By Aneki.com staff September 16, 2014
Roger Federer may have lost in his attempt to add to his collection of grand slam titles at the just concluded US Open and Nadal was a no show due to an injured wrist. But let's be clear - Federer and Nadal are not just the two most accomplished champions of the modern era. They are the two greatest male tennis players who have ever played. Period. Full stop. Some commentators insist on the superiority of champions of bygone eras including Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and some will protest that players from different eras cannot be fairly compared. After-all, they will argue, the game has undergone a dramatic transformation with the advent of a more grueling style of play abetted by modern racket frames and synthetic strings.
Today's tennis pros have a strong case to make. Modern athletes in all sports benefit from advances in sports science, nutrition, coaching, and sports psychology. They have to compete against a much larger global talent pool than in previous generations and they are incentivized by ever increasing financial rewards. Today's top sprinters, swimmers, basketball players, golfers and tennis players clearly outperform their counterparts from earlier generations in just about every quantifiable measure.
Now that we've got that out of the way. Yes, Rafa has a superior head-to-head record and he's won multiple Davis cup titles and Olympic gold in singles - none of which Federer can claim. What the Swiss can claim, and what helps him tip the balance in his favour are the most weeks occupying the number one spot in the world rankings, a record 6 year-end championships to Nadal's zero, more tournaments and matches won and most significantly more grand slam titles. Federer is ahead for now in the quest for all-time superiority and the question becomes how long he can remain there given how Nadal is steadily closing the gap. Aneki.com features an interactive app that compares the players head-to-head.
There is a five-year age difference that would suggest that the younger Nadal will have ample opportunity to add to his haul of achievements as Federer winds down his illustrious career and eventually goes into retirement.
Nadal would be the least likely to take such an inevitability for granted. He has endured his share of setbacks having missed several months of competition due to injury. In stark contrast, Federer has demonstrated remarkable durability. He's a veritable iron man owning the record for most consecutive grand slams played (60 and counting as of the 2014 US Open) amongst other streaks. It would surprise few tennis observers if Federer ends up with the longer playing career of the two.
Added to the mix is the emergence of Novak Djokovic, the Serb who occupies the number one spot in the ATP rankings. He's been making life much more difficult for the more senior members of tennis' so-called big four which also includes Briton Andy Murray. Were it not for Djokovic, Nadal may already be tied with Roger Federer on the grand slam title tally. Djokovic denied Nadal in 3 straight grand slam finals during a hot streak when he defeated him seven straight times between 2011 and 2012.
Other threats lie in wait. Promising young up-and-comers including the newly crowned US Open Champion, Marin Cilic are coming to the fore. Milos Raonic of Canada, Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria and Kei Nishikori of Japan are starting to appear regularly in the latter stages of grand slam tournaments and appear on the verge of breaking through.
While the tennis landscape might be shifting, there is an impregnable fortress that has repelled nearly all would be conquerors. The French Open remains the tournament where Nadal's dominance over all challengers is unquestioned. Next year he'll be gunning for an astounding tenth title at Roland Garros. The sole blemish at this event was a four-set defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling the big-hitting Swede in 2009 - a year he temporarily stopped playing due to tendinitis in his knees and was also enduring the breakup of his parents' marriage. Aside from the Soderling loss, Nadal has a 64-0 record at the French open which includes a combined 11-0 record versus Federer and Djokovic.
It seems unlikely Nadal will be prevented from adding to his haul of French Open titles even if he succumbs to a loss or two at Roland Garros in the coming years. He's still in his tennis prime at 28 and it would not surprise many if he decides to cut back on his schedule to lengthen his career and focus on the more forgiving clay court tournaments.
Federer's most recent grand slam championship was over two years ago at Wimbledon. His dominance at that event has diminished ever since losing an epic five set thriller to Nadal in 2008. The aura of invincibility he was surrounded by has waned in in recent years. He has transformed from an all-conquering champion who hardly broke a sweat to a wily and opportunistic veteran looking to take advantage of any opportunities that may come his way. One such opportunity arrived at Wimbledon last July where he squandered a two sets to one lead against Djokovic.
Even as those opportunities will likely become scarcer for the 33 year old, he has taken steps to improve his chances. His childhood idol Stefan Edberg was brought on as a coach and he has upgraded his relatively antiquated racket in favour of a more forgiving model with a larger frame and sweet spot. In spite of these moves, there's a sense that the ability to hold Nadal at bay may be out of his hands. His younger rival is unrelenting and has time on his side. Injury or the chasing pack may well conspire to stymie the Spaniard. Federer fans, hopeful as ever, would revel in a record-extending 18th major championship. His next opportunity will come at the Australian Open in January.