Speeding up the winning alley

Rafael Nadal, the youngest man to achieve a career slam, is now just seven short of Roger Federer's overall tally of 16 majors. If circumstances so conspire, the Spaniard will find himself — even if not actively working towards that end — accruing enough Grand Slams to mount a serious attack on Federer's world record. By Raakesh Natraj.

The previews of the U.S. Open men's final, as had appeared in most publications, had about them a certain phraseology, a particular tenor that was worth considering.

Prevalent was an endemic sense of wonderment at how, if Rafael Nadal, 24, won the U.S. Open, he would be not just the youngest man in the open era to own a career slam, but also just seven Grand Slams short of Roger Federer's overall tally of 16. It was as much an assumption of progress from Nadal's end as a prognosis of stasis at Federer's. The difference could only count down, it seemed. It did not matter that the gap could accommodate the entire slam winnings of a few all-time greats (Rod Laver has eleven, Boris Becker six, John McEnroe seven and Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors have eight each) and still have space for more. It also did not seem to matter that Novak Djokovic, the contestant who was unfortunately ignored in the whole exercise, had won the last three encounters against his opponent, and enjoyed a 7-3 career advantage on hard courts.

It was all about Federer and Nadal, each fated to devise the barometers by which the other's career would be measured, each touched by genius in different ways.

Genius is seen to bestow on its proprietor its gifts in entirety. Its package is whole. Labour is not expended in acquiring it, nor is it displayed in its dispelling. Federer, it seemed, arrived completely formed, immaculately conceived.

When Federer beat Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon 2001, he had practically arrived. The awareness was instant, that his greatness was a gown that he would grow into. Success at the slams was only a matter of time and not effort or will. His game, while going about collecting the slams, was the height of kinaesthetic perfection. The effort expended was marked by just enough efficiency in attaining the end with that bit of sparkle so as to seem invisible.

Nadal on the other hand is a beast of the will. The levers of his machinery, the shafts of his engine, were bared, like the muscle on his arm, each time he curled his limbs, letting out a ‘vamos'. It seems that his tennis flows from his rippling arms; that the strokes stem from his relentless legs instead of germinating from a mysterious seed in his brain. He ran, while Federer condescended to float. This much is known, this much is seen.

The critical difference is perhaps the role played, in their respective careers, by the passage of time, the variable that sportspersons try their utmost to suspend or disrupt.

Nadal was 17, and ranked 31 in the world, when he first faced Federer, who was four years and 10 months his senior and already marked for greatness. The Swiss also had been around the slams for long enough to have graced his way to two. Nadal won in straight sets. And the win was not a one-off as the Spaniard went on to win six of their first seven encounters, between 2004 and 2006. His game may not have been easy to circumvent, but his style was always going to be easy to denigrate.

“It's a great challenge for me because he's one-dimensional, he always plays the same way but he does it so well,” Federer said of Nadal towards the end of 2006.

Even when the slams flowed, the epithet ‘King of Clay,' like a restrictive clause, qualified, but was bound. Nadal was still the obstacle on the action plane, subduing which elevated the actual hero's status to that of a legend, his quest to that of a myth.

“He is making Federer a better player. That's all you can ask for in a rival,” said John McEnroe after Nadal's loss in the final of Wimbledon 2006, the scene of Federer's fourth consecutive Wimbledon triumph.

For a three-year stretch, between 2004 and 2006, Federer's domination was almost absolute. The first year saw Federer fall to only six opponents all year. The next year the number shrank to four. The year after that, it was two. Nadal though, was a member of the select group each time. He was still a bit-player in what was essentially Federer's script.

Hard courts were considered to be terrain that lent itself for ambush. Giant hitters, who could flatten their blows irrespective of the top-spin Nadal imparted, and clean shot-makers were always going to swat or snipe him down on hard courts. The surface seemed to chafe his knees and limit the spin, and consequently the potency of his game.

Nadal varied his play, combining aggression to his persistence. He approached the net more, picked his moments with the care than one would not associate with a baseline cruncher. He experimented with his grip to improve his serve, which was seen to be benign. He also did what he always did, and did it harder. Nadal was measured at hitting balls with a huge amount of shear, imparting as much as 3200 revolutions per second on an average while Federer was measured at 2700.

Nadal steadily turned around adverse head-to-head records against the likes of James Blake (from 0-3 to 4-3), Tomas Berdych (from 1-3 to 7-3) and David Nalbandian (0-2 to 3-2), the kind of players each with a distinct philosophy of tennis but all of a tribe that would push Nadal's then hard-court game to its extremity.

Nadal was acquiring new ways of winning points, investing in certain plays, without compensating unduly from another avenue of advantage; getting better at grass and asphalt while still maintaining a style of play that made him the dominant force on clay.

It was when Nadal got to the final of two consecutive Wimbledons, in 2006 and 2007, that his rivalry with Federer was ratified, elevated to the status of acceptance. Nadal's developing all-round skills saw him march on relentlessly towards upstaging Federer in his own backyards — on the lawns of Wimbledon and the concrete of Melbourne Park. Triumph at Wimbledon came in 2008 after two previous final appearances. He was a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open in 2007, semifinalist in 2008, before winning it in 2009. He has of course followed up two semifinal exits at the U.S. Open with the current win.

It was as if the Nadal on court at any moment was the sum of all his previous avatars, and then some. But that also meant that he would wear on him, at each moment, the scars that had been inflicted on him by each of his previous adversaries. Fatigue was cumulative. Sometimes it seemed like he had just run himself out, slumping to defeats through a combination of fatigue and the disobedience of repetitively stressed joints.

“They were saying this three years ago, that I couldn't last. And after four years I'm better than I ever was. This irritates me, no? I'm tired of people telling me I can't go on playing like this. In the end this is what makes me win, lose, everything. I can't control the way I play. I want to keep getting better,” Nadal said in 2008, the year that was marked by two slams, an Olympic gold and the ascension to the world number one spot.

His struggle with injury was something that was beyond the sphere of regular risks that Federer's style of play could possibly subject him to. The worst that Federer suffered from was match soreness while Nadal's litany was flowing out of its margins. In 2004, it was his ankle. In 2006, his foot, 2007 his knee and the next year, it was the other knee. Each degree of progress that Nadal made over time seems to have come with a graver threat of meltdown. This progression of skills and corresponding risks he was running on the chronological plane is a relationship that is unique to Nadal's brand of genius.

The only role that time seems to have played in Federer's case was to make a quite withdrawal, allowing for the Swiss to display a brand of tennis elegance that was ageless, and when it was time, to have walked in abruptly to announce the apparent end.

So, when the U.S. Open came around, it was always going to be about Federer and Nadal and if they would, like on 17 of the 21 occasions they have faced each other, meet in the final. By the time the final came around, it was still about the two — if they would face each other ever.

The question of whether Federer has a few more slams in him, or if Nadal's bid to overhaul him survives another injury jolt will serve to provide the final act of the rivalry. Nadal, at 24 years and a bit, has nine slams to his name, while Federer at the same age had six. If circumstances so conspire — and even if injury were to blight his career but not totally mar it — Nadal will find himself, even if not actively working towards that end, accruing enough Grand Slams to mount a serious attack on Federer's total of 16.

“If my career lasts for three more years, it lasts three more years. I still want to improve at tennis. If it's two years, then it's two. If it's five more years, perfect,” he said recently. Nadal's evolution has led him up an alley, continuing along whose directions he can, even without Federer having to play an active part, make the following years almost as integral a part of the great rivalry as the ones during which they actually played each other.