None of us here at the Picket Fence – not Doots, not PJ, not LJ, and not yours truly – felt that Rafael Nadal was going to lose on day one of Wimbledon. PJ and I didn’t even feel that Rafa would fall when Steve Darcis took a two-set lead. We have naturally grown accustomed to seeing all the elites in men’s tennis escape big deficits in the first weeks or midpoints of majors, any time before the quarterfinals.
Djokovic beats the likes of Seppi and Wawrinka at the majors. Robin Haase will eventually submit to the likes of Murray and Nadal – this is the law of tennis physics. The likes of Benneteau and Simon fight well and hard, but they lose to Federer in the end. Of course Rafa was going to climb all the way back and defeat Darcis on Monday at the All-England Club.
Except he didn’t.
None of us here at the Picket Fence expected to write about Nadal’s ouster. To be perfectly candid, I’ll go one step further: I didn’t think I’d write about Nadal’s ouster on Wednesday, July 3, the date of his (once-thought-to-be-) likely quarterfinal encounter with this blog’s raison d’etre, Wogie/Pants/Granny Smith/Gramps/Tommy-Haas’s-Halle-Picture-And-Doubles-Buddy.
This Nadal guy, after all, had made five Wimbledon finals. Many of his fans – for whom this essay is intended just as much as it’s intended for Federer fans – have pointed out over time that grass has often been the surface on which Rafa has displayed conspicuous shotmaking creativity and resourcefulness. If you had asked a Nadal fan in early July of 2011 about the Mallorcan’s grass-court prowess, you would have received glowing reviews. This is a highly accomplished grass master… not as great as Sampras or Federer or Borg, but really damn good on his own merits and in his own right. As awesome as his clay-court prowess has become, Nadal’s ability to win the so-called “Channel Slam” twice while reaching five Wimbledon finals makes him far more than a footnote in Wimbledon’s decorated history. Nadal is much more a central figure in the story of The Championships than a peripheral one.
Surely, last year’s second-round loss to an out-of-his-mind Lukas Rosol was going to become an aberration, a one-off instance, an isolated accident not to be repeated during the final prime years of the Spaniard’s remarkable career.
Well, what do we say now?
Again, none of us here at Le Fence expected Nadal to lose on day one, but since it’s happened, an attempt must be made to grapple with this event and how it might ripple through the pages of time.
Please note the word “might,” which is different from the word “will” or something equally absolute or definitive. In the following paragraphs, please take care – whether you’re a Nadal fan or a Federer fan – to absorb one simple but very important point: This is not a final pronouncement, a set-in-stone verdict on the legacies of these two players, Nadal in particular. This is merely an attempt to take a seismic event and use it to ask pertinent questions about the future, shaping the parameters of the debate that will enfold Roger and Rafa when their careers ultimately end.
Nadal, Federer, and LeBron: Separating the Solo-Athlete Sports From Team Sports
Last week, American sports fans and journalists were enveloped in a persistent discussion-cum-frenzy about the legacy of LeBron James, depending on whether or not his Miami Heat would be able to beat the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. When Miami – on the verge of elimination – trailed San Antonio by five points with just under 30 seconds left in Game 6 of the series, LeBron’s legacy was, in the eyes of the pundits, about to take a massive hit. Then, however, San Antonio missed two free throws and failed to get defensive rebounds on two missed shots by Miami. The Heat hit two three-point shots in the final 21 seconds of regulation, sent Game 6 into overtime, and won in the extra period. After then winning in Game 7 two days later, the Heat claimed the NBA championship. LeBron’s legacy is now viewed as transcendent and on its way to supreme greatness.
Here’s the funny (read: strange and laughably inadequate) dimension of all this “legacy” talk surrounding LeBron James: He did not get either one of the two offensive rebounds that saved Miami’s hide late in Game 6. He had no role in the final Miami possession of regulation time, the one which enabled the Heat to tie the game and ultimately escape with an improbable victory. Simply put, LeBron needed the help of teammates to win. Had he lost, he wouldn’t have been the player most responsible for his team’s failure; Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, not to mention other role players, would have been on the hook.
You can see the obvious point here: Basketball players and other team-sport athletes can’t win entirely on their own. They need help from teammates to succeed. If you thought that discussions of tennis legacies were (and are) excessive and premature, the discussions of LeBron’s legacy and any other team-sport athlete’s legacy were (and are) even more absurd.
Many tennis fans – quite understandably – think that ANY discussion of a player’s legacy is, at this point, premature. I get that inclination. I respect it.
I also think that it’s actually possible to conduct a discussion of a player’s legacy before his (her) retirement. The key is to conduct said discussion in a respectful way.
I got into a heated discussion with some (thoughtful) tennis tweeps during the Australian Open. These tweeps were upset that I made a comparison between Lukas Rosol and Stan Wawrinka. Those tweeps thought it was unacceptable to make ANY comparison between Rosol and Wawrinka. My response was simply this: I was intending to link the two men in one specific respect, one element in which they actually did share a similarity. If two players are dissimilar in 937 ways but are linked in a 938th way, there should be nothing wrong with saying that Player X and Player Y share commonality No. 938.
It’s much the same with legacy talk about not-yet-retired tennis players. There’s reason to explore this topic precisely because the constraints and outside variables of team sports do not enter the picture with solo-sport athletes. Why should any person feel that s/he can’t ever discuss Nadal’s or Federer’s place in the sport? When history – be it glorious (Rafa’s eighth Roland Garros title) or humbling (Monday’s loss to Steve Darcis) – unfolds in real time, part of the fun and challenge of sports chronicling is to make sense of the moment.
Mind you, this attempt to make sense of a moment does not mean that the initial verdict, rendered right after match point, is or should be seen as a permanent assessment of the player involved. It is a first draft of analysis. There’s nothing wrong with the attempt to grapple with the legacy of an unfinished career… not in and of itself.
The only sin as far as I see it is to permanently and irrevocably paint a player’s career into a narrow space or a confined set of terms. Discussing a legacy isn’t a shameful act; insisting on knowing the full and defined extent of a legacy before a career has run its course is what’s ultimately inappropriate.
Can Federer and Nadal fans see this? I hope so. Let’s now spend a little time wrestling with what this Nadal loss MIGHT mean… not what it WILL mean, but what it MIGHT mean.
The Meeting Point Between Two Champions
The chilling, uncomfortable thought that emerges from “Darcis d. Nadal” is that in a very real way, tennis fans – no matter their allegiance – have begun to get a glimpse of an ATP Tour in which Nadal and Federer are no longer factors.
No, this is not an attempt to claim that Nadal is “done” or now finds himself on an irrevocable downswing, never to return to a prior level of greatness. Federer fans know this drill all too well. No, the above statement is meant to convey the sense that this upset loss shows what life could be like in a few years for the two players who have done more than any others to transform men’s tennis.
I personally expect Roger Federer to produce a few more stirring achievements before he ultimately hangs up his racquet as an ATP Tour professional. Yet, we all know that Fed is in the autumn of his career, not the bright and shining springtime of his 2006 reign. To merely evoke the thought of an ATP Tour without Federer as a prime contender at major tournaments is – however depressing – an encounter with a reality that is approaching. It might be approaching slowly, but it’s not that far in the distance anymore, and it won’t recede.
Let’s transfer the current dynamic surrounding Federer to Nadal. Perhaps it’s true for Rafa’s fans that the seven-month break from tennis competition represented the first true look at the abyss, of life without Rafa on tour – that’s a fair-enough assertion. However, after a genuinely dominant return to the sport over the past four months, it seemed that Nadal had re-established himself to the point that a deep Wimbledon run was more likely than not. Nadal, Federer and Djokovic just don’t lose in week one at majors. Surely, what happened in 2012 at Wimbledon was not going to repeat itself.
Now that it has happened, though, the mind must confront the new terrain and the possibilities it offers. (Note the word “possibilities” and not an absolutist word such as “certainties” or “ironclad truths,” etc.)
No, Rafael Nadal is not “done” on grass because he lost one match on a day when his knees did not respond well to the unique challenge of bending to retrieve low slices on a fresh and slippery lawn. Nadal could very well bounce back and thrive at Wimbledon, especially in 2015, when the three-week gap between Roland Garros and the Big W might give his body more time to recover.
What this loss to Darcis does, though, is that it makes the 2012 loss to Rosol less of an aberration. Accordingly, it does raise the question – not the final answer, but certainly the question – of whether or not Rafa can regain the form that made him so accomplished on grass from 2006 through 2011. Would I be surprised to see Rafa, champion that he is, find answers to his problems and make adjustments to his changed situation? Not at all. However, it could be that Nadal’s ability (more precisely, the ability of his knees) to hold up from a physical standpoint on grass and cement in best-of-five-set matches has been severely hampered. The upcoming U.S. and Australian Opens, combined with Wimbledon 2014, will provide more insights, but for now, the unsettling shockwave caused by “Darcis d. Nadal” is that it’s no longer foolish or unfair to think that Rafa won’t regain major-tournament dominance on non-clay surfaces. Such a thought might not be accurate as a point of analysis, but it is now reasonable and within the parameters of legitimate discussion. Such was not the case 13 months ago.
Federer and Nadal fans know what this means for the legacies of their respective favorites. If Nadal loses a measure of his staying power on grass and concrete surfaces, any remaining major-tournament encounter between the two men will be seen in an adjusted light. Federer might find openings in future major tournaments that – before this Nadal loss – seemed improbable. Conversely, Nadal – if physically diminished – could beat Federer under circumstances that would make the current head-to-head record even more impressive than it already is.
It’s fascinating to contemplate, isn’t it? Federer’s tame loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros reminded Federer fans that the clock is ticking on Roger’s body and his career. How unexpected it is, then, that just 20 days after Roger’s exit from Paris, Nadal should run up against an unwelcome revelation of how soon he could potentially face a career-limiting reality of his own.
Again, none of this is known for either player, and none of what’s being said is being cast as a likelihood or certainty. The questions surrounding these two careers, though, are more relevant than ever before. The possibilities attached to these two careers – the directions they could take – are now more numerous and scattered than ever before. The intrigue enveloping Federer and Nadal as they both take steps into tennis twilight (albeit a twilight that could very well be delayed for a great many years…) is more real and genuine than ever before.
Final verdicts can, will, should, and must wait when Federer’s and Nadal’s careers are assessed in full. What’s scary for each fan base – Nadal’s in particular on this day of unexpected defeat – is that one can more easily imagine what a final verdict would ultimately look like. It is fun to contemplate how these two legendary champions will defy critics and hold the odds at arm’s length in the coming months and years, but that fun is tempered by the realization that these careers now seem tenuous at levels not previously felt.
The Fighter And The Opportunist
One day, I will sit in front of my computer and write a definitive appreciation of the career of Roger Federer. I will do the same for Rafael Nadal. On the day when each man announces his retirement – a day one hopes will be as distant as one can realistically imagine – I will pay tribute to two men who dramatically elevated my interest in and appreciation for everything that tennis is and can be. Praising Federer and Nadal in full is not something to be done now.
Offering you a sneak peek into my thought process? That’s something I can do in the present moment.
When I ultimately pay tribute to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – these two men and competitors whose careers are so deeply intertwined – I will write about Nadal’s ability to subdue Federer by fighting up to and beyond the normal limits of an elite professional athlete. I will write about Nadal’s ability to absorb and then thwart Federer’s best tennis with his inexhaustible defense, born of his uncommon resolve and competitive drive.
I will then say that whereas Nadal’s superabundant gifts emerged most centrally as a competitor, his effort did not occur in a vacuum, a context-free environment in which his body didn’t pay a price.
Sure, it is true that in isolation, Nadal – like Novak Djokovic – has at times displayed physical discomfort with a body part that, in the course of half an hour on court or perhaps the 48 hours until the next match, ceased to act up. This happens with players and their bodies. A moment of deep fear and uncertainty leads to a hesitant performance and negative body language, only for the mind to clear up minutes later as the mental adjustment is made and the mind-body dualism is regained. What seems like gamesmanship is really just insecurity felt by a flesh-and-blood being no different from you or me.
It is understandable that Nadal’s and Djokovic’s physical struggles are viewed with great suspicion by Federer fans. However, suspicion loses its legitimacy and reasonableness when confronted by the reality of Nadal’s extended absence from the tour in 2012 and at the 2013 Australian Open. There’s certainly no mirage or facade there.
The intertwined nature of the Nadal-Federer rivalry – and the legacies of the two players enmeshed in that rivalry – is built on and captured by this yin-yang tandem of realities: The extent to which Nadal has successfully fought and conquered Federer is accompanied by the price of those very same efforts. Phrased differently, the extent to which Nadal has served as the uncommonly resourceful foil for Federer is accompanied by the reality that whenever Rafa asked too much of his body, Federer was so consistently able to take advantage of Nadal’s absence. As a fighter (Rafa) and as an opportunist (Roger), these two men have grabbed such a disproportionately large share of the prizes tennis has had to offer over the past nine years, with Djokovic finally joining the party in 2011 and mounting a hefty (and still growing) legacy of his own.
Rafa’s uncommon greatness and his evident limitations are bound together in the following statement: No normal competitor plays 9 hours and 37 minutes of championship-stage hardcourt tennis – as Nadal did in Melbourne in the semifinals and finals of the 2009 Australian Open – without getting a stern message from his body at some point in the near future. What Nadal achieved in the first month of 2009 caught up with him in subsequent months. His efforts in Australia seemed superhuman, but Rafa’s body eventually did collect the payment it asked for in 2009.
Nadal made five straight major finals from Roland Garros 2011 through RG of 2012, pushing his body to ridiculous limits in grueling deathmatches against Djokovic on hardcourt surfaces in both Melbourne (2012 Australian) and New York (2011 U.S. Open). Come the summer of 2012 on the lawns of London, Nadal’s body once again demanded that its owner pay up, only this time with a much larger check: a check worth seven months’ rent. On one day here or one day there, Nadal’s knee issues didn’t really seem to be “issues” at all, but in the long run, the Mallorcan has certainly paid a high price for his physical and high-strain style of play.
It’s easy for a Federer fan to lament Roger’s head-to-head losses to Rafa, especially at the majors, and conclude that Fed lost primarily because of what he himself was unable to do. Yet, the very reality of Nadal’s present-day physical frailty makes his wins over Federer – in retrospect – look that much more impressive. Let’s be even more precise about the matter: Seeing Nadal so wholly vulnerable in the face of a low-ranked player in the first week of Wimbledon makes his wins over Federer that much easier to appreciate as the results of the Spaniard’s own competitive virtues and not his Swiss rival’s competitive failures. Head-to-head Nadal-Federer matchups should be seen as the results of the winner’s shining attributes, not the loser’s perceived inadequacies.
What’s the counterbalance to the highest level of praise for Nadal as the possessor of a superabundant competitive will? Federer’s superabundance – so different from that of his great rival – shone through (and still shines, in the present tense) as a performer, a man who didn’t just have a clutch shot for every occasion, but who possessed a level of variety and artistry that enabled him to function on every surface and handle every transitional period the sport’s calendar year had to offer. When the scene shifts from hardcourt to clay or clay to grass, Federer is (and has been) more ready to face whatever comes his way. It is this diversity and completeness which has enabled Federer to collect seven grass majors (at Wimbledon) and nine hardcourt majors, all while making five Roland Garros finals and at least five major finals at each of the four major tournaments (eight at Wimbledon, six at the U.S. Open, five apiece in Paris and Melbourne).
When one talks about legacies, there are – and will be – equally valid reasons to elevate one player over the other in this eternal Nadal-Federer comparison. I’m a fan of Federer, but I’m a deep admirer of Nadal, and so – in the spirit of mediating a predictable argument – I can sit here and tell you how said argument would unfold (because I’ve seen it so many times on Twitter and at Tennis.com).
Tell me if I miss anything here:
Nadal fans will tout the head-to-head. Federer fans will cite the bulk of clay-court meetings. Nadal fans will respond by noting Nadal’s hardcourt wins in the latter years of this matchup. Federer fans will counter with the indoor hardcourt record. Nadal fans will counter by saying that Nadal beat Federer plenty of times before entering his true prime in 2008. Federer fans will counter by saying that Nadal didn’t play Federer enough on hardcourts or grass in his pre-prime years because he was unable to make Australian or U.S. Open finals during that period of time.
Again, am I missing anything?
Back to the argument that I can replicate with ease: Nadal fans will note that Federer hasn’t beaten Rafa at a major since the 2007 Wimbledon final. Federer fans will note that the grass and hardcourt head-to-heads at majors are both statistically close and small sample sizes at the same time. Nadal fans will say that Rafa beat Federer in his prime in the 2009 Australian Open final. Federer fans will say that Federer has accumulated losses to Rafa on non-clay surfaces in his post-prime years, especially the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. Nadal fans will say that Federer was still favored by most pundits to win that 2012 Aussie semifinal. Federer fans will say that Roger is doing things in his 30s that Nadal is unlikely to do. Nadal fans will say that no one has maximized his career by the age of 27 the way Rafa has, and that an eighth Roland Garros title marks an achievement that Federer has yet to achieve at Wimbledon. Federer fans will note that Roger’s quarterfinal and semifinal streaks at the majors put him far beyond Nadal’s reach in terms of legacy. Nadal fans will point out that Rafa has won at least one major in nine straight years, eclipsing Federer’s mark and showing that the Spaniard owns plenty of longevity-based records, thank you very much.
One could go on and on.
What becomes apparent in this exercise is that Federer and Nadal – while linked in their ability to forge fantastic feats and accumulate awesome accomplishments – have arrived at their achievements in such different ways. Nadal would relentlessly fight his way to victory but require time off from the tour every now and then in order for his body to fully recover. Federer – more of a precision artist than a heavyweight boxer – has lost most of his knock-down, drag-out fights against Nadal but has tailored both his game and career to pluck the fruits of extended longevity and health. Both players have secured so many riches in tennis. Both have, in their own ways, paid a considerable price to do so.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will continue to write their legacies, to shape them as living organisms until they finally decide they’ve had enough. These legacies must leave room for plot twists and happy surprises, because Roger and Rafa have spent their careers creating magic precisely when so many critics thought they had no more tricks up their sleeves.
Did Nadal’s loss to Steve Darcis create a moment of finality in this rivalry and, by extension, this dazzling and expansive chapter of the story of tennis? No, it did not. Finality is not and never has been the word that is appropriate for the dynamics this event has unleashed. This is a new chapter in the story of tennis and especially the story of Nadal, but it’s merely a gateway to the next few years and what they might offer.
However, Nadal’s first-round loss at Wimbledon should force tennis fans to realize that the horizons of these two careers – as separate and shared testaments to different forms of similarly towering greatness – might not stretch as far as first thought. At Roland Garros, Roger Federer ran into the reality of age. At Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal ran into the reality of his body and its inability to make the kind of adjustment that came so much more naturally at the All-England Club in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. This is not the end of the Golden Era of men’s tennis, but to paraphrase Sarah Palin, “I can see the 2016 ATP Tour from my house.”
The view isn’t pretty, and don’t think that Rafael Nadal’s knees are peripheral or irrelevant when you look at such a picture.
There’s always a price – for Federer, for Nadal, and for any athlete who enters the firing line of elite-level athletic competition. Legendary athletes make their craft look easy… but only because they put in the hard yards in the first place. Rafael Nadal’s lack of a deep fuel tank against Steve Darcis on day one of Wimbledon showed that there was – and is, and will be – a limit to what he can do. Paradoxically, Nadal’s limits remind us of the many times in which he has transcended them.
As Roger Federer knows, though, Rafa can’t transcend limits forever. That’s not how the human body was designed.