A Rivalry for the Ages

Filed in Other, Uncategorized by on February 8, 2012

By Andrew McKenzie

Another Australian Open has been run and won. New heights in standard were reached, in what was a fantastically exciting tournament. At least in the men’s section that is. The women’s final turned out to be another anti-climax mirroring previous years. This would certainly be of some concern for tournament organisers.

No such disappointment in the men’s however with two incredible semi finals and an epic six-hour marathon final with Novak Djokovic stamping his authority as the best player in tennis today. It is a title that is thoroughly deserved.

Today though I’d like to focus on a certain match. Whilst watching the first semi final between Federer and Nadal, I listened as the commentators introduced the match as another chapter in what they claimed was the greatest rivalry in sport today.  There certainly is no arguing that these two greats of the game have forged quite the feud over recent years and are formidable opponents. But it is also a rivalry that has become very one-sided.

Federer, the man that many have already labelled the greatest of all time has a 9-18 record against his arch-nemesis, Rafa. Now before all of you reading this begin jumping up and down and start proclaiming  “yes but they were all on clay” we will take a closer look at the numbers. Nadal leads the overall head to head 18-9. On clay, Nadal leads 12-2 and on grass, Federer leads 2-1. On hard courts they are tied at 5-5. But the numbers that are probably most important to both players; grand slam matches, Nadal leads 8-2 and in tournament finals Nadal leads 13-6. There is no denying that the numbers certainly are comprehensively in Nadal’s favour.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Roger fan. In fact I even have no problem with the best-ever label, which has been given to him by many. He has, after all, won the most grand slams of all time (16) and importantly has won all four major titles. He also holds numerous other records, some of which are simply quiet astonishing, including, the record for most grand slam finals (23), of which at one point he appeared in 18 of 19. He also holds the record of 23 consecutive grand slam semi-final appearances, a feat that stretches over five and a half years.

So is he the best ever? Each person will have there own opinion on that.

What I do know is that he is definitely the best to watch. In an era where changing technology, slower balls and slower surfaces have made the game a base-liners paradise, accommodating powerhouse serving and huge heavy topspin ground strokes.

Roger is the one guy who still truly possesses all the shots.  He will willingly serve volley, knife a slice back hand and deliver a precision drop shot, often in the same rally, let alone in the same match. In amongst what can sometimes be mind numbing power tennis he gives us variety, style, angles, and deft touch. All of this delivered from a trademark skill set that no other player in tennis today possesses. His movements are gracious and swift. He elegantly glides across the surface, his feet seemingly as light as feathers brushing the court. Contrary to this, Rafael Nadal, likes to bludgeon his opponents. He will bombard them with an endless tirade of heavy spinning balls and is like an impenetrable wall of defence at the other side of the court. He turns the match into a war.  A war of attrition, a battle of the mind and heart.  There are no cheap points against Rafa and if you think you can beat him then you had better of prepared for a marathon.

Many great champions end their careers with a small asterix next to their name, that one little discretion that shows on their record, a blip.

Pete Sampras’s blip was never winning that elusive French Open title he so desperately wanted.  Roger Federer’s blip is Rafael Nadal. I think that when logical people who were never lucky enough to see The Swiss Maestro play, look back on his record they are going to struggle to comprehend how a player can be regarded as the best ever when he had such an overwhelming losing record against his main rival of the day.

The other interesting part of all this is that the next obvious rivalry that will continue at the top of men’s tennis, Nadal vs Djokovic, also appears to be heading in the same one-sided direction. Djokovic has won the pair's last seven encounters, all of which were finals.

Quite remarkable really. It is certainly an intriguing dynamic in men’s tennis at the moment. Federer can’t beat Nadal. And Nadal can’t beat Djokovic. And poor old Andy Murray, who is comfortably the best of the rest, cant beat any of them.

It seems to be the old adage, common in head to head sports, of “styles make matches.” It is something that is referred to a lot in boxing, where a certain guy’s particular style can cause problems to a better fighter. There have been plenty of great boxers with blips of their own on their record for exactly that reason. At least in boxing, if a guy’s style is causing you problems, you only have to fight him once, maybe twice. But if you are at the top of world tennis and encounter the same issue, then you have some serious problems.

For me, Nadal’s domination of Roger stems from two parts.

The first is the damage Rafa does with his forehand into Roger’s backhand. The second is in the battle of the minds. Nadal’s upbringing on the clay courts in Spain, his extreme western grip, whipping action and custom strings is the recipe that allows him to create the huge topspin on his forehand, far more than any other player ever has before. This spin sees the ball bite, jump off the court and get up quickly.

Roger is in obvious distress when Nadal hits this shot into his backhand, as it is very difficult for a player with a single-hander to control the shot if the ball gets above shoulder height. Djokovic however, has no such problems with this shot. His double-hander makes it easier for him and he often steps into the court taking the ball early well before the top of the bounce, leaving Nadal out of position well behind the base line. 

The second, as stated, is the battle of the minds. There is absolutely no doubt that Nadal is far stronger mentally than Federer. Rafa is a steely, gritty competitor who thrives on the contest. He has won so many of his matches on pure drive and determination alone. His never say die attitude and great defensive skills on the court, mean that the longer the match goes and the tighter it gets, the more likely it is, that he will win.

With Federer now 30 years of age, the rivalry is winding down and it appears it will end in a similar fashion as it currently stands; that is with Nadal well in front. There is definitely merit to the argument that half of their matches have been on clay. This has without doubt given Nadal a bigger winning margin than he would have otherwise had. But I still think if they played tomorrow on any surface other than grass or an indoor court, Nadal would start as favourite.

However it ends, both guys are certainly great champions in their own right and both have been fantastic ambassadors for the game of tennis.



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