It started as whispers from London in early July. Rafael Nadal had just won his second Wimbledon title and eighth major overall, defeating Tomas Berdych in straight sets. It was Rafa’s 14th straight victory there – something that only names like Laver, Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Sampras, and Federer could attest to. It was his second straight major championship, proving that he had effectively bounced back from the knee injury that had taken its toll in 2009. He joined a very short list (Bjorn Bork and Rod Laver) of people who won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same calendar year twice.
But more importantly, that 8th major championship put him on a pace that was ahead of someone five years older than him – someone many have considered the greatest of all-time. Nadal had won his 8th major just a short month after turning 24 – Federer was a short month away from 25 when he won his 8th major at Wimbledon in 2006. Fans started looking at the head-to-head records (Nadal had a 14-7 record against Federer after Wimbledon) and wondered how Federer could be considered the greatest of all-time. With all this losing to Nadal, was he even the greatest of this generation?
That talk dominated the tennis media for quite awhile this year. The head-to-head record is slightly misleading – Nadal has a large edge on Federer because they’ve met on clay numerous times – over half their matches, in fact. Nadal is king of clay; he holds a 10-2 record against Roger on the red-brown surface. Federer has lost an astonishing five grand slam finals to Nadal. He conceivably could have 21 major titles if it wasn’t for Rafa (compare that to two losses for Rafa to Federer in grand slams, which would bring his 9 up to 11).
But it must be said too that Rafa hasn’t just beaten him on clay, but on every surface now for these major championships (Wimbledon in ’08 in the greatest tennis match I’ve ever seen and then the Aussie Open in ’09, another 5-set masterpiece between the two). And the buzz just grew louder when Nadal was finally able to win what many consider tennis’ most prestigious event, the US Open. Nadal captured the career Grand Slam and his 9th major championship. It was his 3rd consecutive major championship, marking the first time he’d accomplished that feat (something Federer has only done twice). He also become the first player in history to win three consecutive majors on three different surfaces. And he remained ahead of Federer’s major championship pace and as the number one player in the world.
Entering into the 2006 season, Federer was in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in tennis history. He went on to win 6 of 8 grand slam championships over the next two years. Could Rafa possibly do the same? At the Aussie Open, he’ll be trying to run off four straight grand slam titles and complete what will inevitably be known as the “Rafa Slam.” He’s worked relentlessly at retooling his game. He’s the king of clay, won fourteen straight matches at Wimbledon, and just beginning to find himself on the hard courts.
Of course, with Rafa, one always has to wonder about the injuries. With the way he moves around the court, his knees are always taking a beating. He played in a career low 17 tournaments last year – hopefully that’s a sign that he’s taking better care of his body and is smarter than he was an invincible 22-year-old.
As for Federer, he did get some of his mojo back when he beat Rafa in the 2010 Tour Championship in London. He’s still the man with 16 major championships. He’s perhaps the biggest guardian of his own records – only he, it seems, may be able to stop a full-blown Rafa train from leaving the station. Only Federer may be able to stop all this “Is Nadal the greatest of all-time?” talk before it really starts going here. But I got a question for everyone else.
Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer. What if we’re witnessing 1A and 1B? Within the same generation, the two greatest players of all-time? Food for thought.