12 Jun 2018 19:17 IST

Why Nadal and Federer continue their domination

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer after winning the Laver Cup in 2017 | Reuters (File photo)

Nadal just won his 11th French Open and Federer is still playing competitive tennis at 36

Here’s an interesting pattern in men’s professional tennis:

2008 French Open: Nadal

2008 Wimbledon: Nadal

2008 US Open: Federer

2009 Australian Open: Nadal

2009 French Open: Federer

2009 Wimbledon: Federer

And another interesting pattern:

2017 Australian: Federer

2017 French Open: Nadal

2017 Wimbledon: Federer

2017 US Open: Nadal

2018 Australian Open: Federer

2018 French Open: Nadal

The first pattern started with the 2008 French Open, rolling into 2009 Wimbledon. The second pattern started with the 2017 Australian Open, rolling into last Sunday’s French Open.

Exactly 10 years to the day, Spaniard Rafael Nadal and Swiss Roger Federer continue to dominate the world of men's tennis like no two men have in any sport.

The numbers are staggering — between them, they have won 37 Grand Slam titles. Nadal has won 11 titles at the French Open alone and Federer has already won the Wimbledon championships eight times.

A Grand Slam tournament is different from every other individual sporting contest. It runs for 14 long days. The world’s top 128 players are in the main draw. The champion has to win seven matches consecutively, starting against lesser-known players and work their way up to the world’s top 20 players. Each match is a best of five-set challenge for the men, and best of three sets for the women.

Reigning champion

Nadal won his first French Open title as a 19-year-old in 2005. He has played 88 matches at the venue during the last 13 years; his win record is 86-2. During his run up to the title in three of the years he won, Nadal didn’t drop a single set. Imagine that. He played seven matches and won them all in straight sets, in all, playing the minimum required 21. During three other years, he dropped just one set — playing 22 sets in all to lift the trophy. Federer too did not drop a set on the way to his 2017 Wimbledon title.

It’s just not the numbers. It’s what other world-class players feel about Nadal and Federer. Last week at his post-match press conference, Juan Martin Del Potro, the big serving Argentinian who is currently ranked #4 in the world — himself a Grand Slam winner, having won the 2009 US Open — was asked, “Is there anybody who can beat Nadal here at Roland Garros (the site of the French Open in Paris) or do we have to wait until he stops playing?”

Del Potro smiled and said, “Maybe!” and when the press broke into a nervous laughter, he smiled again and said, “Dominic Thiem beat him in Madrid. Maybe on Sunday he can repeat.” He sighed and said, “It’s not easy... I was on the court a couple of minutes ago... it’s almost impossible to beat him.”

On Sunday, Thiem tamely lost to Nadal 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. And Thiem is no mean competitor. He is the only player to have beaten Nadal on clay in the last two years — and he has done so three times. If Thiem couldn’t beat Nadal, then the latter’s dominance was almost assured, what with Djokovic still trying to stage a comeback and Federer safely deciding to skip this year as he did last year.

Speaking about clay courts, Nadal has won at Monte Carlo and Barcelona a record 11 times each. Last year, Barcelona honoured the local boy by naming their centre court stadium “Pista Rafael Nadal”. It must have felt strange for Nadal to walk into a stadium named after him to play the finals. But he did not let it bother him, winning the title last year and repeating the feat this year too.

Age is just a number

Nadal is a 32 years old. In tennis years, Federer is a grandfather still going strong at 36. Tennis is not an easy sport to play. The tour is gruelling, with major tournaments in three continents and ATP 1000 Masters contests sprinkled a few weeks apart throughout the year all over the world. And there are year-end contests in London, plus non-professional events like the Davis Cup or the Olympics every four years. It’s the only sport where you’re out on the court all on your own with no assistance from coaches or trainers for the duration of the match.

The physical fitness, endurance, skills, and talents of the modern tennis player are just remarkable. Ken Rosewall, a French Open champion himself (having won the title in1968), said this at Sunday’s award ceremonies: “I’m glad I’m not playing today”, acknowledging the brutal fact that the game has changed so much in the last two decades.

Some of Thiem’s first serves on Sunday clocked at 140 miles an hour. Many of Del Potro’s return ground strokes on Friday were measured at 100 miles an hour. A tennis court is not a huge area of real estate to begin with. For the opponent to have to receive balls at such pace and return them within strict boundaries calls for reflexes that are just not human. In cricket and baseball, high ball speeds are normal, but batsmen are not constrained to hit the ball back within a 78 x 27 feet rectangle.

Winning 37 Grand Slam titles is also not human. And as the spotlight shifts to the beautiful grass courts at Wimbledon, do you know what, or who, the British bookies are betting on? Federer is the favourite to win his ninth title next month.

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