Rafael Nadal, the new Wimbledon champion, announced his withdrawal from the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart yesterday, citing a knee problem. He might as well have added complete physical and mental exhaustion, coming as it does less than 24 hours after a match that is already being called the greatest ever played.
While the arguments about Nadal-Federer versus Borg-McEnroe, the 1980 version rather than the 1981 which was mere port and cigars compared to Borg’s semi-final with Jimmy Connors a few days earlier, rage among the British public, the global tennis circus wakes up this morning contemplating a new order. At least it would if the computer caught up and recognised Nadal as the best player on the planet at the current time.
That has prompted many critics to engage the services of a stonemason to begin Federer’s epitaph but they should either delay making the call or, if they’ve already done so, ask him to bide his time because a few important points have to be made.
What cannot be doubted is that Nadal played better than Federer, for three sets at least and deserved to be the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win Grand Slams in Paris and London in the same year. Viewed in its entirety, his body of work on the night was less flawed. It contained half as many unforced errors (27 against 52) and four times as many converted break points.
Federer’s backhand was horrible for the first two hours and his forehand let him down at the end while on either wing Nadal was – pardon the oxymoron, a model of brilliant, scintillating consistency.
However, it must be remembered that as incredible as Nadal was, Federer has been way below his best for the first half of the season and still managed to give the form player in the world a two-set start yet keep him on court for nearly five hours. Nadal won just five more points, 209 to 204 and people want to write Federer off?
Perhaps they should look deeper. Nadal has five Slams against Federer’s 12 and the next one is the US Open, which begins in Flushing Meadow in seven weeks’ time.
Nadal has never been past the quarter-final in New York, Federer has won the title the last four years running. This is where Nadal’s knees come in to play, or rather don’t.
American hard courts are rough on the 22-year-old’s limbs. The stress he puts on his body with his ground-churning movement requires a surface that gives a little. Flushing Meadow gives nothing and suits Federer’s soft shoe shuffling perfectly.
If Nadal wants to land a second blow on Federer’s supremacy, it must come at the US Open after eight months of pounding the indoor, clay and grass – and this year relocating to Beijing and the Olympic Games for what is effectively a fifth Major. Do that and the stonemason can start with the chiselling.
Do it not and Federer, who will have to face a sterner challenge from Novak Djokovic and even Andy Murray than either managed at the All England Club, will be in the ascendancy.
What we have at present, is the enjoyable image of two competitors perched on the top step of the Olympic podium, struggling for the right to stand alone. If Federer were to end up second again in either China or America there will be no silver lining, only cloud.
Amid this uncertainty, you cannot have regime change without chaos, is the fact we have a rivalry worthy of being considered among the very greatest the sport has had. When we look back in 20 years’ time as we do now on Borg-McEnroe or Becker-Edberg, Federer-Nadal will perhaps be considered the best.
Nadal has come to define himself by his pursuit of Federer. What will happen if and when the chaser becomes the chased? Will Nadal be able to evolve his game to suit all surfaces the way Federer’s does? Will his body withstand the pursuit of greatness which, until glandular fever found him earlier in the year, Federer’s had?
And where does this leave Murray? The Scot is a fine player with a fighter’s temperament but he played Nadal’s reputation in their quarter-final more than he played the man and was timorous to the point of self-loathing.
He needs to beat Djokovic or Nadal in the next six months to catch up with peers who have left him behind. While he has the court management and mobility of the best, he lacks the raw, winner-from-anywhere power. His first serve has improved but he needs it to operate at 65 per cent instead of 50; his second serve needs more of everything.
For Djokovic he must claim either Rafa or Roger’s scalp in the coming months because on the evidence of Sunday, here are two men who can play some of the best tennis of their careers on the highest stage in virtual darkness. For that, Federer deserves another few months before his crown is awarded to somebody else.