It is the clash of styles, I think, that makes the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal rivalry so great.
Federer is graceful. He is like watching poetry on the tennis court, each backhand winner like a Shakespearean couplet.
Did my heart love till now? Foreswear it, sight.
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.
He makes the game look easy, and only the very best are able to do that. Sometimes, this is a burden. Robbie Cano was like that, and I think it hurt how fans looked at him, particularly on defense. He was so smooth, he glided towards balls, he rarely had to dive, and sometimes it looked like he wasn’t giving his full effort, even if that wasn’t the case.
Nadal is different. He sweats, he grunts, he puts his whole body into his shots, and he makes the game look hard. He has dominated the game like few ever have, and he’s done it in a way where you can SEE just how hard and punishing his shots are. There is no mystery and no subtleness to his game.
Who is the best ever? Well, that can and will be debated for years. Federer is my favorite tennis player,* so I have a clear bias when I say that Federer is the best ever. Until Nadal matches his seventeen Grand Slams, I won’t think otherwise. Still, Nadal has dominated their rivalry, winning 23 of 33 matches. He is 13-2 against Federer on clay and 9-6 on hard courts. Federer has a slight advantage on grass, winning two of three.
*Federer might be tied with John Isner. Have I ever told my John Isner story? You probably know it. I used to work as a tennis ballboy at the Kennedy Funding Invitational in Dellwood, New York. I got to see some great players – Andre Agassi and Victoria Azarenka and John McEnroe and Isner. One time, before a match, I was hanging around the court and struck up a conversation with Isner. I told him I was starting college in the fall, and he reminisced about his days at the University of Georgia. And then, somehow, the conversation turned to fantasy baseball. He said he had just picked up a Royals pitcher named Luke Hochevar. I advised him that this was, uh, not a good decision. Three years later I stand by that advice.
Anyway, Isner was just a fringe player at the time and I didn’t think much of it … until a few months later when he won the MOST EPIC TENNIS MATCH OF ALL TIME. He is currently the highest ranked male American tennis player, #11 in the world. I just hope he dropped Hochevar.
How can Federer be the best ever when Nadal has completely and utterly dominated him? Well, two thoughts. One, their peaks didn’t exactly line up. Federer is five years older, so he started declining right as Nadal entered his prime years. Two, Federer reached the semifinals in 23 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. Let me repeat that – he reached the semifinals in TWENTY THREE consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. That’s six years. No one else has come close.
Again, I’m biased. Nadal won his ninth French Open last weekend, by far the most of anyone. He has now won 14 Grand Slam single titles, matching Pete Sampras. It is no question that most tennis fans view him as the best in the game, and, certainly, the best of all time. If you asked the average tennis fan who “the best ever” was, I think you would get these responses in these years:
1920 – 1968: Bill Tilden
1969 – 1999: Rod Laver
2000 – 2005: Pete Sampras
2006 – 2012: Roger Federer
2013 – present: Rafael Nadal
Maybe Bjorn Borg takes the title for a few years in the late 70s, or John McEnroe sneaks in there for a year or two, but on the whole Tilden and Laver were mostly viewed as the best until Sampras came around.
In comparison, here is how baseball fans view it:
1920 – present: Babe Ruth
In 2006, David Foster Wallace wrote his now classic Roger Federer as Religious Experience.
“Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s. You too may find them so, in which case Spain’s mesomorphic and totally martial Rafael Nadal is the man’s man for you — he of the unsleeved biceps and Kabuki self-exhortations. Plus Nadal is also Federer’s nemesis and the big surprise of this year’s Wimbledon, since he’s a clay-court specialist and no one expected him to make it past the first few rounds here. Whereas Federer, through the semifinals, has provided no surprise or competitive drama at all. He’s outplayed each opponent so completely that the TV and print press are worried his matches are dull and can’t compete effectively with the nationalist fervor of the World Cup.
The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar. He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to. His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces.”
It was, and is, inspiring to watch Federer at work. I haven’t felt that way about too many athletes. Mariano Rivera was like that. It was a transcendent feeling to watch Rivera, and the same for Federer, as if every backdoor cutter or forehand down the line was a commentary on life.
So, now that I think about it, does it really matter who the best ever is? I’m not sure it does. Because there are people that feel the same way about Nadal – or Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray or Serena Williams – as I do about Federer. It is an exceptional time for tennis. There are a lot of good players in the game. As a fan, it is something I try not to take for granted.