So Federer and Nadal are on track to meet in the semis, the first time this has happened since the 2005 French Open. Watching the tennis on TV and listening to it on radio, often the commentators receive questions like “Who is the best player” or “Why does Federer struggle so much against Nadal”. It is especially frustrating to hear people say “well, since Federer has such a poor record against Nadal, clearly he can’t be the best of all time”.
Of course comparing players — especially from different eras — is an inexact science. I think the case for Federer being the greatest player of all time rests on several bases:
- His record collection of Slams, 16 in total.
- His style. Love him or hate him, the way Federer plays is almost objectively as beautiful tennis as one can play.
- His consistency. 65 consecutive wins on grass, 56 consecutive wins on hard court, 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals, 6 ATP World Tour Finals. I doubt these records will ever be broken. Incredibly, he has played 1000 matches now and has never retired during a single one.
Other than his winning record (17-9) against Federer, Nadal doesn’t really have any other claims to be the greatest ever… yet. He still has a shot at equalling or surpassing 16 Slams. He is also clearly the best clay court player of all time and the youngest player to obtain a Career Grand Slam.
How does Nadal own Federer so comprehensively? It’s all in that vicious topspin lefty forehand to the one-handed Federer backhand. That simple. I had the great fortune of watching Nadal (on the practice court) at Wimbledon and it’s absolutely amazing. From side-on you can really see the ball dipping in midair before kicking off the court. It’s hard to return the ball (let alone hit a good shot) when the ball is coming up past shoulder height, especially with a one-handed backhand.*
On the clay court, the effect is exacerbated. Also, due to the slowness of the court and Rafa’s amazing movement and endurance, it becomes almost impossible to hit winners against him. He slowly grinds Federer down, both physically and mentally. This explains Nadal’s 12-2 clay court domination over Federer. Notably, Federer holds a 5-4 advantage on hard court (including 4-0 on indoor surfaces, where conditions are quickest) and 2-1 advantage on grass (having lost the epic 2008 Wimbledon final while stricken by mononucleosis).
What are my predictions for the match? The conditions are stacked against Fed. Despite being a hard court, the Aus Open surface has gotten slower and slower. The balls get heavy and fluffy, becoming harder to hit through. The match takes place in the cooler night time (the hotter it is, generally the faster the conditions). Nadal is pumped and seems to be showing no signs of knee trouble that has hampered him in the past two Aus Opens. There is also this incredible statistic: Nadal is 134-1 in Slams once he takes the first set.
On the other hand, Federer has been looking really good for the past few months, since the US Open. I thought del Potro would be a tough challenge last round but Fed handled him with ease. Federer will come out firing and try to put Rafa on the back foot. He has to take that first set! The longer the match goes the more you expect the match to swing in favour of the Majorcan. I don’t like making predictions so here is my hope: Fed in 4 sets.
*One reason why Djokovic was able to convincingly get the better of Nadal each time they met in 2011 was his ability to handle that high, heavy forehand. The Joker’s two-handed backhand is the best in the game right now. Whenever Rafa goes to it he gets punished as the ball is right in the hitting zone.