First among Equals but are they Equals themselves?

The French Open Final held on the 5th of June 2011 reopened the debate on which of the two finalists – Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would be considered as the greatest tennis player in the Open Era. A combined tally of 25 Grand Slams ( Federer winning 16 and Nadal 9 –before the Final )  on the court provided a worthy final to the spectators but the result was all too familiar with Nadal again proving to be Federer’s nemesis by defeating him for the 17th time in their 25 meetings till date.

Roger Federer has been widely recognized as the most skilful and graceful player to walk on a tennis court. In his prime in the years 2004-2007 he was simply unstoppable and opponents were simply in awe of this silent genius who often wielded his tennis racquet as beautifully and gracefully as the conductor of an orchestra. Many matches were won even before they started with opponents accepting that they were against the greatest player of all time. However this awe and perhaps the Swiss maestro’s confidence in himself began to wane with the meteoric rise of bare sleeved aggressive Spaniard, who in his initial years was looked upon as a clay court specialist so much so that even after becoming the youngest ever to achieve a Career Slam last September at the US Open he is still nicknamed the ‘King of Clay ‘. Nadal has also beaten Federer on all surfaces including some matches widely recognized as the best in tennis history such as the 2008 Wimbledon Final and the 2009 Australian Open Final after which Federer was reduced to tears perhaps knowing in his heart that this was one opponent who was going to give him nightmares for the rest of his career. The off court friendship between Nadal and Federer notwithstanding Nadal has always given Federer a tough time on it and many believe Federer simply has lost this mental battle against Nadal – a fact proved in the French Open Final, where Nadal, who by his own admission was playing some of the worst tennis he had ever played on clay ran Federer ragged, a Federer who had stalled Novak Djokovic‘s unbelievable 43 match winning streak in the semi-final two days before.

This would certainly make even the most ardent Federer fan question whether  he is really the greatest of all time or does this crown belong to the young Nadal, who at 25 is 4 years younger to Federer and only 6 Grand Slams behind the Swiss maestro but yet no one is even willing to consider Nadal’s position as even one of the greatest. The man himself had only recently acknowledged that he was perhaps ‘one of the greatest’ but not the greatest of all time. Perhaps the reason of not acknowledging Nadal as the greatest lies in our nature which is always appreciative of the skin deep traits such as talent and class, grace and beauty and not attitude and determination. Federer’s game represents the former as he barely breaks a sweat when he plays. Rarely looks ungainly while hitting a tennis ball and even when he makes an unforced error one doesn’t get the feeling that the man made the mistake but that he must have got a bad bounce. Nadal on the other hand believes defence is best offence. He plays every point as if it is a championship point and even when he practices he hates to miss. He simply doesn’t relent the score be 40-0 or 0-40. When he plays in a tournament it means no less to him than any Grand Slam but in the recent years the tennis world has seen Federer give his better performances for the marquee events of the year whilst approaching the other ATP Tour events as a walk in the park. Many argue that having beaten Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slams he has nothing left to prove but we would only be able to compare this with Nadal’s  approach if and when he reaches the position. Federer is in today.

Raghav Bhaia