Until he masters Nadal…

Published : Jul 18, 2009 00:00 IST

Federer’s sixth... the champion kisses the trophy after defeating Andy Roddick in the final at Wimbledon.-AP
Federer’s sixth... the champion kisses the trophy after defeating Andy Roddick in the final at Wimbledon.-AP

Federer’s sixth... the champion kisses the trophy after defeating Andy Roddick in the final at Wimbledon.-AP

Roger Federer’s inferior head-to-head record against Rafael Nadal means the title of ‘greatest ever’ may remain just out of his reach, writes Steve Bierley.

It is always unwise to predict with any degree of certainty what is going to happen in sport in the long term, particularly tennis which is open to sudden and dramatic shifts of fortune. Last year, after Rafael Nadal had beaten Roger Federer in the greatest of all men’s finals at Wimbledon, one of the questions being asked was whether the Swiss was a spent force. He answered that promptly by winning the US Open and this year has added the French Open, for the first t ime, and a sixth Wimbledon title to break Pete Sampras’s record of 14 majors.

Even when not playing at his best, which has been the case for the past 18 months, Federer has lifted his game at crucial moments and clearly deserves all the plaudits coming his way.

When, in 2000, Sampras broke Roy Emerson’s record of 12 majors which the American also achieved on the Centre Court after winning his seventh Wimbledon title — this was Federer’s sixth — it seemed it would be a mark that would stand for perhaps two or three decades, particularly when he added a further slam title at the US Open two years later on his final bow. Then along came Federer.

It is tempting to conclude that no player will ever match that richest of runs between Wimbledon 2005 and the 2007 US Open, when he won eight out of 10 slam finals. In all he has now played in 20 major finals, itself a record.

But here comes the uneasy part of the great man’s towering performances. All those five slam finals he has lost have been against Nadal, while the last three he has won have seen the Spaniard either absent, as at Wimbledon, or knocked out before the final — by Andy Murray at Flushing Meadows and Sweden’s Robin Soderling in Paris, both of whom lost to Federer in the final. Nadal, almost five years younger than Federer, has won 13 of their 20 meetings; in slam finals he holds a 5–2 advantage, and in all finals leads 11–5. While not detracting from the achievements of the Swiss, these results might, with some justification, call into question whether he can really be deemed the greatest player of the modern era.

Statistics, their head-to-heads aside, point overwhelmingly Federer’s way, although this year he had a huge slice of good fortune in Paris. Had the Spaniard been fully fit it seems unlikely Federer would have won the French Open; Wimbledon is more debatable.

The degeneration of Nadal’s knees is something that has yet to be fully explained. The problems began some time ago, though at the start of this year’s clay-court season the young Spaniard abandoned the support strapping above them, the reason apparently being that they were no longer hurting him as much. He duly defended his Monte Carlo and Rome Masters titles, as well as the lesser tournament in Barcelona, but even then there were signs he was short of his best.

The Madrid Masters, just before Roland Garros, was a tournament too far with Nadal beaten in the final by Federer the day after a four-hour semifinal against Novak Djokovic. Toni Nadal, the uncle and coach, monitors his nephew’s physical condition constantly, while also modifying his style. As he showed when beating Federer on the Australian hard courts, his game is still developing, and this shook the confidence of the Swiss to the roots. The new fascination will be to see how he will react when he plays Nadal again.

By regaining the Wimbledon title, Federer also deposed Nadal as the world No. 1. His aim is to stay there until the end of the year, just as he intends to carry on playing the game he so dearly loves for some time yet: “(My wife) Mirka would not let me retire. She wants to see me play, and just sitting at home is not the life for me.” Just how much the arrival of their first child will change matters, nobody can be sure. He only managed to get two hours’ sleep that Sunday night, and he may have to start getting used to that.

Between them Federer and Nadal have now won 17 of the last 18 slams, with only Djokovic breaking up the duopoly in the 2008 Australian Open. Andy Roddick came preciously close that Sunday and the rest, including Andy Murray, will take encouragement from this. But most eyes will now be fixed on Nadal in New York. Privately he let it be known, even before the French Open, that his main aim after winning the Australian Open was to capture the US Open title.

Tennis has been fortunate to have two such great players around at the same time, and it is to be hoped it stays that way for another couple of years at least. It might be harsh to suggest that to be truly deserving of the “greatest ever” title (and many remain on Rod Laver’s side) then Federer needs to beat Nadal a few more times in slam finals, but it remains an intriguing basis for an argument.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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