What’s with Mr. Federer? Almost unbeatable from 2003 until last year, he amassed ATP victory after tournament win after Grand Slam trophy (13 in all). During that span, the entire tennis world declared the Swiss Master—tennis’ version of a glittering Rolex watch—as “The Greatest.”
Then. Now, I’m doubtful. Consider what happened last Saturday. Against the world’s 3rd-ranked player, Novak Djokovic, the newly-married Roger lost. That’s fine. Every so often, even Tiger Woods misses a three-foot putt and LeBron James misfires on an open free-throw. My shock had to do with how Roger lost.
In Rome during the semifinals, Roger won the first set, 6-4, lost the second, 3-6, and, in the third, he led 3-1. Now, in 111 out of the 100 times in the past, The Fed would have won with that lead. But, no, he succumbed to three consecutive unforced errors, squandered five games in a row and lost the final set, 3-6. “I usually don’t give away opportunities like this,” Roger said.
Roger, you were not like this before. Here are more disturbing facts: Roger’s last tournament win was in October of last year in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. Since then, he is 0-for-8. His record this year? It’s 21-6. Six events Roger joined this 2009 and, six times, he’s been Ricky Hattoned. (As comparison, consider that from 2004 to 2007, Roger averaged just six losses a year.)
Meanwhile, take a look at his rivals: Rafael Nadal is 38-3 this season and Andy Murray is 29-4. Plus, given that Djokovic has beaten Federer in their last encounters, it appears that Roger is the No. 4 ranked player in the world—not the GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time.
Want to hear more depressing figures? Roger is a hard-to-believe 0 for 11 in his last 11 matches against these three men: Nadal (0-5), Murray (0-4) and Djokovic (0-2).
Which brings me to the fundamental weakness of Mr. Federer. It’s not his backhand, his forehand, his volleys or his smash. Technically, he’s as immaculate and sublime as any in history. His headache? It’s that man who often stands across him with whom he has an upsetting 6-win, 13-loss track record against: The Red Bull from Spain. Because while Roger is languishing, Rafa is thriving.
Taking a closer inspection at the left-hander from Mallorca, what he’s accomplished the past 12 months is not only extraordinary or remarkable—it’s fantastical. Never have we seen a human being wearing tennis shoes who is more intense. Sure, Jimmy Connors was the epitome of doggedness and possessed intestinal fortitude, but I’ve never seen a player who brought A+++ effort. On every second. Of every point. Of every game. Of every set. Of every match. Of every tournament.
It’s called grit, spine, tenacity. I call it one simple word that should be a noun in the Webster dictionary. “Rafa.”
Which brings me back to RN’s statistics—the opposite of Roger’s: On the clay-court, where matches are being played this month, Rafa’s numbers are stupendous. In his lifetime, he is 173-14 (a 92.5 winning percentage) and, if we inspect his numbers since 2005, he is 147-4 for a 97.3 winning clip.
With such near-perfect numbers, Nadal is as sure as Manny Pacquiao was sure to KO Hatton that he’ll win the next Grand Slam event which starts May 24, the French Open—his fifth straight (he’s never lost a match there, ever).
Granted he wins in Roland Garros, he enters Wimbledon as the defending champion and, again, playing by the odds, let’s assume he wins there. This situation now turns intriguing. The reason: Nadal has the chance to win a “Grand Slam,” defined as winning all the major titles in one calendar year—a feat not accomplished since Rod Laver in 1969.
Of course, all this talk is speculation. Or, to Nadal fanatics like Bob Lozada, Ernie Delco, Fabby Borromeo and, to his fellow lefty, Atty. Frank Malilong, it’s called “best-case scenario.” But, as a student of tennis the past 23 years, I call it a possibility.
Astonishing, Nadal. The Manny Pacquiao of Tennis.