Monday, May 20, 2013

Roger Federer's French Open dilemma

Jimmy Arias won the Italian Open. Cedric Pioline won in Monte Carlo. Roger Federer has won neither.

Sergi Bruguera won two French Opens, Federer just one.

This is a lesson in how little even the greatest player of all time can control. In short, you can't pick your contemporaries.

So will the Swiss' legacy be defined by his lopsided losing record against Rafael Nadal, now at 10-20 after his straight-set loss Sunday on the Foro Italico's clay?

Now there's a loaded question. There's no way to know how many more significant tournaments Federer would have won if Rafa had become a professional footballer like his uncle. Or if the Spaniard had come of age as a player in his early twenties, as has become the norm, rather than at 18.

We do know that even with his personal tennis Kryptonite rolling along behind him, Federer has managed to win more major titles than anyone else in the history of the game.

Without Nadal around, would Federer have 20 Grand Slam titles to his name instead of 17? Maybe 23?

Their rivalry is an important part of both men's legacies, but it's hard to say at this point just how important. Ivan Lendl earned a 21-15 record against John McEnroe, his chief rival. Yet is there anyone out there who believes Lendl was the better player or made the greater impact?

One of the great things about sports is that results are entirely merit-based. There are no legitimate excuses, no ifs, ands or buts. If you win, it's not because you knew someone in HR or because you're sleeping with the boss. It's because you performed better than the other guy.

But ... tennis is a funny game.

It's all about the individual match-ups, which at the elite level involve variables beyond the straightforward differentiations of talent and motivation. Federer has dominated everyone in his generation (Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, etc.), but Rafa -- the oldest of the next generation -- has always been a problem. Nadal's mongo left-handed spin against Federer's beautiful but increasingly out-of-date one-handed backhand -- it just doesn't seem fair. At least not if you're a Federer fan.

Every player has his problem opponent. The veteran Nikolay Davydenko consistently gives the 26-year-old Nadal trouble (6-5 career H2H for Davydenko). Federer, meanwhile, has owned the gloomy Russian (19-2 for Federer).

The problem for Federer is that Nadal, unlike Davydenko, is an all-time great. The Swiss' 0-3 record against Franco Squillari, who's only slightly older than Federer than Federer is older than Nadal, is an interesting historical curiosity, but nothing more than that. Because Squillari was a middle-of-the-road player.

When it came to the rivalry with Nadal, Federer's saving statistic for years was his fast(ish)-court performance. He was, after all, a fast-court player, while Nadal was primarily a clay-court player. But even that advantage has fallen away. 

After Nadal's thumping win over Federer at Indian Wells in March, their combined hard-court and grass-court record now stands at 8-7 for Federer. After spending his first few years on tour as an unabashed clay-court specialist, Nadal grew into a great player on all surfaces, without losing his supremacy on clay. And Nadal, no matter the surface or his physical condition, has never grown tired of beating Federer; he's never had any problem working up enthusiasm for the fight.

For much of Federer's career, observers of the game have been calling him the greatest that ever was. That call should be getting even louder now that he's in his thirties and still at the top of the game. 

But the Rafa problem, even with Nadal's ongoing knee issues, refuses to go away. Federer fans now must hope that their man gets another shot at Nadal, not at the soon-to-start French Open but on Wimbledon's grass later in the summer.

Federer, however, will be forgiven if he secretly hopes he doesn't see Nadal across the net ever again.

-- Douglas Perry

Always holding on to the hope (with every passing year that hope gets squished a little bit more each time), as the article points out French Open is definitely not among the fave Grand Slams for any Federer fan.  

It's always an uphill battle, but one never knows.  One more week to go!.

No comments: