Is Rafael Nadal the Roger Federer of 2008?
Let’s get some preliminary howling out of the way:
Phewww. Now I feel much better. Back to the question –
It’s been a strange experience watching 2011 unfold as a Federer fan. While I do harbour a healthy dose of warm-fuzzies towards Rafa, I don’t have the same degree of emotional investment in him as I do in Wodge. In a way, I feel almost like a fan “once removed”. And in my emotional removal, 2011 seems oh-so cyclical: Rafael Nadal is having the kind of year that Roger Federer had in 2008, and Rafa fans are freakin’ out (or alternatively – in denial) not so dissimilarly to Woger fans back in 2008.
Of course, it’s not as if Nadal isn’t putting up solid results: just like Federer was back in the first half of 2008, Nadal is almost a sure bet for the semifinals and beyond. But just as 2008 showed for Federer, the blow that knocks a king off his pedestal comes most poignantly on his traditional surface of dominance. For Woger, it came down to the final set of Wimbledon 2008, and for Rafa, it may or may not come at Roland Garros.
Actually – scrap that. It probably already came.
Rafael Nadal could go on and win Roland Garros, as – I think – most people still expect him to. Despite two consecutive straight set losses, the respect and awe inherent in his record in Paris still makes him the presumptive favourite going into the tournament.
But more or less, the battle for No 1 has already been fought and lost. The clay season, the usual linchpin of Rafa’s year, has lost much of its symbolic shine in 2011. To put it another way, “only” winning Barcelona and Monte Carlo may be fabulous results for anyone else on tour, but Rafael Nadal isn’t just “anyone else”.
It will also be interesting to see how these losses contribute to perceptions of Nadal in the locker room. While there’ no question that Nadal continues to inspire a whole lotta awe, how much has his aura been slowly whittled away by recent losses, the way Roger’s was back in 2008? And how much of it can be rebuilt, re-established and refortified against a field that’s probably busy studying tapes of his recent losses for future application?
We’re in for a very interesting French Open, that’s for sure.
Of course, I’m not saying that Nadal won’t go on to post more incredible achievements in his career. Nor am I writing a premature obituary on his years of dominance. I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy regains or solidifies his No 1 position over the next 18 months.
But I am seeing tiny signs from Nadal in 2011 that were similarly evident in Federer back in 2008 – bizarrely wild forehands, unconverted break points, opportunities wasted, overheads blown. You can put it down to a bad performance here and there, but soon it’ll become a trend, and soon after that, it’ll start to resemble a mild case of tennistic Alzheimer’s. Sometimes the Clay Monster (or our darling Tee Em Eff) is there, but at other times, you have to strain to find him in a torrent of uncharacteristic errors.
Have I just depressed the crap out of you?
It’s okay. At some point, we must all come to terms with the cruel passage of time. It gets us all in the end – you, me, Rafa, Wodge, and one day, Djokovic too.