A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Federer vs Nadal Debates, after 2010

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We’ve reached the end of the 2010 ATP tennis season, but it doesn’t make sense to actually talk too much about it because there’s not much to argue about.  Rafael Nadal is clearly the Player of the Year, Roger Federer is clearly #2.  Then Djokovic, Murray, and Soderling.  I do think though that it’s an appropriate time to talk about Nadal’s career year, and the Federer-Nadal rivalry.

My opinions:

1)      Nadal was great this year, but his peak still hasn’t match Federer, and possibly not John McEnroe either.

2)      Nadal’s edge in the rivalry over Federer remains far smaller than most people think.

Nadal’s on the brink of pulling off what will surely be christened the “Rafa Slam”, if he wins the Australian Open in January.  If he does this, it will drum up a line of thinking that Nadal’s not only the best player in the world now, but that his peak is better than anyone else in history.

Now first off, let me tip my hat to the old schoolers who will bring up Rod Laver, or even Pancho Gonzales.  I don’t agree with you, but I understand your point of view, and just don’t have time in this post to delve into it.

My problem with calling Nadal’s peak the best ever, is that I’m not prone to ignore the non-major tournaments.  Certainly the majors are more important than the other tournaments, and certainly players put more focus and effort into winning the majors than other tournaments, but if on a particular surface you’re losing most of the tournaments you enter it takes a lot to convince me that that’s only because your focus is elsewhere.

Today Nadal lost to Federer at the ATP Tour Finals.  An hour and a half of work earned Federer $770,000, at the biggest tournament that Nadal’s never won, and that essentially every great player of the last 40 years has won.  (Federer’s won it 5 times).

Nadal played 11 hard court tournaments this year, and lost 9 of them.  The only one he won outside of the US Open, was a minor tournament that had no one else from the Top 8 in it.  He lost to 9 different players this year.  By contrast, in 2006, Federer lost to only two players the entire year, winning 12 tournaments (as opposed to the 7 Nadal won this year).  Heck, in 1984 John McEnroe lost only 3 matches all year.

If Nadal goes on an extended major streak which includes him winning 4+ hard court majors in a row, I’ll change my tune, but I don’t how you can watch Federer beat Nadal today and come to the conclusion that Nadal has everything under control.

There is also a tendency to talk about Nadal’s era as being one of great competition primarily because of the rise of Djokovic and Murray, but Nadal isn’t losing to 9 different guys because of those two.  Nevermind the fact that neither of those guys have made more than a small dent in the results for the Grand Slam tournaments in their now 3+ years of prominence – Nadal or no Nadal, these  guys just aren’t on Federer’s level even now, several years past his peak.

Getting into the rivalry, Nadal’s edge is now 14-8, with Federer having the edge on both grass and hard court.  People always focus too much on head-to-head records without thinking enough about context, and there is no better example of this than the Federer-Nadal rivalry.  Nadal’s lead comes from the enormous amount of times both guys made the finals at clay court tournaments.  Had Nadal been consistently making finals in other surfaces there is every reason to believe he’d have a lot more losses against Federer to his name.  Losing early should never be a strategy for improving reputation – but for those who think too much about the head-to-head, that’s exactly what it becomes.

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