is truly the greatest player then that should not matter--but now Nadal has proven that he can beat Federer on any surface at any time. If Federer had beaten Djokovic there is every reason to believe that Nadal would have added yet another win to his Federer ledger, so it is ironic that the criticism lobbed at Nadal early in his career--that his record versus Federer was padded because he usually lost at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open before running into Federer--could be directed at Federer regarding this year's U.S. Open.

Maybe Federer will finish his career with a flourish, winning a few more Grand Slams and narrowing the head to head gap with Nadal--but that seems doubtful. It is more likely that in the next three to five years Nadal will break Federer's career Grand Slam record--but let's forget about speculation for the moment and look at the facts as they stand now. Sampras had a great career but his ineptitude at the French Open means that he simply cannot be ranked ahead of Borg, Nadal or Federer. Borg had the shortest career of this quartet but he was the most dominant (in terms of his winning percentages) and he had to battle two of the 10 greatest players ever (Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe) while Federer won many of his Grand Slams before Nadal really hit his stride and without having to deal with another all-time great player at or near his prime. If Borg had captured just one U.S. Open title then his resume would have no gaps but the absence of that jewel from his collection stands in contrast to the career Grand Slams owned by Federer and Nadal.

Federer's artistry is very appealing to the eye and he broke Sampras' Grand Slam singles titles record just seven years after Sampras had set it, a surprising development considering that Sampras' predecessor Roy Emerson held the mark for 35 years, but Federer's overall Grand Slam record is not as dominant as Borg's nor has Federer simultaneously mastered Wimbledon and the French Open the way that Borg did.

After his victory over Djokovic, Nadal modestly deflected comparisons with Federer but the reality is that at this point there is no compelling reason to rank Federer ahead of Nadal on the all-time list: Nadal has accomplished more than Federer did at a comparable age, he has demonstrated that he can win a Grand Slam on any surface and there is that "little" matter of Nadal owning a decisive head to head advantage versus Federer, a statistic that simply cannot be diminished or ignored in light of how well Nadal has now filled out the rest of his resume.

Anyone who felt justified in calling Federer the greatest player of all-time circa 2006--when he was 25, had won eight Grand Slam singles titles and had yet to complete the career Grand Slam--must now accord the same deference to a 24 year old Nadal who owns nine Grand Slam singles titles and a career Grand Slam. Failing that, the "experts" could follow the path that I have recommended all along and refrain from crowning a mythical greatest player until the Federer-Nadal rivalry has completely run its course and we can examine each player's complete body of work.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three-time Interzonal Winner Bent Larsen Passes Away

Bent Larsen, the six-time Danish chess champion (1954-56, 1959, 1963-64) who is the only person other than Mikhail Tal to win three Interzonal tournaments (1964, 1967, 1976), passed away on September 9 at the age of 75. Larsen earned the Grandmaster title in 1956 after scoring 11 wins, six draws and just one loss while representing Denmark on board one at the Chess Olympiad. Larsen was a serious World Championship contender from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s but he never quite reached the summit; however, Larsen won a total of 26 games against the seven players who reigned as World Champion from 1948-85: Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov (you can find all of those games at the bottom of this page; be sure to scroll all the way through, as only the first 20 games are initially visible).

Larsen won numerous strong tournaments--particularly during his prime years in the 1960s--and in 1967 he was awarded the inaugural Chess Oscar, a prestigious honor bestowed on the chess player of the year (as voted on by Grandmasters and chess journalists); Larsen and Viktor Korchnoi (1978) are the only Chess Oscar winners who never became World Champion. For many years, Fischer and Larsen were the two strongest non-Soviet players in the world. Although Fischer infamously quit playing chess in public from 1972-92, many people forget (or don't realize) that even during his prime he had several extended absences from serious competition, including 1968-70 when he only played in two relatively minor events plus one game in the New York Metropolitan Chess League. When Bobby Fischer returned to serious competition in the 1970 USSR versus the World match he showed great respect for Larsen by playing on board two even though he had a higher rating than Larsen; Larsen scored 2.5/4 versus World Champion Boris Spassky and Grandmaster Leonid Stein and Fischer tallied 3/4 versus former World Champion Tigran Petrosian but the USSR won the match 20.5-19.5.

Larsen finished tied for second behind Fischer in the 1970 Interzonal, though Larsen did win their head to head encounter in that event despite having the black pieces; this was Fischer's only defeat in 23 rounds. Here is a lightly annotated version of that game:

Fischer-Larsen, 1970 Palma de Mallorca Interzonal

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 Be7 8.Be3 O-O 9. Qe2 a6 10. O-O-O Qc7 11. g4 Nd7 12. h4!? In his book Bobby Fischer GM Karsten Muller criticizes this move and says that the main line starts with 12. g5. In Modern Chess Openings (15th Edition), this opening is classified as Sicilian Defense/Velimirovic Attack (pp. 330-331) and 11...Nd7 is critiqued for giving White the flexibility to choose among h4, Rhg1 and even the speculative Nf5 (played by current World Champion Viswanathan Anand in a 1997 game). MCO 15 suggests that Black should have traded Ns on d4. The chess engine Fritz assesses the position to be equal after ...Nd7 or ...Nxd4 but gives Black a slight edge after ...Na5. As for Fischer's 12th move in the actual game, Fritz prefers a3 (presumably to preserve the KB), though I doubt that any top level human player would play that move in this kind of position for fear of weakening his K. 12... Nc5 13. g5 b5 14. f3 Bd7 15. Qg2 b4 16. Nce2 Nxb3+ 17. axb3 a5 18. g6 fxg6 19. h5 Nxd4 20. Nxd4 g5 21. Bxg5 Bxg5+ 22. Qxg5 h6 23. Qg4 Rf7 Black has deftly rebuffed Fischer's K-side attack and now can operate with impunity in the center and on the Q-side. 24. Rhg1 a4 25. bxa4 e5 26. Ne6 Qc4 27. b3 Qxe6 28. Qxe6 Bxe6 29. Rxd6 Re8 The smoke has cleared. Fischer halted Black's looming attack by trading off Qs but at the price of sacrificing a piece for two pawns, which should not be quite sufficient compensation here because White's pawns are not yet very dangerous. 30. Rb6 Rxf3 31. Rxb4 Rc8 32. Kb2 Although GM Muller does not say anything about this move, it appears to be a serious mistake because now Black can seize the seventh rank with great effect. Instead of the text, Fritz recommends 32. c4 Bf7 33. Rb7 Rh3 34. a5. 32... Rf2 33. Rc1 Bf7 34. a5 Ra8 35. Rb5 Bxh5 36. Rxe5 Be2 37. Rc5 h5 38. e5?? GM Muller says that this is the fatal error. Fischer had to try to slow down the h pawn by playing 38. Rh1. 38... Bf3 Larsen seizes control of the promotion squares of his h pawn and Fischer's a pawn. 39. Kc3 h4 40. Kd3 Re2 41. Rf1 Rd8+ 42. Kc3 Be4 43. Kb4 Rb8+ 44. Ka3 h3 45. e6 Bxc2 46. b4 Re3+ 47. Kb2 Bd3 48. Ra1 Ba6 49. Rc6 Rxb4+ 50. Kc2 Bb7 51.Rc3 Re2+ 52. Kd1 Rg2 0-1

Larsen later faced Fischer in the 1971 Candidates semifinals but Fischer blanked him 6-0 (Fischer was in the midst of an amazing streak of 20 straight wins versus elite Grandmasters en route to taking the title from Spassky). It has been suggested that Larsen never quite recovered from that setback--at least in terms of contending for the World Championship--but that is perhaps an unfair and unfounded contention: by the time the next World Championship cycle began Larsen was already pushing 40--i.e., he was at or near the end of what are typically the prime years for a world class chess player--and a young generation of Grandmasters was emerging, led by Karpov, who became World Champion after Fischer forfeited the crown. Karpov reigned from 1975 until Garry Kasparov defeated him in 1985; regardless of what happened in Larsen's 1971 match with Fischer it is unlikely that Larsen could have dethroned Karpov even if he had battled his way to a World Championship match in the 1970s or early 1980s.

Larsen so often played b3 as his first move with White that this opening is most commonly referred to by his name. Although superficially that is not a very aggressive way to begin a game Larsen was in fact a courageous attacking player who fearlessly would take risks to win and who was notorious for declining draw offers (a trait he shared with Fischer).