Federer vs Nadal: Match Point?

It is that time of the year again. The first Tennis grand slam of the year – The Australian Open is looming in the not at all distant future. Come Sunday, the world will be treated to non-stop action for two weeks as 128 men and 128 women fight it out on synthetic hard courts to win the singles title and give their year a perfect start. While the action on the court will begin in 2 days, the one off it has already picked up heat as the world divides up to back their favorite players. The inevitable debate between who is the greatest Tennis player of the open era has started all over again albeit with some reservations.

In the Australian open in January 2009, there was a furore over a prospective Rafael Nadal Vs Roger Federer final. It was not speculation but a foregone conclusion. Not a sneaking suspicion, but the inevitable. A year has passed since Nadal triumphed over Federer in a gripping match which had the crowd on the edge of it’s seat till the match point. A year since Nadal reduced Federer to an overgrown bawling baby. The tables have turned this year. On both of them! Tennis fans this time around aren’t sure of seeing any match between these two in this grand slam, let alone the finals.

Is it match point for the rivalry which was touted to be the best, not just of this decade, but the best EVER? Is it time for Rafael to be ‘Fedexed’ into a has-been status without living up to his full potential and for Federer to be ‘Nada-ed’ any chances of ever lifting the prestigious grand slam titles again? The Tennis world fervently hopes not.

A lot has changed for both the players in the past one year. If we talk only about the grand slams, after triumphing in the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal suffered a shock defeat in the 4th round of the French open at the hands of Robin Soderling who was then seeded 23. The defeat was shocking because Nadal had up till then been the undisputed king of Roland Garros for the past four years. Federer who had been deprived of the French open title, after having reached the finals in the past 3 years only because of Nadal, saw this as a golden opportunity, which he grabbed with more than willing hands to complete his career slam and to equal Pete Sampras’ record for the highest number of grand slams ever won. He also regained his numero uno rank in the process. An injury ridden Nadal was then denied the chance of defending his Wimbledon title and Federer buoyed by his success at Roland Garros won the title against Andy Roddick in what is proclaimed to be the greatest Wimbledon final ever. He overtook Sampras in the books of history to become the man with the highest number of Grand slam titles to his name. The last grand slam of year 2009, which is the US open, saw Federer making it to the finals again but he was stopped in his tracks by Juan Martin Del Potro from equalling Bill Tilden’s record of winning 6 consecutive US open titles. Del Potro had defeated Nadal earlier in the semi-finals in convincing straight sets hence conquering both the top seeded players in his quest to capture his maiden grand slam title.

The statistics seem to be in stacked in favour of the two Tennis greats as they still occupy the top 2 positions in the rankings. But, the performance of each isn’t what it used to be. Ever since Nadal returned from his injury, he just hasn’t been the same player whose forte was his ability to completely conquer his opponent with brutal strength. It seems as if he is holding himself back, unwilling to unleash his natural game for the fear of aggravating his injury. The defeat to Soderling in the French Open definitely dented more than his impeccable record at Roland Garros, it dented his confidence. The thing working in Nadal’s favor is his age and experience. He can take his time to bounce back, regain his confidence and reclaim the position he had to relinquish so abruptly.

Federer on the other hand seems to have lost the motivation. It might be a case of ‘Been there, done that, So what else is new?’ for him. Or maybe its the fact that he cannot look for motivation in Nadal anymore. Nadal truly brought out the best in Federer as he challenged him to test his limits. The aura of intrigue created around their rivalry was a boost as the media and fans’ debates acted as a fuel to the fire burning in him to do well. It isn’t that Federer isn’t doing well, because he is, but the effortless ease and finesse with which he won his matches is no longer visible. He seems to be struggling in most of his matches and no longer displays the lazy elegance which propelled him to a god-like status on the Tennis courts. Federer does plan to stay on till the 2012 London Olympics to have a shot at winning the Golden Grand Slam. Maybe that will provide him with a target towards which he can work with compassion and a renewed vigor.

The Australian open, 2010 in some ways is THE tournament for both these players. They have nothing left to prove to the media, the fans or the Tennis world in general. They need to get to the final of this particular grand slam to prove to themselves that they have still got it in themselves. They need this one, not for the records, but for their confidence. And then, I am sure each would be glad to see their old adversary on the other side of the net.

It may or may not be the end of days for the rivalry between Federer and Nadal.  ‘Who is a better player amongst them’ – We do not know who lost that debate. But we know for sure who won – The Spectators.

Gursheel Parmar

[Image courtesy: http://totallytop10.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/rafael-nadal-roger-federer.jpg]