We’ve traveled many thousands of miles as tennis fans and chroniclers with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Billions of words have been written about them. Millions of arguments have been launched by their partisans. Neither man should be favored to win the 2015 edition of Wimbledon, though both have a chance and could slip through the door if the draw falls just right, or if Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic stumble (or both).
(Yes, Federer has a much better chance than Nadal, but it seems more appropriate to emphasize how both men have acquired a shared position as players who no longer dominate the way they once did. It’s old news with Federer, newer news with Nadal. Still, that basic similarity remains, and it forms a big part of the foundation for this piece.)
What is striking about Roger and Rafa as the 2015 edition of The Championships approaches next Monday in suburban London is that both men have given us reason to suggest that they have forged their immense accomplishments against the currents of tennis history.
Think about that for a second: Federer and Nadal have done all they’ve done in the face of some noticeable disadvantages or (if that word seems a little too severe…) imbalances.
What does this mean? The explanation is not a hard one to grasp.
This past Sunday in Halle, Germany, Federer won his eighth title at the Gerry Weber Open, his 15th career grasscourt title. That seems like a small number — 15 titles — until you realize that any elite player can win only two grass titles per year. Federer has basically won a little under half of all grass tournaments he’s entered: 15 of 34. It’s amazingly great in much the same way that it’s amazingly great when a baseball hitter gets a base hit 40 percent of the time.
That Federer guy’s pretty darn special on lawns.
As for Nadal, not a single soul — not even Bjorn Borg — would contest the notion that the Spaniard is the greatest male claycourt player who has ever lived. Nadal’s accomplishments on clay are so indisputably stratospheric as to put every other claycourter in the shadows. The fact that Nadal didn’t win a single European claycourt tournament this past spring, including the French Open, makes one appreciate all the more how unfathomably dominant he was for a solid decade — not most of a decade, but ten full years, from 2005 through 2014. It took a full decade for a melange of factors — health, confidence, and determined opposition — to finally make Rafa look mortal on clay. On the surface which demands the most stamina and physical endurance, Rafael Nadal severely and substantially outclassed Federer and the rest of men’s tennis for a full decade.
It gives one pause.
What’s this new way to appreciate Roger and Rafa, then, before a Wimbledon in which Djokovic and Murray — even Stan Wawrinka — will grab larger shares of the tennis spotlight? It is simply this: With Federer winning Halle as an ATP 500 event one year after the tournament was upgraded from a 250, the thought occurs to many — especially Fed fans in the crowd — that there is no Masters 1000 event held on grass. In that same vein, it is worth offering the reminder that of the nine Masters 1000 events on the ATP World Tour, six are on hardcourts and only three are on clay.
Federer’s best surface and Nadal’s best surface are both conspicuously under-represented in the bigger events on tour. This also includes the majors, which re-enter our consciousness with the arrival of the latest Wimbledon tournament in a few days.
Did you know that through 1974, three of the four majors were played on grass, with the Australian and U.S. Opens also showcasing lawn tennis?
Did you know that from 1975 through 1977, the U.S. Open — in its old site at Forest Hills — used Har-Tru (green) clay before moving to hardcourts in 1978 at the brand-new Louis Armstrong Stadium? It seems fair to suggest that while grass is criminally under-represented on the Masters 1000 circuit (clay as well, but to a lesser extent), a major-tournament circuit with green clay and red clay would provide a lot more balance to tennis’s four showcase events.
Hardcourts, though easy to maintain and less susceptible to ruts in the court (there were a lot of them in the clay event at Rome this year, and Monte Carlo’s courts have also encountered recent problems), are — in the opinion of many — over-represented both on tour and at the four majors. Accordingly, one can make the very strong case that both Federer and Nadal — if presented with circumstances belonging to the early- or mid-1970s — would have been in position to claim even more riches than they have.
Novak Djokovic, with two Wimbledon titles and baskets of clay Masters 1000 events, certainly represents a powerful and legitimate argument that great opponents would have stood in the way of Federer and Nadal regardless of surface. That’s an argument which has to be respected.
Yet, would one really go to the wall to contest the claim that if Federer played three majors on grass each season throughout his career, or if Nadal got to play the U.S. Open on green clay throughout his career, those two men would have several more majors between them?
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I wouldn’t “#OuiTweet” an attempt to refute the above statement.
Roger Federer. Rafael Nadal.
31 combined majors.
50 combined Masters 1000s.
152 combined titles.
All while working in the face of situations which — relative to the 1970s — worked against them.