Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the best things in contemporary sport. It has been so for some time now. Usain Bolt runs infrequently. Cricket has credibility and overkill issues. Football matches frequently disappoint. At the World Cup in South Africa, the biggest attraction was a has-been in a suit and a beard. (But what a has-been.)
On the other hand, the matches involving Nadal or Federer, especially in the four Grand Slams, consistently meet expectations. A Grand Slam round featuring Nadal or Federer guarantees you four things necessary for a satisfying sports experience: great shots, great athleticism, personal charisma and a sense of occasion. Say what you will about tennis, its four majors have retained the prestige that only a long history can bring.
It is a few days since the 2010 season concluded with Nadal winning the US Open and answering the last desperate challenge of Federer fans. “But can he win the US Open?” they asked, hoping he wouldn’t, knowing he most likely would. They knew that the surface debate was a feeble one, just like their disproportionate indignation over his delaying tactics. It was another sign of their desperation to protect Federer’s throne. If Nadal, a baseline beast to begin with, could develop a classical backhand slice that would do Ken Rosewall proud, rush the net, serve so effectively so as to top the 2009 stats for break points saved, he could certainly conquer a surface that was a bit faster. It was a matter of time. Federer fans knew it.
Like the hosts of a party sitting on a couch long after the guests have left, draining off the remaining wine and talking about the evening that was, tennis fans now find themselves in the mood to analyse the season that was. And Nadal was the life of the 2010 party. When Juan Martin del Potro thrashed him 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 at the 2009 US Open, it seemed Nadal’s best days were over. Maybe he would win a Slam a year for a couple of years, we thought. But not three big ones the very next year.
(Del Potro is a rare player who has the power to blast Nadal off the court. But he was injured the entire year. Federer fans harp on Del Potro’s absence being a lucky break for Nadal. Federer himself said this indirectly at this year’s Wimbledon. Fair point. But then they should not forget that Federer enjoyed his share of luck at the 2009 French Open, when Robin Soderling cleared his path by defeating Nadal.)
Till the 2009 French Open, Federer was arguably the ‘Greatest of All Time’ (I refuse to use the acronym G.O.A.T). After his victory in Paris, there was general, if not complete, agreement that he was indeed the Greatest. ‘Federer ends the debate’ was the headline in the Indian Express. I remember liking the headline. It was simple, and without cliché. It did not call Federer ‘FedEx’. Best of all, it captured the sentiment of the time.
Federer may have ended the debate then but now Nadal has reopened it. At this point, Federer cannot be called the Greatest of All Time. Nor can Nadal. I agree with the view that only after the two have retired can we say who was better.
But there are smaller questions that can be answered now with conviction. Nadal has proved himself the better competitor of the two. He has proved himself the one more willing to improve, and therefore more humble. Nadal accepted that he was far from a complete player, and added dimensions discussed above. Federer did not add to his wherewithal, not to the extent Nadal did. That was arrogant of him. He wanted to continue winning in his own aristocratic way. A Vogue forehand here, a Park Avenue backhand there, finished off with another forehand, this one from Hermes. But the challenge of the moment demanded that he get off his high horse and get his hands dirty, get some hard hats and work shirts in the wardrobe. There is no doubt about the beauty of Federer’s game. But it continues to have surprising gaps. For a man said to possess every stroke in the book, he is an average volleyer, capable of a put-away but not more. He gets easily passed.
Ouch. That must have hurt Federer fans. I can feel Anna Wintour staring at me in an intimidating way. What! Now her stiletto is pressing into my throat, choking me. “Please, Anna, let me finish.” Gasp.
Oxygen back in my brain, there is a point I want to make in Federer’s defence, a reminder to biased critics. Federer does not get as much credit for his wins over Nadal at Wimbledon 2006 and 2007 as he deserves. People make it sound like Nadal was a pushover in those years. That is not true. He was already a winner of multiple Grand Slam titles. Besides, even then, Federer had a mental block against him. That means by beating him on those two occasions, Federer proved that he could win battles of the head. He even won a set 6-0. We should not disregard that.
Some rabid members of the Rafa army also undervalue the importance of beautiful tennis, and therefore Federer. If and when the sport passes into the hands of boring grinders or power hitters, when the nightmarish mid-90s revisit, they will crave for the days of the aristocratic Swiss, when the sport was a joy to watch.
What will happen next year? Federer fans will look towards Paul Annacone, the man who coached Pete Sampras and is now on Team Federer, to guide Federer to one career defining win over Nadal. Nadal fans will want him to move up from nine Slams to within striking distance of Federer’s 16. In some corner of the globe, some kid will want to build a game that in future will take down the best player in the world. And right now, the best player in the world is Rafael Nadal.