Thursday, 21 October 2010

Roger, Rafa & The Weak Era

Roger Federer is overrated. Rafael Nadal is overrated. Their rivalry is overrated. Is any of this actually true?

Men’s tennis is currently in an odd place. There are only two guys worthy of in depth discussion, and a handful of hopefuls who haven’t proven much more than the ability to hit a few flashy shots , dominate lesser players, and occasionally push the two guy who are undoubtedly the world’s best.

Obviously Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the two best tennis players in the world. They’re rankings and stat sheets point to that unwavering truth. Let’s digest the facts. These two have won 24 Grand Slam Singles titles since 2004. Look at it this way, since 2004 28 Grand Slams tournaments have been contested. Honestly I’m struggling to hold back laughter at this point; these two guys have won 89% of all important tournaments played since 2004. This is a level of domination that has never been seen in tennis before, and quite frankly I’m willing to bet the farm that it’s never happened in any other sport.

Federer and Nadal have been the only players who have touched the number one ranking since early 2004 when Roger Federer wrestled the mantle away from American Andy Roddick. No one aside from Nadal has even sniffed the top spot. Men’s tennis has been a two man race for so long, that its prompted many former champions and media pundits alike to proclaim that at least one of these two guys is the greatest tennis player who ever lived, and the other is must be right up there with him. The numbers support this idea, but does that make it true?

I caught a hell of a lot of flack about a year ago for introducing an idea. I knew what I was getting into, but I’ve never been afraid of a little confrontation, so I went with it. The idea was that perhaps numbers do lie. Perhaps as good as Roger Federer is, he’s benefitted from entering his prime during what I call a “lame duck” period of men’s tennis. A time during which a changing of the guard was occurring, an in between time where the talent pool at the very top of the sport was a bit shallow. Boy, did I catch it! Honestly, I can understand why fans of the “Maestro” would be so sensitive about such an issue. I can see how people would think that I was dismissing their favorite player as a fraud. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until the cows come home, Roger Federer is without a doubt one of the best tennis players any of us has ever seen. Federer is perhaps the greatest pure shot maker who ever lived, and perhaps the only tennis player I’ve ever seen who actually fully lived up to his potential. I’ll give the man his credit; he’d earned it and then some.  But with that being said, I’m not going to gloss over the truth.

As big a fan as I am personally of Andy Roddick, and I do admire the man’s heart and perseverance, Andy was a very good player. Andy was not a great player. Andy would never have touched the number one ranking at any time other than he did. Roddick is a solid top 10 guy; he’s been that for the better part of his career, but world number one caliber talent? No. Sounds harsh? I don’t believe it does. Roddick is a brutally honest guy, it’s one of the reasons I like him so much, he dishes it out and he can take it. Roddick is a guy who is maybe top five on a great day, but more or less and guy whose game and talent would place him in the number six to ten range. He’s a strong guy, with a huge serve, and a decent baseline game. He also a guy who has one career victory of Andre Agassi, despite the fact that the majority of their six career meetings occurred when Andre was senior citizen (by tennis standards) in his mid 30’s. Andy was in his early 20’s, and his one victory over the aging Agassi came on grass at Queen’s in deciding set tie breaker, when Andy was arguably playing the best tennis of his life during the summer of 2003. That tells me something right there.

I look at guys like Lleyton Hewitt, another former world number one and extremely hard working player. Hewitt was one of the fastest players in the history of the sport, yet his pedestrian racquet head speed and chronically low first serve percentage would have kept him clear of the number one ranking in any other era except the one in which he achieved it.  Lleyton is another very good player, who falls short of greatness, definitely a top 10 guy in most eras but not a guy who was ever going to pile up more than three or four majors tops.

The list goes on; I could bring up the two most talented head cases that’ve ever lived in David Nalbandian and Marat Safin. These guys were supposed to give us some entertaining rivalries with Roger Federer during the first half of the 2000’s, but both fell woefully short for one reason or another. Federer enjoyed a period for about a year and a half where I think he had a real shot at not losing a single tennis match. Seriously. While the players from 15 in the world on down to the challenger circuit were getting fitter, serving bigger, and getting better in general, the talent at the very top of the sport hadn’t yet evolved. There was Federer, and then about five or six hard working overachievers. Guys who would never be making Grand Slam Finals in any other era. They’re ball striking, firepower, movement, and just overall talent wasn’t up to par. That’s the truth like it or not.

In fairness, the same critical eye needs to examine Rafael Nadal’s rise to power. If we’re going to be realistic with Roger the same must apply to Rafa.

Frankly put, while certainly far more gifted players have come onto the scene since 2005 (namely Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Gael Monfils, and Jo Wilfred Tsonga to name a few) only Djokovic has show the ability to go all the way. Physically, these younger guys are the first of their breed. Big, fast, and strong, athletically these guys along with Nadal are simply put, the best pure athletes the sport has ever seen. Arthur Ashe was a game changing kind of athlete, later Bjorn Borg and Boris Becker, and eventually Pete Sampras pushed the bar even higher. But, today’s top players are physically superior to all of those legends. Being athletic is one thing, but the real active ingredient of a championship level tennis player is his shot making skills. This is where guys like Hewitt and Roddick fall short. Obviously, Federer and Nadal can both hit any shot in the book and few that aren’t in the book as well. But what of the rest? Del Potro is without a doubt a pure talent. We’ll have to see what happens as his career progresses. Murray and Djokovic have the hands and the ability to change the flight path of the ball on a dime. Monfils and Tsonga have perhaps the purest combination of raw speed and pure pace of shot in the world. But all of that means absolutely nothing if a player cannot stay healthy, or isn’t savvy enough to put his gifts to work correctly.

What we are left with now is a group of guys at the very top of the sport, who in stark contrast to the Roddick and Hewitt era, are very physically gifted but lack the mental fortitude and tennis savvy that Roddick and Hewitt had in spades. It’s like one group has what the other is lacking, and only two guys in the entire sport have managed to put everything together correctly. What does mean? Well, it simple: both Federer and Nadal have benefitted from a less than stellar decade of competition in men’s tennis. In essence they both have played in a relatively weak era. The only reason why their combined 25 Majors titles have real value is because they’ve proven their worth against each other. In other words I know Roger Federer is a great tennis player primarily because he faced Rafael Nadal and played him very tough most of the time. I know he’s a real champion because he defeated Nadal in the Final of Major Championship. Only great player beat great players in big matches. Likewise the fact that Rafael Nadal has beaten Roger Federer so many times in Major Championships proves how great a player he is. If one existed without the other, there is little doubt in my mind that we’d be witnessing Slam numbers that would obliterate anything that we’re even seeing now?

Does this mean that one is better than the other? Greater? I believe that these are two totally different things. Objectively , when I compare shot for shot Federer at his best and Nadal right now, I think that Nadal is a better tennis player overall. He simply can do more, and he seems to have a higher aptitude for the game. He can add things to his base game, and transform his style in ways that I don’t think Roger ever did. But the question of greatness is a completely different matter. For example, Marat Safin is superior tennis player than Jim Courier. He took the ball earlier, served bigger, returned better, and was a better athlete all around. Yet Courier is the greater Champion. So it’s possible that when all is said in done with both Federer and Nadal, Nadal could be the better tennis player while Federer could be considered greater.

I will say that while for the most part the concept of “greatness” is an abstract idea useful only to fans and lay people who want to argue their opinion, when a player accomplishes something so extraordinary as to set a record for most Grand Slam titles, or do something which has never been done before such as to win four consecutive Majors on four surfaces, they at least beg to be a part of that abstract discussion.

Courtesy: Bleacher Report

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