On the eve of Federer-Nadal 37, trying to write a preview column about the resurgence of their great rivalry has its challenges.
Roger Federer is the most accomplished tennis player of all time. With a few more strong seasons, Novak Djokovic had a good chance to overtake Federer’s lofty totals of 18 Grand Slam titles, and 302 weeks at No. 1, but his recent lapse of form leaves only Federer and Nadal in the GOAT discussion.
Assessing both of their long careers overall, Federer comes out ahead in nearly all categories – except one really really important one: the head-to-head.
Federer’s argument for being considered the greatest of all time hits a snag when you consider his main competitor during the peak years pretty much owned him. Analysts can play the surface game; but if you had to bet your life on who would win a match between the two of during their peak years, your life expectancy would be greatly enhanced by taking Nadal.
Rivalry renewal still hard to believe
But that was then. Today is now. And the current rendition of their rivalry is a little hard to grasp.
On many levels, the tennis world can’t believe that Federer-Nadal vintage 2017 is actually, really happening. I certainly can’t.
Their falloff in recent years is a relative one. Both players sat poised to win several more Grand Slam titles each were it not for the ascension of Djokovic. But leaving Djokovic aside, the two greats fell on hard times in three key areas: their health, their game, but most importantly their confidence.
Federer’s run from Australia to Sunday, when he takes on Nadal in the Miami Open final, is well documented. At 35, seemingly out of answers about how to topple Djokovic in the most meaningful matches, coming back after knee surgery and a six-month layoff, the Swiss has found another gear early in 2017.
Nadal comeback even more impressive
But in my opinion, Nadal’s comeback is even more remarkable. The 30-year-old Spaniard’s form had really fallen off – especially on the faster hard and grass-court surfaces. With his game in disarray, and his body remaining vulnerable, Nadal has been unable to compete in the ATP World Finals three of the last five years. Most crucially, Nadal had lost some of his legendary nerve; he was displaying fragility under pressure in big moments as he never had before in his career.
2016 was arguably the poorest year for both; neither player even finished the season. Yet here they are after the first quarter of 2017, both on the wrong side of 30, as the two best players, on form, on the ATP Tour.
As for their rivalry, to me it feels more nostalgic than determining. Whatever happens in Sunday’s final isn’t going to change anything about how history perceives the players, and their legacies. Whatever happens now with the two of them is pure gravy.
The tournaments, the sponsors, the television broadcasters, the ticket brokers and most of all the passionate fans of both players don’t take their meetings lightly. But as to how history will look back upon the two greats? I believe that die is cast: Fed was the GOAT, but Nadal had his number.
Rivalries tend to me more compelling when the opposing forces don’t care for each other much, and when there’s a lot at stake. With their places in history pretty well set, neither has much to prove. Additionally, the two have such immense mutual respect, I don’t think they could even feign animosity toward one another.
How will it play out Sunday? Past results do not predict future performance, but Nadal possesses an 8-4 record over Federer on outdoor hard courts. Before Federer’s victories at the Australian Open and the BNP Paribas Open, that record was 8-2 (Ed: 10 of those 12 meetings have taken place at the three tournaments in which the two will have played this year: four in Australia, three at Indian Wells and three in Miami)
Most telling in Federer’s recent form has been his serving. In 18 service games against Kyrgios Friday evening, he faced only two break points. Additionally, according to ESPN, Federer is averaging two more aces per match in 2017 than at any time in his career. That has freed up his return game to take more chances than years before, to much success.
Nadal will have to be at his bullying best to have any chance in Sunday’s final. But whichever versions of these two players show up, tennis will again be the big winner.