This is the look of dominance. Roger Federer is not the best anymore. Novak Djokovic is not the best today. Juan Martin del Potro might be the best later. They are all great, but keep your focus on the right place and the right time.
Rafael Nadal beat Federer Sunday 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 to win the French Open. His sixth French Open title, tying Bjorn Borg’s record. Nadal holds on to his No. 1 ranking, goes into Wimbledon as the defending champ and favorite.
Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated proclaimed Djokovic “The Most Dominant Athlete in the World.’’ Four days ago, Nadal previewed the Federer-Djokovic semifinal by calling it the greatest player of all time vs. the greatest player of today. Nobody blinked. On Sunday, Nadal won his fourth major in the past 12 months. He has won four of the past five majors.
Best today? Yes.
Best ever? “No. For sure, no,’’ he said. “What Roger did is almost impossible to improve. He is best player in history in my opinion. I am 25; this victory is very important for this year in my career.’’
Nadal has won 10 majors now, to Federer’s 16. But he has beaten Federer in 17 of their 25 matchups.
To me, Nadal is the best ever, as things stand. His best is better than Federer’s. But Nadal’s story is nowhere near fully played out. Federer’s greatness lasted much, much longer than Nadal’s has. Nadal has owned Federer, but what if, say, del Potro owns Nadal over the next four years? Or what if Djokovic does?
This is still the greatest individual rivalry in sport, and it’s always special for tennis when it happens. But I wonder how much more of it we’ll see in major finals.
At the Australian Open in January, someone asked Federer whether his time was winding down. Federer boldly said to give it six months and see where things stand then. These past two weeks, he proved his point, re-established himself, became aggressive, held his nerve (for the most part) on his backhand, arrived with a dominant serve we haven’t seen from him in years.
He beat Djokovic, who hadn’t lost all year. And he even moved fluidly and fast again, after appearing to have lost a step before the French. Tennis ignored Federer for more than a week of the French Open, and then celebrated him the final few days. He earned the second half of that. You hope he gets the grand goodbye, the way Pete Sampras did. Sampras, passed his time, won one more U.S. Open, and then left.
Well, Federer isn’t there yet.
But men’s tennis is at an amazing point now with three all-time great talents and one (del Potro) who figures to be there by the U.S. Open, when he finishes recovering from wrist surgery. Andy Murray is now relegated to the top of Tier II, and Andy Roddick might be the bottom of that tier.
The point is, with all of that talent at the top of the game, it isn’t going to be easy for Nadal and Federer to reach major finals at the same time anymore.
Well, this win meant plenty to Nadal. Strangely, the No. 1 player in the world was in position where he had to defend himself. He had lost several times to Djokovic in non-majors this year. But tennis champions are decided in majors, not in Miami or Madrid. Still, Nadal was nervously working on things, searching for answers to Djokovic after spending years tailoring his game to beat Federer.
Nadal started the tournament looking jittery, barely surviving John Isner in the first round. After that, he won matches handily, but didn’t seem like himself. It was the pressure of Djokovic, of Borg, of No. 1, and of the new hard, light tennis ball French officials introduced at this tournament. Nadal couldn’t find the spin on it.
“Well, for sure, a lot of doubts,’’ he said. “I always try to stay positive in every practice, to be practicing every day with an open mind, and trying to find solutions. Sometimes I’m able to change situations, some days not.’’
Oh, he did find the solution to Djokovic, all right. The solution was Federer, who mixed up speeds and paces and spins, and by crushed serves.
So that left Nadal-Federer again, and by now, Nadal is an anti-Federer machine. He angles his lefty crosscourt forehands with killer spin to Federer’s backhand, and the ball bounces up high to Fed’s shoulder. One-handed backhands, such as Federer’s, do not produce power over the shoulder.
Federer took a fast lead on Nadal with big serves and with a new plan to move into the doubles alley on ad-points to prevent Nadal’s serve from attacking his backhand. Federer even had a set point in the first set, but barely missed a dropshot.
From there, every tennis fan expected Federer to fold. Admit it. Yes, even you, Fed fans. He did drop off for a few games, seemed to get dejected and lose his gameplan. But then he found himself again and fought evenly into the fourth set. Finally, Nadal crushed him.
It was Federer’s best-played major claycourt final, but it still wasn’t enough to stop Nadal.
Not here. Not now. Not to the king.