This week in Paris marked a change of guard in the world of professional tennis. Rafael Nadal, the Spanish champion who ruled the French Open tournament in Roland Garros winning a record nine titles, fell to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a straight-sets debacle that was, until last year, just unthinkable. To add insult to injury, this didn’t happen in the tournament final. It happened in the quarterfinals, probably the most-watched round-of eight match in the history of tennis.
Just the previous day, Roger Federer, the Swiss great and world’s number two, had been soundly beaten by his countryman and mentee, Stan Wawrinka. This is the first time in nearly 12 years that both Federer and Nadal have exited two consecutive Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian Open and now, the French — so early.
Long haul at the top
The dominance of Federer and Nadal in the singles tour has been nothing short of remarkable. Between July 2005 to August 2009, the two shared the world no. 1 or no. 2 spots for a record 211 consecutive weeks. They have won a combined 31 Grand Slam titles (Federer-17, Nadal-14) and a mind-boggling 150 ATP tour titles in all (Federer-85, Nadal-65). This week marked the first time in 292 Grand Slam matches that Federer failed to break his opponent’s serve — this last happened in 2002. In five-set matches on clay, Nadal has a record of 93-2. He is the only player in history who has won at least one Grand Slam title each year for 10 consecutive years.
Individual sporting competitions — such as tennis, shuttle, shooting, boxing and wrestling — have a special allure for Indians. They remain the last vestige in sports where success and failure are solely dependent upon the efforts of an individual, a romantic idea in a world that is saddled with cronyism and corruption. There are no teams, no complex media/sports-industry tie-ups, no political meddling and best of all, no favouritism. For scandal-weary Indians who love to worship their idols, individual sports provide the rare opportunity to crown the best. Think Saina Nehwal, Abhinav Bindra, Mary Kom and Sushil Kumar Solanki.
Federer and Nadal have not only been rewarded with gleaming trophies but they are also incredibly successful businessmen. Together, they have earned over $160 million in prize money alone. Endorsements are even more lucrative. Federer is the second highest paid athlete in the world, according to Forbes, making nearly $50 million a year promoting brands such as Nike, Credit Suisse, Rolex and Lindt. Nadal, as the ninth highest paid athlete makes nearly $30 million a year in endorsements. These are monetary successes that Indian individual sporting stars can only dream about.
What really matters
But records aside, what truly distinguishes both Federer and Nadal are their personalities both on and off-court. Tennis is intensely competitive and emotions on the court have caused established players like Djokovic or Fabio Fognini, and even rising stars such as Nick Kyrgios, exhibit awful behaviour. In a match earlier this year, another rising gun Grigor Dimitrov was so upset about losing a game that he hurled his racquet to the ground, caught it on the bounce up and broke it into two. There are players who hit balls into the crowd out of sheer rage and those who argue with chair umpires on a wrong call, sometimes using foul language. Federer and Nadal have been pillars of calm and outstanding behaviour on court, showing only a grim twitch or letting the occasional shout out on losing a point, but nothing more.
More than champions
Even off court, the two are superb examples of what successful people in any walk of life ought to be like. Nadal, in particular, goes to extreme lengths to be humble and straightforward, discussing his recent drop in form in agonizing detail. When he was asked why he would not fire his only and long-time coach, uncle Toni, he dismissed the idea by quipping, “He is family - family always comes first and tennis comes later.” Not only have they been the face of world tennis for a decade, they have lent their names to raising money for charity, such as Federer’s initiative to fund schooling, transport and food for children in Africa. Nadal’s foundation provides opportunities for socially-disadvantaged youth. Both are known to mentor younger players and give them encouragement on tour.
Nadal just turned 29 and Federer is a still relatively young 33. Given their incredible talents and near divine physical fitness, they are still the likely contenders to eclipse a few more records and win more titles. But we have already immensely benefited from these two dedicated professionals who have been exemplars in a sporting world that suffers from scandal after scandal — match fixing in the IPL, large-scale corruption in FIFA soccer, charges of domestic abuse in the National Football League (US football) and doping in cycling and baseball. When they do exit the world stage, they will be sorely missed.