We are so used to Roger Federer’s greatness going on and on and on that we forget how quickly things can just go poof in tennis and disappear. I’m not talking about a Bjorn Borg-like disappearance, when he decided one day that it was time to go. More like Pete Sampras, who was great, was great, was great and then one day you looked up and didn’t realize how far he had dropped. Of course, then, at 31, he emerged from nowhere to win another U.S. Open. Then, he really did disappear.
The point is this: I wonder if we’ve seen the last of the great Rafael Nadal-Federer matches.
Maybe Nadal’s 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 win over Federer Sunday at the French Open will be the last time they’ll meet in a major final. Federer’s age, Nadal’s knees and the fantastic state of the top of men’s tennis make that a very real possibility.
Their contrasts have a way of attacking all senses. Lefty vs. righty. Classic vs. modern. Floating vs. storming. Rock vs. classic. It is the best individual rivalry in sports, which might explain why NBC’s overnight rating for the French final was up 63 percent in the U.S. over last year’s final.
Nadal is only 25, but has put hard miles on those knees with his style. He has missed long stretches because of them, undergone blood-spinning treatments. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has climbed to Federer’s and Nadal’s level. Juan Martin del Potro, who beat Nadal and Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open, has just about fully recovered, and found his conditioning, after wrist surgeries. Andy Murray is lurking.
Without Nadal and Federer at No. 1 and No. 2, you can’t even count on them being on opposite sides of the draw, allowing them to meet in the final.
Already it had been more than two years since the last time they met in a major final. Two-plus more years and Federer will be pushing 32.
I have been chasing a Federer-Nadal match for a few years, with comically bad results. Incredibly, I’ve never seen them play each other live. The gods are conspiring against me.
I’ve gone to the first few days of tournaments just to talk with some players, and then flown home, holding onto my credentials, ready to fly back for a Federer-Nadal final. No luck.
I have chased them to Australia without luck. To Paris? Nope. London, New York, Indian Wells, Miami, Cincinnati. How about this: I covered every single day of the 2009 US Open and all four majors in 2010. I also covered this year’s Australian Open. My string ended this year, when I didn’t get to the French.
You saw how that ended Sunday. (At least I was at the final Sampras-Agassi match at the U.S. Open.)
How many more chances will I have?
In some ways, Federer re-invented himself these past two weeks, playing aggressively, hitting big serves, and moving fast and flawlessly again. Maybe the bigger serves will shorten points. Maybe the way he cut off angles by crowding the baseline will reduce the amount of running he has to do. Maybe that will buy him a couple more years.
But Sampras could serve as a warning about Federer. When Sampras was Federer’s age – 29 years and 10 months — he was ranked No. 5. A year later, he was No. 12. A year after that, he was gone. Federer is now ranked No. 3.
Federer was 28 years and 5 months when he won the 2010 Australian Open, his most recent major title. Sampras was 28 years, 10 months when he won the 2000 Wimbledon, ranked No. 3 in the world. Agassi was No. 1. Who would have thought:
They would play each other in a major just one more time. (The final of the 2002 U.S. Open, Sampras’ final match.)
I’m not saying that Federer is about to have a Sampras’ like drop-off. For one thing, Sampras’ desire went away around this age, but Federer still seems to have passion. But this is the age when the fall can happen. And if not now, then soon.
What are your expectations for the future of this rivalry? They meet again in a few weeks in the Wimbledon final? Possible. But then comes the hardcourt season, specialties of Djokovic and del Potro.
Nadal leads it 17-8, and they have played in eight major finals. Sampras beat Agassi in 20 of 34 matches, including just five major finals.
A little breakdown: In major finals, Nadal has won six of eight. Four of those were victories on the clay of Roland Garros. Federer has won two of three on grass at Wimbledon, and Nadal won their only time on a hard court, at the 2009 Australian Open. In all matches, Nadal leads 12-2 on clay, Federer leads 2-1 on grass, and they are 4-4 on hard courts.
It is a special moment when Nadal and Federer face each other in a major final but time is running out. Ali fought Frazier three times. Tennis was lucky enough to have Federer-Nadal VIII (major finals) on Sunday.
Here’s to hoping that wasn’t the end.