Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Couple Of Quick Thoughts On Nadal-Federer

You know, it takes a special kind of someone to convince someone with thirteen Grand Slam titles, 5 consecutive years with a number one ranking, and an ungodly streak of Grand Slam semis made that they can't win before they even step on the court with you, but that's what Rafa Nadal has done to Roger Federer. I watched the first three sets of the Australian Open final (my body finally gave out at 6:05 a.m.), and the only times when Federer looked like he believed he could win were when Nadal was off his game.

To be clear, this was sort of predictable - I think entire psychology courses at graduate school can be organized around what Nadal did to Federer's mental make up at Wimbledon last year - but seeing it in the flesh was kind of overwhelming in a very sad way. As a big Roger Federer fan, it became clear to me that he would never again beat Rafa Nadal. He might still break Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slams, but he's going to have do it the circuituous way: hope someone else knocks Nadal out, and then take that someone else out (against everyone else on tour, Federer is sublime).

Also, how much do you think Federer is going to think about those six break points in the third set (three at 0-40 at 4-4, then two at 15-40 at 5-5, and then another in the same game after Rafa got it to deuce)? Wait, I think this answers my question:


I'm sorry, I really don't want to beat up on Federer. He's an absolute class act, always has been, is a fantastic ambassador for the spot (along with Rafa, no doubt) and filled me - a Slams-only kind of tennis fan - with absolute joy over the last five years. But while the "who's the greatest of all time" question remains unanswered, I think we can safely say that it's not Federer: he's now lost to his main rival 13 out of 19 times, and in the final of three different Grand Slams, on three different surfaces. That's not GOAT material, I'm afraid.

Photo credit: AFP/William West

19 comments:

MYK said...

Dude it was so difficult watching the ceremony. You really had to feel for the guy because, as you said, its got to be so fucking debilitating knowing you just are never going to beat this one guy no matter what you do.

And he probably hates himself for thinking like that, but can you blame him? Right now I wonder whether he's thinking if there's any point in getting to the finals at Roland Garros.

However, while I dont want to cast any doubt on Rafa's win, Federer lost this match more than Rafa won it. In one of the sets, Fed's first serve percentage was a sickening 39%. And he served SHIT throughout the match. No, its not that Rafa returned whatever Fed dished out. Fed genuinely served terribly. Additionally, im sure there is SOMETHING Federer can do about the heavy topspin Rafa directs towards his backhand. There's no way you'll convince me that's a technical barrier Roger cant overcome. Magar woh choro. Just serving more solidly would have, i believe, won him the game.

But then i guess you can always come back and say that if Rafa had only played three sets against Verdasco, he would have beaten Roger in 3 - a point i'd find difficult to argue with.

I dont think Roger can never beat Nadal. Im sure he thinks that. But if he is looking for SOME kind of solace or comfort, then this match should give him more hope than the Wimbledon final did.

MYK said...

Oh. And building on your point about how Fed can still win slams: I have the perfect solution for him.

Drop TWO places down the rankings. Not one. He needs to be number 4. Because the number 1 and 3 players always face each other in the semis. That way he can let Murray finish of Nadal and then dispatch Murray in the final.

Easy peasy. With this plan, he can actually allow himself to lose matches here and there. He can only play at his best in finals, and maybe win the odd tour even to mantain his number 4 spot.

Ahsan said...

To your first comment, I don't think Federer can draw anything resembling hope from this match. This was the last unconquered surface for Rafa. There are no final frontiers left for him, to use Steve Waugh's famous phrase.

On your second comment, I'm not a 100% sure of this, but I don't think that's how tennis seedings work. I think 1 and 2 are placed in opposite sides of the draw, and then everything else is random (i.e. 3 could be with 1 OR 2, any one of 5 or 6 could be with 1 or 2, and so on). Could a more educated fan help us out here?

Anonymous said...

Under a seeding system, there are thirty-two seeded players in a tournament of one hundred and twenty-eight players like the Aussie Open. When they reach the round of thirty-two, if all the seeds have survived then seed number one should play number thirty-two, seed number two should play number thirty-one and so forth. In the round of eight, number one should play number eight and continue until the two highest seeds meet in the final. The top two seeds are placed in opposite halves, assuring they can't possibly meet before the semifinals.


Vamos Rafa!
I believe this win comes down to mental strength of Rafael and his ability to change the game. Rafael once again proved he is a competitor who can never be counted out.
His positive attitude, never-say-die spirit, resilience, dogged defense and his mental edge over Federer made him the king of the grand slam. I loved his decency in saying 'sorry I know what this meant to you Roger'. He was gracious in victory, much deserved. He is a true champion.

Federer seemed a little down in the later sets. It was astonishing to see such a experienced professional break down. His tears have really touched me, almost suggested a knowledge that his great days are over. There is no doubt about his skills. Federer is still the best tennis player in the world provided he isn't playing Rafael.

Ahsan said...

Anon447:

On the seeding question, I think you are wrong. If you are right, then in the quarters, the third seed should play the sixth seed.

In the US Open in 2008, the third seed was Djokovic. The sixth was Murray (http://www.usopen.org/en_US/bios/index.html). If you were correct, they should have met in the quarters.

But Djokovic played Roddick (the 8th seed) in the quarters, and in fact, wasn't even in the same half of the draw as Murray (evinced by the fact that Federer beat Djokovic in the semis and then Murray in the final).

I think this is how it is:

1. 1st and 2nd seeds get placed in opposite sides of the draw.

2. 3rd and 4th seeds get placed in opposite sides of the draw, but it is an open question whether 3 gets drawn with 1 or 2.

3. Two out of the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th seeds get placed in opposite sides of the draw, and the other two are treated similarly, but again leaving open which side they're placed.

4. And so on (i.e. any 4 out of 9-16 on one side, other 4 on other, but leaving to random chance which seeds and which side).

AKS said...

Federer bottled it. The only set in which he looked like comfortable was the fourth. Nadal wasn't playing flawless tennis either. But Nadal at 27, without suffering a major injury - the best ever by some margin.

These two were glorious to watch, apart from the awards ceremony that is.

All this bull shit humility, "Oh Nadal, you're a great champion," "Oh Federer, no you're a great champion." "No you are," "No you are."

Just shut the fuck up! And stop thanking KIA and GE Money (Nadal), start acting fucking cocky (nobody will begrudge you if you do), party with Safin and go have a threesome with two Venezuelan Victoria's secret models.

By the way, (I think I mentioned this to Ahsan earlier) you know that its over for Federer the day that he breaks up with Mirka and starts fooling around with supermodels.

Another (rather obvious) point about seeding: Seeds don't face each other in the first round, and I don't think any of the top-16 meet each other before the third round.

Ahsan said...

AKS:

Good point. Federer needs to dump Mirka, shave his head, get a tattoo or three, and start making public pronouncements like "Nadal is Carlos Moya with better luck". Becoming a bad-ass is his only shot to make this is a real rivalry.

shez said...

Federer's still got 3-4 good years left, and the kind of strain rafa puts on his body everytime he plays, dont count on him to continue being this good in 3-4 years.

I think federer can never claim to be the best ever unless he beats rafa, and i wouldnt bet against it.

zeyd said...

I don't know why Rafa can't be the GOAT himself. He's won 3 of the 4 grand slams (he's gonna win the US soon right?), and he can go on winning the French for at least the next 4-5 years.

So, he as 6 now.

Add 4 more French's, 2 U.S, 2 more Aussies, and just one more Wimbledon.

That's 15 total on all surfaces. GOAT.


Pity he supports Madrid.

Ahsan said...

Shez:

Honestly, I've heard the "Nadal can't possibly last more than 3-4 yrs" argument before (I've probably even made it myself), but I'm beginning to doubt it. Nadal's an absolute beast physically, and maybe he's just going to be an exception.

Zeyd:

I agree that Nadal could conclusively end the GOAT debate himself, but one thing we have to keep in mind is how confident we all were about Federer beating Sampras' record a few yrs ago. Who's to say Nadal won't end up falling prey to his own personal Rafa (i.e. someone who he simply cannot beat)?

zeyd said...

Ahsan,

Sure, we thought Fed would easily surpass Pete's record, but we were also pretty skeptical about whether he was ever going to win the French. And, you know, you can't be the GOAT unless you've won on all 4 surfaces, agreed?

So Rafa won Wimbledon, the one most ppl thought would allude him, and has only the U.S to go. If he wins that, then it's only quantity holding him back from being the GOAT.

I'd argue that he should still be considered the GOAT even if he 'only' wins 10-12 slams, as long as he's won them all at some point.

Btw Rafa's 22. Federer hadn't even won a slam yet at the same age.

Ayaz said...

I'm a tennis nut.

Seeding at Grand Slams (Offical Sources)

Computer rankings are used as a basis for the seeding of 32 players in most of the singles championships (barring Wimbledon, who have a discretionary system based on "past performance", etc.). The first and second seeds are placed, respectively, at the top and bottom of the draw. All remaining seeds are then placed by ballot in designated positions in the draw, followed by the remainder of the field, which is randomly drawn from top to bottom of the draw by IBM computer technology.

Nadal & the GOAT discussion

I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. I would start the discussion when he wins a couple more non-French slams. There are some other problems for Nadal as he looks to do that. No one denies that he'll rule on clay. But that would just make him the greatest version of (former world #1 and clay-court guru) Thomas Muster, an association no GOAT would want. He's already won Wimbledon, but one Wimbledon is as many as Agassi won (and he's non-existent in the GOAT discussion despite being the only player since Laver to win all the Grand Slams - and 8 of them total!). In order to become the GOAT, he'll have to not only win over 14 slams, but - for some duration - dominate on hard courts. That doesn't seem likely. Even discounting injuries, past history, style of play, etc. here are some reasons Nadal will continue to have a hard time on hard courts:

Novak Djokovic
Djokovic's hard-court record against Nadal is 4-3, and each of those wins was in straight sets. No doubt Djokovic relishes the matchup because he can play deep and consistently from either flank. His flaky retirements aside, Djokovic will always be a major threat to Nadal on hard courts.

Andy Murray
Nadal leads the hard-court head-to-head against Murray 3-1, but each of them was close - Murray lost the first of those in 5-sets and won the last match they played in 4-sets at the US Open last year. Murray is a complete player now and I wouldn't be surprised if their head-to-head was level after 2009.

Technical Point: Djokovic & Murray don't suffer at all against Nadal's lefty forehand as Federer does with his one-handed backhand, coz they are a) taller with great reach, and b) are able to take the rising ball to the double-fisted backhand with ease. They are also both younger than Nadal, play a "physically less demanding game", and probably have a lot more room for improvement.

Roger Federer
Yes, Federer. Despite losing the heart breaker to Nadal at Wimbledon 2008, Federer came back strongly to win the US Open. It's not his fault that someone else (Murray) beat Nadal, but that possibility will always keep Federer motivated, despite the mental block against Nadal. The problem for Nadal is not that Federer will beat him in a Slam final (although that might happen too, e.g. at Wimbledon or the US Open). It's that as the years roll on, when Federer is "merely" a top-5 player, the expectations from him (and pressure) will subside and then no one will want to face him in the quarters or semis of a slam. Including Nadal. Federer's past statements make it clear that he won't quit on his mission to win 15 slams, and will probably get there by winning Wimbledon and / or the US open in the coming years, like Sampras did at the end of his career.

In the meantime, for Nadal to become the GOAT, he will at least have to top some of the Federer / Sampras career achievements: 13 / 14 total slams (this is not a given for Nadal, despite his age), world #1 for 4 / 6 years straight, multiple hard court slams, umpteen consecutive slam semi-finals, multiple year-end ATP Masters Cup championships.

He may get there, but the bar is already pretty high. Federer at his peak was looking like a shoe-in for 16-18 slams. Apart from the consistent Djokovic / Murray threat, I wouldn't be surprised if Nadal's progress at the hard court slams gets halted by Tsonga/Berdych-type baseline bashers, and at Wimbledon by Karlovic/Roddick-type 140 mph servers. And who knows how super-talents like Ernests Gulbis (remember this name) or even the French connection of Tsonga / Monfils / Simon / Gasquet etc. will turn out in the next couple of years.

Another side point: Nadal has an absolute mountain of points to defend from clay court victories in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Hamburg & the French Open all the way to a couple of grass court wins at Queen's and Wimbledon last year. A dip in form or an injury during this time would mean the end of the #1 ranking for Nadal in 2009.

In Defeat

Look at Nadal's last 12 losses. It's a telling picture because of how easily and often Nadal loses to solid hard court players, of which there are many on the ATP Tour. 9 out of these 12 matches were lost in straight sets. These are the players who continue to beat Nadal often enough to give Federer a look at each of the other 3 slams.

Chennai Final: Youzhny 6-0 6-1
Australian Open Semi: Tsonga 6-2 6-3 6-2
Rotterdam R16: Seppi 6-3 3-6 6-4
Dubai QF: Roddick 7-6 6-2
Indian Wells Semi: Djokovic 6-3 6-2
Miami Final: Davydenko 6-4 6-2
Rome (clay) R32: Ferrero 7-5 6-1
Cincinnati Semi: Djokovic 6-1 7-5
US Open Semi: Murray 6-2 7-6 4-6 6-4
Madrid Semi: Simon 3-6 7-5 7-6
Paris QF: Davydenko 6-1 ret.
Qatar QF: Monfils 6-4 6-4

Meanwhile look at Federer's last 12 losses. Only 3 were lost in straight sets and there were 11 tie-breaks.

Rome QF: Stepanek 7-6 7-6
Hamburg Final: Nadal 7-5 6-7 6-3
Roland Garros Final: Nadal 6-1 6-3 6-0
Wimbledon Final: Nadal 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7
Canada R32: Simon 2-6 7-5 6-4
Cincinnati R16: Karlovic 7-6 4-6 7-6
Beijing Olympics QF: Blake 6-4 7-6
Madrid Semi: Murray 3-6 6-3 7-5
Masters Cup RR: Simon 4-6 6-4 6-3
Masters Cup RR: Murray 4-6 7-6 7-5
Qatar Semi: Murray 6-7 6-2 6-2
Australian Open Final: Nadal 7-5 3-6 7-6 6-3 6-2

Despite the fact that he's not dominating as he once was, and that Nadal is the world #1, Federer is still expected to contend for every non-clay tournament he enters. The Australian Open 2009 result might change that slightly, but it won't change the fact that other players will always have some trouble for Nadal to keep Federer in the hunt.

AKS said...

@ Ayaz

Now that is one hefty comment! I was actually thinking along the same lines about the whole Nadal GOAT issue.

My initial thought, as mentioned above, was that Nadal may be considered the greatest ever by some margin, but that was based on the assumption that he will continue to meet, and beat, Federer in the finals. Nadal doesn't dominate the game like Federer did.

Moreover, while it is impossible to ascertain, I would contend that Federer at his best would have beaten the likes of Sampras and Agassi (sorry zeyd) at their best (maybe Agassi would've pipped him on clay). The same cannot be said about Nadal - Sampras kills him on grass and hard court, while Agassi does so on hard court.

I can't really comment about earlier players as I didn't watch the game prior to the the mid 90's.

Ahsan said...

Ayaz:

Really good and informed (and informative) comment. Thanks for that.

Ayaz said...

This is a good article.

Danish said...

I think Federer already has a strong argument for GOAT.

If success on different surfaces is a criterion, he is second only to Agassi, who won all four majors (Laver won when all the majors were on grass).

If number of majors is a criterion, Federer is second only to Sampras and will probably equal or top that.

If consistency is a criterion, Federer by many measures is on top, with his streak of 19 consecutive major semifinals and longest ever stay at the number one spot.

Federer has played frequently against two or three "generations" of players (Agassi/Sampras - Federer/Safin/Roddick - Nadal/Murray) and generally has winning records against rivals (if that counts as a criterion). He has lost to Nadal a lot but has won against him too. In 2007, when Federer was more at his peak than he has been the last year, he beat Nadal on clay in Hamburg (ending an 81 match streak on clay courts) and on the other two surfaces.

I'm not saying Federer is definitely GOAT but on all GOAT criteria that I can come up with, he is at or near the top. I don't think we can dismiss him as NOT-GOAT.

Ahsan said...

Danish:

Don't you think "rising to the challenge of your number 1 rival" is a criterion for GOAT? The one thing we can say about guys like Michael and Tiger was that any pretender to their throne was summarily dispatched. How can Federer be the GOAT if he almost-literally cowers in the face of his primary rival?

Danish said...

I do think "rising to the challenge of rivals" is a criterion. I think it can be argued that Federer was dispatching all potential rivals when he was at his peak (2004 - 2007) on all surfaces but clay (and not doing a bad job on that surface).

If he had emotionally broken down (like Borg) at the end of 2007 and called it quits with 12 majors and the 4 greatest years in the open era, I think he would be in the GOAT discussion. Why should we take that away from him?

I hope Federer hits another purple patch (I think he has played better this year than he did last year), conquers his Nadal demons and ends this debate - but I don't think it is fair to count him out, even if he doesn't.

Ahsan said...

Danish:

Actually, that's a fair point: if Federer was considered the GOAT (or in the discussion) at the end of 2007, nothing that has happened since then should be impinging on what he did up to then. It would be the equivalent of calling MJ something other than the greatest because of those two godawful years with the Wizards.