Only five men in the history of tennis have won all four Grand Slam singles titles: Andre Agassi, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Fred Perry. Sad to say, the initials “RF” won’t be scribbled alongside that list.
At least, not yet. Because the way Rafael Nadal embarrassed him at the French Open final, it’s hard to imagine—on clay—the world’s No. 1 beating the world’s No. 2. Ever.
Funny, no? Roger Federer is close to being crowned “The Greatest.” Against almost every player on the ATP Tour, he has a winning record. Against Andy Roddick: it’s 15-2. Against David Ferrer, 8-0. Against Nikolay Davydenko: 12-0. But against Nadal, it’s the opposite: he’s lost 11 of their 17 encounters; 10 of 11 on clay.
The question begs: Can Roger be adjudged as history’s best if he fails to beat Nadal and continues to falter at the French Open?
To me, the answer is No. Because how can Roger lay claim to that mantle when, in fact, in a match-up between him and Rafa, he always receives the smaller trophy?
Which brings me to Nadal and to make this conclusion: It’s impossible to beat the Spaniard in France. He’s 28-0 at Roland Garros; 115-2 on clay since April 2005; and, in clay-court finals, has won 22 of 23.
In the finals, Roger succumbed to 35 unforced errors while Rafa made only seven. Yes, seven unforced errors! Here’s more: When Roger hit a second serve, he won only five of 24 points. And when Roger attacked the net—an excellent strategy—it turned into a futile attempt against Rafa: He only won only 18 of 42 points at the net. Finally, the man considered one of the best servers, Federer faced at least one break point in all but one of his 11 service games.
The game—6-1, 6-3, 6-0—was so lopsided that it triggered back memories of the first time Roger had been “whitewashed” in a set: in 1999.
“He dominated from the first point until the end,” said Federer. “It’s the strongest Rafa that I’ve ever seen. He was more dominant than the previous years.”
Dominant? How about masterful? Supreme? Or the “Greatest Clay-Courter Ever?” Look at it this way: Nadal won 18 of 22 games against the player who will go down in history as the best. It was the fewest number of games won by the No. 1 seed in any Grand Slam final in the four decades of the Open era.
As much as millions longed to see Roger win, they also respected the brilliance and humility of Nadal, who, in the awarding, told his friend, “Roger, I’m sorry.”
Jourdan Polotan, my seatmate last Sunday night watching the final, who came to my house with his wife Jingle, said it best: “It’s hard to hate Nadal. He’s such a nice guy.”
Left-handed like Rafa, Jourdan is right. It’s hard to find a pair of champions as humble and gracious as R & R.
And Federer? What happens next? I like what writer Jon Wertheim said: “It would be interesting to get into Federer’s head after this event. He reached the final, retaining his points from last year. He’s still the world No. 1. Wimbledon awaits. But will that demolition job—the faulty execution, the unforced errors, the loss on the last nine games—stick in his head when play turns to the grass?”
My guess is No. When the Wimbledon grass is opened to the public in two weeks, Federer enters its hallowed gates in the same way that he’s entered the past five years: Defeated at Roland Garros but, two weeks after, emerging as the “W” winner. The five-time Wimbledon defending champion, I’m sure the thought of London nearing will erase, in Roger’s mind, the throbbing pain of France.
But for now, one man reigns. The champion, he’s only No. 2.