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What a difference a year makes! Exactly twelve months ago, Rafael Nadal had put an exclamation point on one of the greatest seasons that the tennis world had seen by winning the 2010 US Open. Not only had he completed a career grand slam, he now held three of the four majors in the same calendar year, a feat accomplished by a select few. If that weren’t enough, he had managed to finally chase down the inimitable Roger Federer, dethroned him from the sport’s pinnacle, established himself firmly as the numero uno, all set to rule for a while.

Or so it seemed, until 2011 happened! Rafa’s amazing year would pale in comparison to the year that Novak Djokovic has had so far. Not only has Novak managed to win three of the four majors himself, and usurped the number one ranking, he’s won all except two of his matches all year, and in the process, has decimated the entire field, including two of the greatest players the sport has ever seen in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

As much as it highlights the phenomenal year that Djokovic has had, it also throws into sharp focus, the greatness of Roger Federer. Wait, what? Didn’t I just say that Roger got decimated by Novak too? Yes, I did, but let me explain!
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In this week’s Tennis Mailbag, Michael from NZ asks Jon Wertheim…

Why can’t Fedofiles and Rafaelites stop fighting over who’s the best? Sit back and enjoy the fact that, combined, they’re the greatest phenomenon in tennis history (21 of the past 23 and 25 of the past 30 Grant Slams)! They could potentially end their careers as the equal GOATs — and we as fans should love them both for it! Look at the video of the two promoting their Credit Suisse exhibition — they’re clearly great mates and so we should stop creating a “hated rivalry” when it doesn’t even exist!! I’m all RF, always have been, but RN has my 100% respect. Let’s just enjoy the history, don’t you think?

…and Jon responds with this…

One of the truly special components of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is the genuine affection that passes between the two. The Credit Suisse video is just one example of many. When “Fedofiles” (KADs as Pete Bodo calls them) skewer Nadal and “Rafaelites” are pronouncing Federer dead, it’s wildly at odds with spirit of the rivalry. I get rooting for one over the other. But when the two principals are so fond of each other, isn’t it hard to generate deep hatred for the other guy?

I would like to believe that most, if not all of the fans are accepting of the fact that these two guys are great in their own ways. As rabid a fan as I am of Roger Federer, I like Nadal for his competitive nature, his ability to learn fast, and of course, his humility. In one of my earlier posts, I had written this…

As fierce as these two rivals are on court, what impresses most people is the friendship they have between them. They are truly respectful of each other off the court, and genuinely happy about the others’ success. Can you imagine McEnroe & Connors being that way? How about McEnroe & Lendl? Together, Roger & Rafa have not just raised the bar for tennis, but also for sportsmanship.

Federer And Nadal aka Fedal

Having said all this however, there is a reason why we root for one over the other. It’s not that one is less likeable than the other. As equally likeable as Roger and Rafa are, they are poles apart when it comes to almost everything else – playing styles, demeanor on court, strategies – that makes up this rivalry.

When you have two polar opposites like Roger and Rafa, despite them being great friends and all, there is bound to be a lot of friction, between the fans of the two players. There is a fine line between being a rabid fan of one player and being a vociferous hater of the other guy, and of course, there are people who cross that line.

Add journalists and self-proclaimed tennis experts, who drop unjustified and irresponsible comments that appear to put one down to elevate the other, all hell’s going to break loose. What else do you expect?

Jon Wertheim, IMO is one of the very few journalists/tennis experts who is unbiased – as you can see from his response to the question. Sadly, I can’t say the same about some of the other analysts/experts.

Take Brad Gilbert’s tweet for instance right after Rafa won the 2010 US Open to complete a career slam…

There’s your GOAT – the best year I’ve seen in my lifetime

Best in your lifetime Brad? Really? As expected, one of the Federer fans wanted to know how he justified that…

“hmmm how can u b GOAT if someone won 7 more slams than u?”

Gilbert’s reply?

“Because Rafa has absolutely owned you

So, the fact that Roger has won 16 slams while dominating the tour during his peak years 2004-2007 amounts to nothing? Brad continues on…

“Healthy mindset, great water cooler talk, I just feel like Rafa’s accomplished more & the fact that he’s owned Fed H2H=big stat

Rafa has accomplished more than Roger? Really Brad? Ummm, 16 slams, 5 straight titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, just to name a couple, says otherwise. If you’ve watched ESPN, you’d know that Brad clearly knows his history and records, so he can’t feign ignorance about Federer’s accomplishments. So, to make a ridiculous statement that Rafa has accomplished more than Roger simply smacks of hate. It wasn’t just me. Most of the tennis twitterverse disagreed with Brad as well. Here’s one of the tweeps…

“If you really think 9 > 16, you’re entitled to your opinion. Don’t expect the Tennis Twitterverse to agree with you”

Probably realizing that he had set in motion events that riled up the Federer fan base, he wrote this, but refused to back down on the H2H…

“Fed Heads relax-he’s an awesome player:the semi final record is off the charts, 16 majors is incredible but 2-5 against Rafa in major finals

I’m Pro-Roger rather than Anti-Rafa, so, expect me to be more civilized than the haters, but don’t expect me to put up with anything and everything that passes for analysis. Obviously, Brad has some unresolved issues with Federer, probably stemming from him being outcoached by Roger at the 2006 Wimbledon finals? Or, perhaps Roger couldn’t find space on his book shelf for Gilbert’s book “Winning Ugly?”

The whole head-to-head thing that Brad and a few others are obsessed with, is never going to die down unless Roger can somehow fix that. Let’s face it, given that Roger is past his peak, and Rafa is at the top of his, it’s more than likely that’s never going to happen.

Does having a poor H2H against his rival somehow belittle Roger’s incredible achievements? Is it Roger’s fault that he showed up at all those finals of Roland Garros from ‘05 until ‘08? Is it Roger’s fault that Rafa never showed up at most of the other slam finals during Roger’s peak years from ‘04 to ‘07? Brad Gilbert seems to think so.

I could go on in much more detail as to why the H2H is as irrelevant as Brad Gilbert’s tennis career, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll stay classy(!) and point you to some excellent thoughts and analysis from TopSpin’s post about the topic…

“So that 5-2 H2H? Completely misleading – Rafa has never reached as many hard court Slam finals as Fed reached RG finals – if he did the score might have been very different. That’s just fact”

The New England Patriots in 2007 had the most successful season in NFL history at 18-1. Yet, it meant Jack S**t! Why? Because they failed to win the one game that mattered – the Super Bowl. So, as heady as their 18-1 record was, history will show that the NY Giants are Super Bowl 2007 champions, and nobody will care that the Patriots won 18 games, although that number might live on in infamy. The Super Bowl is the yardstick to measure how successful an NFL team is.

It’s no different in tennis either. There has been a yardstick established and, just like in golf, the measure of greatness is the number of total slams won. That’s exactly why we anointed Sampras the GOAT in 2000, and that’s exactly why Federer is the GOAT NOW! I don’t give a rodent’s backside that Andre Agassi or Brad Gilbert decided to change the yardstick for their own convenience.

Don’t get me wrong. I will accept Rafa as a contender for GOATdom (as will most Federer fans who are not Nadal haters), but I will not consider him GOAT just yet. Not until he has won more slams than the the guy who has the most right now…. Roger! Why? Simply because that is the standard by which tennis GOATs are measured.

Going back to the question posed by Michael…

“so we should stop creating a “hated rivalry” when it doesn’t even exist!!”

I couldn’t agree more, but that responsibility lies not just with the fans, but more so with the journalists, analysts & experts as well.

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It was the year 2000, and the great Pete Sampras, in winning his 7th Wimbledon and his 13th overall, had surpassed Roy Emerson’s long standing record of most ever Slams won by a male tennis player. At the US Open that year, Pete was looking for his fifth title at Flushing Meadows and his 14th overall.

Youth Is Served

As I watched the US Open coverage on TV that year, I vividly remember a quarter final match, between two scrawny 19 year olds, billed as the future of men’s tennis. One of them was a talented Spaniard – no, not that one – Juan Carlos Ferrero seeded #12, and the other was a kid from Switzerland, wearing a headband, a pony tail, and a goofy smile, who went by the name of Roger Federer.

True to its billing, these guys were playing some fantastic tennis, but what struck me most was the style of the Swiss kid. Unlike his opponent who seemed to be playing tennis the usual way – hitting the ball big from the baseline, this kid seemed to simply glide around the court, hitting his serve and ground strokes with barely any effort, making the game of tennis look deceptively, yet beautifully simple. “Boy, this kid is something else. He’s going to be in the top 10 soon”, I thought to myself. His game plan and his strategy on the other hand, was as terrible as his game was brilliant, and not surprisingly, he lost to his much “steadier” rival in four sets.

Sampras, despite poor results since his Wimbledon victory had made it to yet another US Open final. In his way stood Marat Safin, a tall lanky 20 year old from Moscow who, from what I’d seen and heard, was one of the most gifted players of his generations, alongside Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero & the afore mentioned Roger Federer. As gifted as he was, surely, he stood no chance against the most clutch player in a grand slam. Boy, was I wrong? What transpired over the next hour and a half left me, and everyone around me shell shocked. We had witnessed a brutal annihilation of arguably the greatest player of all time, as Safin, playing near perfect tennis, made Sampras look old, slow and inadequate.

Time Catches Up To Everyone

Asked what he thought of his vanquisher, Sampras had this to say… “He passed and returned my serve better than anyone I’ve ever played. He reminded me of when I was 19 and came here and won it for the first time”. A year later, Sampras would lose in a blow out, to another one of the new generation, Lleyton Hewitt. While Sampras did manage to win another Grand Slam beating his old rival Andre Agassi the following year, the torch had been passed. It was time for the king to move on. The year 2000 marked the end of the Sampras era.

Sampras however, is not unique to this experience. In the 30+ years that I’ve been following tennis, I have seen other greats go through this as well. Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, and Andre Agassi – all of them rose up the rankings, became great champions, dominated their competition for years, kept the younger generation at bay, before eventually fading away into the sunset.

Federer: The Champion

That 19 year old kid from Switzerland that I thought would make to the top ten, what happened to him? Unlike the other players of his generation – Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero and even Andy Roddick – who matured fast and made their marks on the Grand Slam scene, Roger Federer was a late bloomer, likely because he had way more talent, and way more variety in his game that he needed time to pull it all together into a cohesive game plan. Reigning in his hot temper to go with his brilliant game, was the last piece of the puzzle. Beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 gave him the confidence that he belonged, as he won his first Grand Slam – Wimbledon 2003 – at the age of 22, meeting the expectations that were placed on his young shoulders.

Yeah, we all knew that this kid was capable of winning a few slams, but little did we know that he was about to go on a tear and become arguably the most dominant men’s player of all time, breaking records that we all thought could stand the test of time. It took 35 years for Roy Emerson’s record of 13 Grand Slams to fall. Nobody in their right minds would have thought that Pete’s new record would fall, leave alone in 7 years. 16 Grand Slams, a career slam winning all four Slams, reaching the finals of all four slams in back to back calendar years, 10 consecutive slam finals, 23 straight semi-finals, and a lot more. To say that his records are impressive would be an understatement by every stretch of the imagination.

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