It's amazing the stark contrast in quality of analysis between Pete's posts on the ATP vs. WTA. Anyway, interesting stuff to think about in this post, which looks at whether there really can be a GOAT, and whether the Fedal rivarly is, in fact, a rivalry.
It's just something to think about. Anyway,Bjorn Borg had the entire world spellbound and lying on its back with four paws in the air until John McEnroe suddenly came along. Pete Sampras made us forget McEnroe (as well as McEnroe's own nemesis, Ivan Lendl), but then along came Roger Federer, piling up Grand Slam singles titles so fast that at one time, a fan could predict that Federer would wind up with 20 majors and not get laughed out of the room.
And then came Nadal, to perform one of the most visceral and graphic
reputation demolitions we've ever seen. The Nadal vs. Roger Federer
rivalry started as a charming pas de deux, danced out on clay (where
Nadal led) and grass (where Federer led) with great discretion,
politesse, and a ritual formality that did not challenge the status quo
- that is, the notion that Federer was safely advancing toward
GOAT-hood. Oh, Nadal might be remembered as the "go figure" guy - the
exotic dude with the crazy strokes who just happened to present Federer
with problems no other player could articulate. Sheesh, Roger lost that semifinal at Roland Garros to that kid Nadal, with the clamdiggers and ugly strokes. . .Go figure.
This theme was simple: Nadal was the pebble in Federer's shoe - more of an irritant than threat. And it was a good thing that Federer had some push-back from him, because you wouldn't want the prospective GOAT's journey to be too easy. So what if Nadal's prowess on clay, even two, three years ago, made a powerful statement about Federer's mortality? Sampras never won the French either, and many pundits felt that his collection of 14 major singles titles wiped out whatever caveat his failings at Roland Garros suggested. So let's say Roger never wins Roland Garros, but ends up with 16, 18 majors. . . surely he has to be the GOAT, right?
Right. Or is it? Over the past year, the pebble in the shoe has become the boulder on the chest. Maybe it's just me, but everything Nadal has accomplished in the past 12 months has seemed just as relevant to, and a comment on, Federer's quest for Goathood. It all goes back to the perceptive line Mats Wilander dropped at the U.S. Open of 2007: How can a guy be considered the greatest player ever if there's a guy he can't beat in his own era?
Almost everything Nadal has done since I first published that remark (I paraphrased it here, but it's very close to the original) has underscored the oxymoron at the heart of this rivalry. Nadal's success couldn't be more damaging to Federer's case if the express purpose of Nadal's existence were to besmirch Federer. That realization has helped me understand why fans are so polarized when it comes to this rivalry, and it's made me question if this really is a "rivalry" at all. Rivalries usually involve two parties who are more or less equal; this rivalry has never quite conformed to that model, at any number of levels, including the head-to-head (in which Nadal has a disproportionate lead, 13-6).
Up to this point, I haven't thought of Federer vs.Nadal as a rivalry as much as a chase - the saga of the upstart Nadal trying to lift his game sufficiently to catch Federer. It only became a rivalry last summer, when Nadal proved that he could take the measure of Federer on a surface other than clay. Those last two majors in which the men met in the finals represented major no. 14 and 15 for Federer. Is there a more telling fact when it comes to the dynamics of this rivalry? I hope this isn't the case, but this rivalry might be less about two stars on a parallel track than two trajectories - one rising, one falling - that happen to coincide for a few brief and glorious Grand Slam moments.
One thing that I'd like to see is a period where Rafa can be discussed without talking about Fed. Not that I care, but it seems like Rafa's entire career is inextricably linked to Fed and his impact on Fed's legacy. I guess it goes both ways though. Seems like you can't talk about Fed these days without talking about Rafa. But Fed at least had his glory years where he had center stage. It'll be nice when/if Rafa gets that chance.