Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Spaniard in the works

(With apologies to John Lennon and this lady. And the usual warning: if you don’t follow tennis, skip this post)

Most news reports and analyses of the Australian Open men's final seem to have missed this, so here goes: All hail Rafa Nadal, the only male tennis player ever to hold Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces at the same time! No one has done this before – not even the great Rod Laver who won all four Slams in a calendar year twice, back in the days when they were played on only two surfaces. How strange to think that Nadal was until very recently disparaged as a clay-court specialist who “couldn’t play” on hard-courts. (Actually, this allegation was ridiculous even back in 2005 – check Nadal’s record on the surface and compare it with that of the “hard-court specialists” like Andy Roddick, James Blake etc – but that never stopped people from making it.)

It’s been hugely rewarding being a Nadal fan over the past year, even better in some ways than being a Sachin fan in 1998. When he was thrashed by Davydenko in the Miami Masters final last April, I wondered if he would ever win another title, and whether the recurring blowouts in hard-court finals might eventually affect his clay-court game as well. But he went from strength to strength as the year progressed, and it was almost too good to believe for a paranoid fan. When he played Djokovic for the number two ranking in Hamburg, I thought it was the beginning of the end – that Rafa’s three-year stint at the number 2 spot would end not with him taking over as number one but with slipping down the rankings, never to go back up. That fear seems almost laughable now.

Very pleased by his performance in the Aus Open final, which I never thought he could win after his 5-hour semi (and this despite having been repeatedly surprised by him over the last year). Also very sorry for Federer – more sorry than I could have imagined being when he last broke down at an Australian Open ceremony three years ago, in very different circumstances (a post about that here).

I still think Roger will break Sampras’s record of 14 Slams, and maybe even get one or two beyond that, but it’s going to be tougher than anyone could have foreseen a year ago. Most of the reports right now are about him – quite understandably, given all the expectations – but I wish more of them had mentioned the uniqueness of Nadal’s three-surface achievement. The announcers at the trophy ceremony really should have brought it up, but it was obvious that they had all expected the story of the night to be Roger’s record-equaling title – hence the line-up of past greats. Pity, but then being the underdog has always served Rafa well.

[Some related posts: the human Federer; mixed singles; in praise of Rafa; how to make men’s tennis less predictable; and perceptions]


  1. The Rafa-Fed rivalry has blossomed into any sports' one of the greatest. It was unfortunate that Rafa's victory got overshadowed by Fed's defeat at the Aus Open finals. Thanks for bringing out the point about him winning on all three surfaces. I have begun to feel that these two "complete" each other on the courts(however corny that sounds). More more more of them!

  2. When winning slams except clay for Federer used to be routine, I wished there could be more competition at the top. Very glad that Nadal has worked his way up. Now the slams become more interesting. I was equally glad to see Indian players perform so well. There is another rivalry - Roddik and Serena. I would love to see a rematch :-)

    Destination Infinity

  3. Imagine how different Tennis would have been if both of these guys were not in the same era. Overall sad that Fed lost though.

    Also, that reminds me of what Fed said in 2007 after winning Wimbledon:

    "He (Nadal) is a fantastic player and is going to be around for so much longer so I am happy with every one I get now before he takes them all."

    Link for the full story:

  4. Well Written! Adding you on my blogroll..

    Keep Blogging!

  5. Bang on! Me and my twin are NADAL fan and when we saw the line up we just laughed out loud. We were sorry for Fed too like our Idol was and more so for the legends there, but the Lol was for the organizers..

    I feel Fed will equal Pete but it would be tough for him to go beyond that. I really feel so.

  6. Are you of the opinion that such historic wins will open up avenues for the sporting business in india? do advise, as I am considering the same.

  7. And it has hurt being a Fed fan, all of last year. I wish I could switch loyalties. For now though, I am waiting for revenge on clay.

  8. How awesome was it?? We saw Federer close up when we went to the Aus Open this year - he was walking by :D :D

    Felt the semi's were more thrilling then the finals (felt Federer was a bit flat) and it was a huge acheivement fater the 5 hour workout he got (bt - isn't Vadasco hot??!! :P)

    I think the Federer-Rafa friendly rivalry will definitely a thin to watch.

    For the moment, well done Rafa! :D

  9. The fluidity of Fed's game is great to watch, but his off-court persona of late has wandered into the bitchy djokovich realm. There was his irritated comment about murray being the favorite before the tournament began. Rafa simply chose to say Murray is playing really hot and has every chance to win. Then there was Fed's comment about djoko quitting and how he always does it time and time again. And he wasn't even playing him. I really think Fed will be known as a guy who had all the game in the world, but couldn't solve Nadal in his head.

  10. I have begun to feel that these two "complete" each other on the courts(however corny that sounds)

    Rathchakra: nothing corny about it, it's a fact. Each man's career has been defined and embellished to a large extent by the other man's presence. I think so far this has been truer of Rafa's career: his game developed under Roger's gigantic shadow, which probably shielded and helped him in some ways. And he had to beat Roger to win every one of his 6 GS titles - a gruelling task - whereas Roger won 11 of his titles without having to go through Rafa. But if Roger manages a comeback, sorts out his psychological issues with Rafa and maybe beats him in a couple more Slams, his overall legacy will look better than it would have if he had won 16-17 Slams beating only the Roddicks and the Hewitts along the way. And of course, he'll always have Wimbledon 07, where he held off the Nadal challenge magnificently.

    Oxy: I wouldn't be too easy on the legends - I got the impression that all of them had fully expected Roger to win and were looking forward to lots of photo-ops. Could be my imagination but Laver looked disgruntled at the ceremony.

  11. I think the Federer-Rafa friendly rivalry will definitely a thing to watch.

    Silvara: it's not a new rivalry - it's already been a thing to watch for the better part of four years. Some people have actually been speculating that the rivalry might even be over for all practical purposes now, since Roger seems to have such a mental block against Rafa. Hope that isn't the case.

    Anon: yes, he has seemed a little testy of late, but I wouldn't call it bitchy. His comments about both Djokovic and Murray (while they could have been avoided) weren't inappropriate or in bad taste. They were simple expressions of fact.

    Rafa, of course, has always been a great diplomat in these things - which is not to say that he's hypocritical, just that he probably prefers to be non-confrontational off the court.

  12. Btw, how many players have actually held Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces? (not necessarily at the same time though)

    Andre Agassi and now Nadal. Don't think there's anybody else. However Agassi's titles were spaced out over a decade. Borg and Emerson never won a hardcourt Grand Slam.

    We can expect more multiple surface winners in future given the preponderance of baseline play and the slowing down of grasscourts at Wimbledon.

  13. Shrikanth: Mats Wilander and Jimmy Connors are the other two men to have won Grand Slams on three different surfaces, although the contexts of their wins were more complicated than Agassi and Nadal's. Wilander never won Wimbledon, but he won the Australian Open in 1983 and 84 when it was played on grass - in addition to winning the French and the US. Connors never won the French but he won the US Open in 1976 when it was played on green clay. In fact, he won the US Open on three separate surfaces - clay, grass and hard - in addition to winning Wimbledon.

    It's interesting that the three-surface guys - Agassi, Connors and Wilander - are never seriously mentioned when GOAT (Greatest of All Time) discussions are held. Of course, I understand that their overall achievements aren't as big as those of Laver, Borg and Sampras, but it's still an interesting anomaly.

    (Note: in this discussion, I'm treating "hard-court" as a single generic surface, and I'm not accounting for different types of hard-courts. Already I've seen a few discussions that point out that the deco-turf used at the US Open is faster than the Aus Open turf, and hence should be seen as a different surface altogether. If we accept that argument, then Roger has of course held the Aus Open, Wimbledon and US Open titles simultaneously on more than one occasion.)

  14. Jab: Nice write up. Though I feel terrible that Fed lost. Nadal deserves this one...as I believe the execution matched the hunger to win. I don't also think that Nadal's game is bad to watch, the sheer athleticism and energy is amazing...but Fed, for me at least, is the epitome of why tennis is a beautiful game. Does any other player in this era have half the kind of shot making ability he has, I wonder.

    I guess its in his mind...the hang up about Nadal i.e. Federer has had match points against Nadal in more than a couple of matches and even if you see Wim '08 and Aus '09, it could so easily have gone either way ( I don't take away anything from Nadal when I say this though...cause at the end of the day he deserves his titles...he has given his all to get it). I guess if he kinda sorts it out am sure...it will come together again. But yes, with everyone willing to write him off now...he faces that much more pressure. Remarkable though that thru this he has managed to make the Finals or at least the semi's of all the Grand Slams he has played in '08. Rafa is in the zone now and yes he is young and he is goin to be here for another couple of years...before somebody else comes up from nowhere . I personally think that Murray is good...but definitely not great. He might have his occasional days. One more thing about Fed and Nadal is that Fed's win-loss record is negative only against Nadal (Murry still too early to get excited about), which is why he keeps appearing at least till the semi's of the GSs...while Nadal is still to do it on a constant metronomic way. This explains Nadal having to beat Federer for all his GS title, while Federer won 11 of his without having to meet Nadal. This is not to a criticism against Nadal though...for all we know he might go and get the Grand Slam this year...he has the ability and the game at the moment, but I dont think so as he is vulnerable earlier rounds on the fast courts of the US open and also I think Rog is going to reclaim Wimb. But thats just me...

    Also about Fed's comments about Murray or Djokovic...I guess was brought about by the media. I am sure he didn't go and volunteer it. The thing is right now there is no purer exponent of Tennis than Fed ...he comes and plays how he knows to, which is why he has railed often again on-court coaching, injury timeouts and the like...and yes he is irritated by everyone telling him what he should do and how he should do it. Roddick summed it up perfectly...he appeared in three GS finals, one semi and won one. That's not too ordinary I guess...

    Sorry for the long comment Jai...and yes Federer needs Nadal need each other.


  15. Rahul: Roger's ongoing record of 19 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals (or better) starting with Wimbledon 2004 is one of the most amazing stats in tennis history, and one that I doubt will ever be equaled (even if someone else comes along and wins more Slams than him). Along with his supremely dominant win-loss records in 2005 and 2006, this speaks of a consistency that no one else has had, and which I don't ever expect Rafa to match - it's simply unreal, and as I've written before, it would be a pity to judge Rafa (and future number 1s) by those benchmarks. Roger's "bad year" in 2008 was better than many of Sampras's good years.

    Fed's win-loss record is negative only against Nadal (Murray still too early to get excited about)

    I'm not sure it's too early to get excited about Murray - he's beaten Roger 5 out of 7 times in official matches, despite losing the first set in many of them, and that has to point to some kind of trend. Unless you're talking only about Grand Slam encounters, which would be a different thing.

  16. http://www.theage.com.au/news/sport/tennis/australian-open/the-indian-brigade-runs-hot/2009/02/01/1233423044844.html

  17. As a fellow Rafa fan, I'm slightly disappointed in you Jai for feeling sorry for Federer. The arrogant SOB deserved to be humbled like this. Of late, he's been coming across as a bombastic and ungracious fool. How disrespectful was he to Rafa when he sort of overshadowed Rafa's moment when he couldn't control his "emotions". What a loser! Most of his slam wins have come against good to very good players but hardly against the sort of opposition Pistol Pete conquered. Also, the Rafa v Fed is NOT a rivalry(5-2 in SLAM finals simply isn't). It's a gigantic mismatch between a towering inferno and a pathetic runt.

  18. Normally, as my nick indicates, I would have issues with Aslam's ungracious rant. But Federer has clearly shown himself incapable of facing Nadal. And in there, he has clearly proven that he is not the all-time-best that people like me believed he was even 1 year ago. He falls back into the same tier as Sampras now.How can I now say he is better than Laver or Sampras, honestly. 5-2, as Aslam says, is not a rivalry, This is effing knock-out win for Nadal.
    There is a lump in my throat as I realise that next year this time, Nadal would have proven that he is the all-time greatest ever - greater than Sampras, greater than Agassi, greater than Connors/McEnroe/Borg, greater than Laver.
    Why? He would have done the calendar slam, of course.
    Nadal to win all 4 grand slams this year. And next. And next. We Federer fans to hide our pathetic faces in some bush. Nice gift, Roger. Let me see if you even match Pete Sampras in total Grand Slam singles Titles count, let alone pass it. You will end your career with not more than 14 Grand Slam titles Roger. And in June 2011, Nadal would have broken that record, too. If you reach 14 that is. Else, Nadal will break Pete Sampras' record.

  19. my nick was supposed to be federer fan

  20. Nadal to win all 4 grand slams this year. And next. And next.

    Raj: I can only chuckle at this idea, it's so far beyond my conception. (And that's speaking as someone who has repeatedly been astonished by Rafa over the past year.) But you're speaking as a very distraught and embittered Federer fan, and so I won't expect rational talk at a time like this.

    The "greatest of all time" discussion doesn't interest me anyway, even though it often produces some interesting side-conversations. This business of comparing people from entirely different eras (with so many variables having changed over time) is silly. There's never going to be any such thing as a final word when it comes to these matters anyway: even if Roger were to finish with 20 Slams (including a couple of French Opens), there will still be many people who will point to the missed years of Pancho Gonzalez and Laver, and numerous other extenuating circumstances involving other players from even earlier eras.

    As for the more specific Federer-Sampras comparison: I already think Roger is the superior all-round, all-surface player. I don't need a 15th Slam to convince me of that.

    One of the best things about Rafa in my view is that he's genuinely unconcerned about the "larger picture" or about his place in history. Of course, that could change if he ever makes it to the position where Roger is in now - with History being on the line every time he steps onto the court - but at this point he's just a pragmatic young man: what he's doing is concentrating on every new tournament, every match, every point. I completely believe him when he said in his presser that after winning his first Grand Slam he had no idea if he would ever win a second. And that at this point he has no idea if he'll get a seventh one. He seems to be living in the moment, and having a bloody good time in the process. That's a joy missed out on by people who spend their time obsessing about how many Slams a player will end up with, and whether or not he will be the "all-time greatest".

    P.S. for the record, I don't think Rafa will ever have a 4-Slam year, and in fact I'll be very surprised if he ever has a 3-Slam year. But time will tell, I guess.

  21. It's interesting that the three-surface guys - Agassi, Connors and Wilander - are never seriously mentioned when GOAT (Greatest of All Time) discussions are held.

    I think achievements at Wimbledon and to some extent the US Open inordinately impact one's stature in the Tennis world. McEnroe is widely regarded an all-time great on account of his Wimbledon and hard court feats though he hardly won anything on clay.

  22. These matches are not as interesting as should be between two all time greats.Federer is not prepared to slug it out.He does not back himself to win against Nadal in long rallies.He is more finesse and less fighting spirit.
    I think Federer has developed a blind spot,probably deliberately.He sees his cool,composed and self-assured demeanor as a key factor in his success.He thinks that if he starts from a position of self-doubt,he will lose the edge of being the superior player(in his own mind) and that will affect his play.But with a rapidly improving player like Nadal,if he does not begin to think of himself as an underdog on all surfaces,he would probably not be able to break even.

  23. Hi i am from Kolkata and get to read The Telegraph -- it's one of the papers which didn't fail to mention Rafa's feat - winning in three different surfaces. so, happy...
    also, another point many seemed to miss that roger served badly on final day... nadal, who's not such a good server, apologies nadal fan, did much better... i think the poor first serve -- and of course the mental block -- did roger in... what say?

  24. Really Jabber, it's not winning and losing, it's SMASHING that yellow bung that counts.

  25. Yes indeed it was a great match (and I am a great Federer fan :) ). But if you look at the final score in Nadal's favor 7-5, 3-6, 7-6,3-6, 6-2, Federer fought for each point in the 1st & 3rd sets and won the 2nd and 4th with a comfortable margin. It was the final set that did him in. That and his many double faults and unforced errors. I don't agree that Federer has any mental block against Nadal. He is too matured a player for that. Nadal is definitely the more fit of the two players and manages to return impossible looking shots. The fact that these 2 great players are playing during the same time is a definite treat to all tennis lovers.

  26. How did I miss this post even when I was looking forward to it?

    Our "off-blig" has been covered by most of the comments here. All I can say is, this should be an interesting year in Grand Slams. My call is 2 for Rafa, 1 for Fed (and perhaps the US rather than Wimbledon, I agree about Rafa being vulnerable in the early rounds there). And one for ... Murray? Djoker? How about - oh please please let it happen! - Baghdatis?


  27. Could be my imagination but Laver looked disgruntled at the ceremony.

    Grin, I thought so too. Or, as Plum would've said, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled. No?

  28. Aila! Wasn't aware of the 3 court record. I knew it. But i wasn't aware!
    As for the career slam this year...

    French Open is going to be a walk in the park (as always).

    Has a very good chance at Wimbledon (I expect some resistance from Murray though, not Fed).

    Needs some luck at the US Open!

    But i seriously believe he can hold atleast 3 slams this year.