Sunday, January 29, 2017

Federer Outlasts Nadal to Claim First Grand Slam Title Since 2012

If you live in the eastern portion of the United States, you had to get up at 3 a.m. in order to watch Roger Federer face Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open Final. The lost sleep was worth it to see two of the greatest tennis players of all-time throw haymakers at each other for five sets. Federer, trailing 2-1 and down a break in the fifth set, rallied to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. Federer extended his record to 18 career Grand Slam singles titles, while Nadal remains tied with Pete Sampras in second place on that list with 14.

Federer and Nadal did not play perfect tennis but they played at a breathtakingly high level for sustained periods. The fifth set was captivating theater. Initially, the match looked like a rerun of most of the earlier matches in the head to head rivalry (which Nadal still leads, 23-12, including 9-3 in Grand Slams and 6-3 in Grand Slam Finals). Federer led two sets to one but Nadal stormed back to take the fourth set and after he seized an early break in the fifth set it looked like Nadal, as usual, would wear Federer down mentally and physically. Nadal is the only player who not only beats Federer but seems to break Federer down, resulting in mental mistakes and physical fatigue--but this time Federer found another gear: although Nadal may have slowed a bit down the stretch, it did not look like Nadal lost so much as Federer just beat him with splendid shotmaking.

The Federer fans--and they are legion, including many media members--will say that this victory clinched greatest player of all-time status for Federer; they have been singing that refrain for a decade and, as Federer aged, they became increasingly strident, pointing to every Federer accomplishment as proof of his greatness while saying that every Federer loss did not mean much because he was already past his prime.

The reality is that this match was marvelous to watch but it did not change much about the facts, even if some people will change their perceptions. As mentioned above, Nadal still owns a decisive lead in the head to head rivalry. Nadal beat Federer early (taking 12 of the first 18 matches that they played against each other, culminating in an epic 2008 triumph in the Wimbledon Final on what could be called Federer's "home court") and he has beaten Federer late (winning six of their nine matches since 2011).

Nadal still owns a better Grand Slam winning percentage (14/47, 29.8%; Federer's Grand Slam winning percentage is 18/69, 26.1%) and he has taken Federer's measure at Federer's best Grand Slam (Wimbledon) while Federer has not reciprocated at Roland Garros, where Nadal has won a record nine French Open titles (Federer's lone French Open win came without facing Nadal). Nadal owns the head to head advantage over Federer at the French Open (5-0) and the Australian Open (3-2), while Federer leads 2-1 at Wimbledon. They have never met at the U.S. Open. Nadal leads in ATP Masters/ATP World Tour Masters 1000 matches (12-4), best of five matches (11-4), clay court matches (13-2) and hard court matches (9-8).

Why would one match, as great as this one was, between a 35 year old Federer and a 30 year old Nadal weigh heavily enough to overcome that mountain of evidence pointing to Nadal's superiority? That just makes no sense. If anything, this match was an anomalous result between two players who are both past their primes, neither of whom had won a Grand Slam in years (2012 for Federer, 2014 for Nadal); the norm is for Nadal to beat Federer and to beat him in heartbreaking fashion by overpowering him. In the fifth set while trailing, Federer called the trainer over several times but if anything Nadal looked like the player who was a step slower than he had been earlier in the match. Federer may very well have aged better than Nadal and Nadal may not even be playing at 35, let alone winning Grand Slams--but when comparing two great players peak value matters more than durability, particularly when considering the fact that both players have had long careers by tennis standards.

Also, although Nadal's hard-charging style does not seem to be made for longevity--and he has always been less durable than Federer--who can dare say that Nadal cannot possibly win four Grand Slams in the next five years to tie Federer's record by the time that Nadal is the age that Federer is now? That seems unlikely--but no more unlikely than Federer emerging from a five year Grand Slam drought to outlast his greatest rival in five sets. Why have Federer's fans spent the past decade trying to close the greatest player of all-time discussion when Federer's greatest rival is still active? Reread that sentence carefully and the answer is not too hard to figure out.

Congratulations to Roger Federer for winning the Australian Open in dramatic fashion and kudos to both players for providing fantastic, high level tennis; hopefully, this is a rekindling of the rivalry and not the last, great spark.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Federer Versus Nadal: Once More, for the Ages

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest tennis players of all-time, are just hours away from facing each other once again--perhaps for the last time--in a Grand Slam Final. Many commentators are touting this as the most important head to head match of their rivalry.

I disagree with the notion that this one match--out of nearly three dozen head to head matches and hundreds of other matches in their respective careers--is the most important match for either player. Both Federer and Nadal are well past their primes and the Australian Open is indisputably the least significant of the four Grand Slams (the top non-Australian players routinely skipped this event in the 1970s and 1980s).

I am not convinced that any one match can or should be singled out as the most important but if we are going to pick one Federer-Nadal showdown to elevate above all of the others then the choice has to be Nadal's five set victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final. That Nadal triumph ended Federer's Open Era record 65 match winning streak on grass courts, it obliterated once and for all the notion that Nadal was only a clay court specialist and it paved the way for Nadal to supplant Federer as the number one ranked player in the world. That match is also arguably the greatest match in tennis history. There is no way that a match in Australia between two past their prime greats can come even close to matching the historical significance of the Wimbledon match that they contested when they were both at the peak of their powers.

Federer is such a media darling that it is easy to forget how thoroughly Nadal has dominated their head to head rivalry. Nadal leads Federer 23-11, including 9-2 in Grand Slams and 6-2 in Grand Slam Finals. Nadal beat Federer early in the rivalry (taking 11 of 17 matches prior to their 2008 Wimbledon showdown) and he has also dominated as both players moved past their primes (winning six of their eight matches since 2011). If Nadal beats Federer in the 2017 Australian Open Final then Nadal will join Roy Emerson and Rod Laver as the only players to win each Grand Slam at least twice (Federer claimed his sole French Open title by not having to face Nadal).

Federer holds the male record with 17 Grand Slam singles titles, but it is important to keep in mind that tennis professionals were not permitted to play in the Grand Slams until the Open Era began in 1968; otherwise, Rod Laver could very well have won 17 or more Grand Slams. Also, Federer has won 25% of his Grand Slam appearances (17/68), a lower percentage than Nadal's 30.4% (14/46); Federer is tennis' Emmitt Smith, a great player who set records based more on durability than dominance.

It must be mentioned in this context that Bjorn Borg, the Sandy Koufax of tennis, holds the record for percentage of Grand Slams won (11/27, 40.7%) and his simultaneous dominance of the French Open's slow clay plus Wimbledon's fast grass is unparalleled; Borg won both tournaments from 1978-80 and when he stopped playing Grand Slams at just 26 he held the modern record for most titles at both events, six and five respectively. Put Borg, Federer and Nadal in the same era with the same equipment and Borg would likely emerge as the best player based on conditioning, mental toughness and ability to dominate multiple surfaces.

Mary Carillo recently offered great insight about the Federer-Nadal rivalry: 
I have said and argued with John McEnroe and Ted Robinson during our French Open telecasts for many years that you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time. And it's not just on red clay. Nadal has the edge on hard courts as well. Like in boxing, it's all about the matchup. When Roger is playing at his luminous best he has no need to worry about the other side of the net. But if he is playing Nadal, even his best is often not enough.

People conflate [Federer's] beauty with supremacy and blur the line between high art and [Nadal's] impossible-to-ignore domination. I think Roger Federer is the most stylish, elegant and gifted tennis player I've ever seen. Roger is all that is right in this tennis world. Rafa Nadal is his perfect rival--powerful, explosive, gritty and gutsy.
Nadal has proven to be more dominant on more surfaces than Federer. Nadal owns a decisive advantage in their head to head rivalry. Nadal beat Federer in Federer's prime on Federer's best surface. I cannot imagine how this Australian Open Final would materially alter my opinion about Nadal and Federer; if Nadal wins, this is just a continuation of a well-established pattern of Nadal's superiority, while if Federer wins that would not change the fact that Nadal still owns a huge head to head advantage that he obtained when both players were at or near their primes.

Any Federer fan who hypes up this match as Federer's great opportunity to prove that he is a greater player than Nadal should be prepared to make the opposite declaration if Nadal wins; it makes no sense to act like this match matters if Federer wins but to give Federer a pass if he loses. Such thinking reminds me of a writer who years ago claimed that a Lakers-Rockets game seven would be the biggest game of Kobe Bryant's career (the writer hoped/expected that a loss would somehow define Bryant's legacy)--but after Bryant's Lakers won, this writer did not make any comment about this victory defining Bryant's legacy in a positive way.

Federer and Nadal have both defined their legacies already. This match will be one more chapter--and perhaps a poignant/nostalgic one if it turns out to be their last Grand Slam Final battle--but no one should make bold declarations about all-time rankings based on the outcome.

My prediction? Nadal wins in four sets. Either during the match or shortly thereafter, Federer will indicate that he was not at full strength physically. Nadal will be humble in victory and declare that Federer is still the greatest player; Federer's media fans will agree with Nadal and will state that Nadal's victory over an aging Federer is not really that significant (but if Federer somehow wins this match, brace yourself for a barrage of articles declaring that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time).