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.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I only see this as Fed's lone win vs Nadal at the AO. This is one reason why H2H isn't anywhere near as important as you seem to make it out to be. Fed leads 5-1 in AO titles, regardless if he's only 1-3 vs Nadal. Looking at H2H only, Nadal has a nice advantage, though small sample size; however, in reality, Fed destroys Nadal at the AO for their careers in career titles.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with the perspective expressed in your first statement but I disagree with your other conclusions.

The Australian Open is the least important Slam by far, so no one is going to rank the all-time greats purely by that metric. In fact, take that Slam out of the equation and Nadal stands on equal terms with Federer at 13 Slams each.

Nadal's 23-12 advantage over Federer is not a small sample size for a tennis rivalry. Nadal routed Federer on clay 13-2 and leads him on hard courts 9-8; only on grass does Federer enjoy a 2-1 lead (that is a small sample size).

Federer has been more durable than Nadal but Nadal's Grand Slam winning percentage is superior and if you compare them both at age 25 Nadal led in Slam wins, Masters wins and overall wins. Federer seemingly will outlast Nadal (unless Nadal finds a late career second wind to capture a few more Slams) but that does not make him greater than Nadal any more than Emmitt Smith's extra years and carries would make him greater than Jim Brown.

Anonymous said...

It might be least important, though I rate it more important than the FO now, but it's still a slam. Why would we take it out of the equation? I don't understand that. If we take the FO out of the equation, it's 17-5 in favor of Fed.

Yes, 35 matches isn't small, but 4 is. Kudos to Nadal for that, but that's only one aspect of tennis. And if Nadal was truly better than Fed, then he would have won many more slams and more hardcourt slams than Fed; however, Fed lead 10-3 for hardcourt slams.

Nadal's GS winning percentage is only better because he hasn't played as long as Fed and he's injured all the time. If he played in all the slams that he was injured(Fed has only missed 2 for his career) and/or if he continues to play til Fed's age of 35, Nadal's GS percentage would be much lower. You're giving Nadal a pass for missing tourneys because of injuries. That's part of the sport. Nadal's style of grind-it-out tennis exposes him to more injuries. His injuries are a byproduct of his style. There's many tourneys Fed has played over the years where he was far from 100% where Nadal would've missed. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Fed is the only player in the open era to win a slam past the age 31. Agassi might have 1. Outlasting Nadal is only one aspect of many why Fed is greater than him, as I've already explained some.

Unknown said...

Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic all deserve to be in the conversation for the best player of this era. The Federer-Nadal argument is one thing, but it's criminal to leave Djokovic out altogether.

David Friedman said...

I agree that in the past couple years Djokovic played his way into this discussion. The coverage of the Australian Open understandably focused on Federer and Nadal, so that comparison necessarily became the focus of my articles. I would rank Borg above both of them but in these pieces I kept the focus on Federer and Nadal.