Sunday, February 01, 2009

"SuperRafa!!" (co-starring roger federer)

You know you're thinking it, and some people are probably saying it after the 2009 Australian Open men's final. Yes, at this point, it looks like Roger Federer might just be Rafael Nadal's female dog.

I just can't bring myself to use the "unedited" version of that sentence. It'd just be too disrespectful of a great champion and good person. But it's pretty certain that such a harsh, bush-league declaration will be made by some after Nadal's 7-5/3-6/7-6/3-6/6-2 victory, and Federer's going to have to find a way to counter and upend the notion if he's to avoid going from "The Greatest of All Time" to "Not Even the Greatest of HIS Time" in such lightning speed that it makes your head spin.

Getty Images

Except for that two-set aberration against Tomas Berdych, Federer came into this final in fine form after two weeks of play in Melbourne. But maybe that bad start against the Czech was enough to plant a seed in the Swiss Mister's head that he really WASN'T the same player he was a few seasons ago. In the past, he would never have had to come back from two sets down against an opponent he's dominated. And he knew it.

Even when Federer was on top of the tennis world, he had trouble with a young Nadal whose best surface by far was clay. And while Federer was making his way to yet another slam final (the eighteenth of his career), Nadal was tearing up opponents on the hard courts of Melbourne Park. Oh, Nadal was tested once, by countryman Fernando Verdasco in the SF. But after fighting for 5:14, Nadal won that one, too.

Now, after being bested by the Spaniard on his favored grass at the All-England Club last July, the only home base left for Federer to defend was a hard court slam. So, while Federer was looking to match Pete Sampras' record fourteen slam titles with an Australian Open title here, he knew that a loss would mean all sorts of things he simply didn't want to even contemplate.

This record seventh meeting in a grand slam final wasn't so much about Federer trying to catch Sampras, it was about whether Nadal's rise in 2008 was going to turn out to be a temporary reign, or whether the Era of Federer really HAD come to a close. Federer's battle with mono last season gave him a convenient "out" to explain away his sudden difficulties. And it might do just that when it comes to his out-of-character losses to the likes of Roddick, Blake, Fish and Karlovic in '08. But Nadal? No, it's now apparent that there is nothing that washes away what has now become the Rafa's dominance over Federer -- he's simply a better, tougher and more resilient player.

End of sentence. End of era. And this time there are no questions left to answer.

Still, even though it's a role that Federer never wished for or thought he'd ever be relegated to, the former #1 is a perfect foil for Nadal (sort of like when Bjorn Borg met John McEnroe). They just can't help it. Whenever they meet on the court, thrilling tennis is a given and the final result is akin to something being carved into the granite tableau of the game's history. This final was no different. While the matchup is a dream for the sport, it's quickly becoming a nightmare for Federer. As Nadal is filling out his career resume, it's happening at the expense of Federer's -- and it's threatening to "ruin" the bio and legacy of the player everyone was dubbing the "Greatest of All-Time" just a short while ago.

As during the classic Wimbledon final last year, Federer had his chances to seize control of this match. But he simply could not do it. In the 3rd set, with Nadal seeming to tire, Federer was looking to go up two sets to one. He had six break points -- including a triple break point on Nadal's serve -- to go up 6-5 and have a chance to serve for the set. Nadal survived, then got a second wind in the 3rd set tie break, which he won to push Federer's back against the wall.

Federer fought back to send the match to a fifth set, but then collapsed under the pressure in the deciding stanza. Why did it happen to a great champion? Was it the pressure of the moment? Of history? Of his disappointment over his failure to meet his own lofty expectations? Or just of Rafa himself, and the knowledge that even after Nadal had played nine-plus hours of tennis in his last two matches, and had one less day of rest than the relatively lightly-tested Federer, that he STILL didn't have as much inner reserve as the Spaniard? Ummm, the answer is likely yes, yes, yes and yes.

Rather than wilt, Nadal got stronger down the stretch. The match was over. You might even say that Nadal intimidated Federer into capitulating in the clutch... which is what Federer used to do to everyone else.

Four years ago, Federer was brought to tears by the sight of Rod Laver at Laver Arena, handing him his championship trophy. This time around, again with Laver nearby, Federer broke up again while addressing the crowd, and had to take a break before going on. Previously, the tears were of joy and awe of his idol being there to witness his triumph. This time... who's to be sure? Maybe it was because of the failure to do what he thought he would in the match, or maybe the realization that he really ISN'T what he once was (or that if he is, it's not enough to defeat Nadal). Few players enjoyed being the best player in the world more than Federer. He loved being the King, and didn't question it when people called him the best player to ever live.

But it's difficult to be "the best ever" when you're no longer even "the best now." A week ago, Bud Collins said he'd rank Federer in the "Top 10" of all-time. A great honor, but not the one that Federer wants or, maybe more importantly, had come to expect after so many years at the top.

For all of Nadal's current greatness, and make no mistake that he now owns the men's game in both heart AND mind just as he currently hold three of the four slam titles, the odd thing is that his rise has made Federer the truly compelling character in this story. What does he do now? Does he change his approach to playing Nadal, as Brad Gilbert suggested on ESPN2 after the match? Does he re-think his close friendship with Nadal, which one could argue might have humanized him a little TOO much in Rafa's eyes and removed all chance to claim any sort of aura or hint of intimidation when they meet on the court.

Would Roger's good buddy Tiger Woods ever become close with a true rival? No, because he would be "giving up" much more than he'd get in return. "If you want to have a close friend, make it the #100 player in the world," might be Tiger's advice. When intimidation is such a part of your game -- and it certainly was for Federer for years, as opponents seemed to genuflect at his mere presence in a tight match -- losing even a little of it can prove to produce a severe shift in expectations, as far as his opponents AND the "top dog" are concerned.

Federer seems to be trapped between that rock and a hard place.

In a way, the once-dominant Steffi Graf found herself in the same position in the early 1990's as Federer does now. After ruling the sport, her power was suddenly usurped by Monica Seles. The Yugoslav was inside her head, and she couldn't find a way to beat her. The German was either going to have to change something about her game and approach, or be fated to going from possibly the "best" player to the "second-best of her era," forever altering how she would be viewed by tennis history. Of course, as things turned out, the incident in Hamburg took Seles -- literally for a few years, then in spirit if not in actual reality -- out of the equation. Without her nemesis to overcome, Graf continued doing what she'd always done, never trying to add new facets (such as a net game) to her arsenal, and simply picked up where she'd left off before Seles arrived on the scene. Without a true rival, she was the easy #1 again.

Waiting and hoping for Nadal to burn brightly and then flame out would not seem to be the recommended course of action for Federer. So, what he'll do next will be the most interesting story to follow the rest of this season.

Well, unless you count what will surely become a drumbeat of excitement about a possible "Rafa Slam" when and if Nadal wins his fifth Roland Garros crown in June, that is. After proving he can win a hard court slam, after having already done the same on grass last year, there's no reason to think anyone can prevent Nadal from winning all four slam titles in 2009.

Right now, it surely doesn't look as if Federer is capable. And, really, who else is there? We shall see.

...after all the on and off court weeds she's had to try to make her way through over the last season or two, it's nice to see Sania Mirza start her season with something good. She and Mahesh Bhupathi defeated Nathalie Dechy and Andy Ram in the Mixed Doubles final, giving Mirza her very first grand slam title. Bhupathi has now won seven Mixed Doubles championships at all four slams, with seven different women since 1997.

...and, finally, the first leg of the '09 season is now complete, so look for Backspin's "Dorothy Tour" awards this week.

Australian Open (1): 2009
Roland Garros (4): 2005-08
Wimbledon (1): 2008
U.S. Open (0): none

5 - Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras
5 - Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander
4 - Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors
4 - Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe

20 - Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe
16 - Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras
16 - Boris Becker vs. Stefan Edberg
15 - Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe
13 - Boris Becker vs. Ivan Lendl
12 - Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors

#2 S.Williams/USA def. #3 Safina/RUS

#1 Nadal/ESP def. #2 Federer/SUI

#10 Williams/Williams (USA/USA) def. #9 Hantuchova/Sugiyama (SVK/JPN)

#2 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #3 Bhupathi/Knowles (IND/BAH)

Mirza/Bhupathi (IND/IND) def. Dechy/A.Ram (FRA/ISR)

#3 Ksenia Pervak/RUS def. #5 Laura Robson/GBR

#1 Yuki Bhambri/IND def. Alexandro-Ferdinandos Georgoudas/GER

#6 Christina McHale/Ajla Tomljanovic (USA/CRO) def. Alexandra Krunic/Sandra Zaniewska (SRB/POL)

#7 Francis Casey Alcantara/Hsieh Cheng-Peng (PHI/TPE) def. Mikhal Biryukov/Yasutaka Uchiyama (RUS/JPN)

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Elena Dementieva/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Stephanie Dubois/CAN d. Urszula Radwanska/POL 6-4/6-4
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd: Suarez-Navarro d. V.Williams 2-6/6-3/7-5 (1 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd: Safina d. Cornet 6-2/2-6/7-5 (2 MP)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): SF: Safina d. Zvonareva 6-3/7-6
FIRST SEED OUT: #23 Agnes Szavay/HUN (1st Rd.- Voskoboeva/KAZ)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Elena Baltacha/GBR, Alberta Brianti/ITA, Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL-KAZ (2nd Round)
IT GIRL: Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
CRASH & BURN: Venus Williams/USA (lost in 2nd Rd.)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Dinara Safina/RUS (down 2-5 in 3rd, & 2 MP to Cornet in 4th Rd.)

All for now.


Blogger Diane said...

It would indeed be disrespectful to Roger (don't mess with my Roger!), would also be disrespectful to women and girls. So thanks for not using it.

I wonder what Fed is going to do. He needs a coach--can we all agree on that? I don't know if you read Peter Bodo's great post-Australian Open piece on Roger. He suggests that Roger open his mind to using a two-handed backhand return of serve--that sort of thing.

Someone--I don't remember who--wrote several weeks ago that it wouldn't kill Roger to use a big racquet head like everyone else does.

I really like and enjoy Nadal, but I am concerned about Roger, and hope that he hires someone appropriate who will tell him what to do--and that he will listen.

Mon Feb 09, 12:07:00 PM EST  

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