Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beholding a Pair of Aces: Impressions on Nadal v. Federer

Last night, I watched a classic drama unfold in court as Jimmy Stewart battled George C. Scott in Otto Preminger's 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder.

After setting my alarm to wake me at 2:30am, I then watched a classic drama unfold on court as Rafael Nadal battled Roger Federer in the semi-final of the men's draw of the Australian Open.

(In full disclosure, I was compelled to go back to sleep after the first two sets, but saw Nadal complete his 4-set victory in today's replay on ESPN2.)

While I found the verdict reached in Anatomy to be somewhat questionable, there is little doubt about the 25-year-old Nadal having established decisive dominance over Federer in head-to-head matches. Roger is 5 years older and holds a record 16 major titles to the 10 of Rafa--who can get another if he wins the Australian title on Sunday--but Nadal is now 18-9 against Federer, including 8-2 in majors (i.e. Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open).

Just a few years ago, it seemed that Federer's brilliance was earning him widespread acclaim as the best men's tennis player ever. That this came on the heels of similar acclimation for Pete Sampras, whose 14 major wins were a new benchmark, was rather astonishing. So it's remarkable that Federer's reign as the best player of his era, if not ever, may have already been usurped by Nadal, who himself is now #2 in the world and seeded as such in the Australian behind Novak Djokovic, who beat him in their past 7 matches. Djokovic plays Andy Murray in the other semi-final tonight. Last year, he won three majors and went 70-6 overall in what Sampras called the best season he's ever seen.  

I consider myself only a casual tennis fan but I've always enjoyed watching the world's best players compete in the Grand Slam tournaments. Though many of tennis' premier legends were before my time, such as Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Fred Perry and Bill Tilden--and I mean no disrespect to the great women players, but I'm focusing this on men--I feel fortunate to have watched guys like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Sampras and others considered among the very best ever. 

While I can offer absolutely nothing in the way of expert analysis, there is no one I recall being any better than Federer. And now Nadal regularly has his number. And Djokovic seems to have his.

It's a lot of fun, especially at a time when it seems that many art and athletic forms--including for one, heavyweight boxing--are far from their historical apex. Federer-Nadal-Djokovic may well be the closest thing to Ali-Frazier-Foreman the early 21st Century has to offer.

Or to put it another way, I can't name a world-renowned jazz musician, a modern-day painter likely to be a museum mainstay 100 years hence or even a phenomenal rock band whose members are all under 30. But early this morning I saw two tennis players who may well be the very best the world has ever seen.

At least until someone better comes along. Which conceivably could have already happened.

Here's a clip from ESPN of some of the Nadal-Federer highlights. Despite Nadal's 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory, the match seemingly could have swayed Federer's way if for a matter of inches. Federer was up 4-3 and serving in the 3rd set, and later missed by a hair a shot that would have taken it to 5-all in the 4th. But as TV commentator Patrick McEnroe put it, "It all comes down to belief." For though Federer is still playing phenomenally, seemingly with the requisite talent to win several more majors, his confidence appears to have waned, predominantly when facing his nemesis, Nadal.

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