A return of the Federer-Nadal duopoly in tennis?
If you read the sports commentary pages from a year ago, the world of tennis was undergoing a transition at the very top. The domination of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal was declared a thing of the past. Poor form and injury concerns had hobbled both of them. The new pair on the stage was that of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. The best the Swiss-Spaniard duo could do was to continue as part of the high-achieving quartet (of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) but no longer as its two strongest pillars. As of today, however, all those predictions have been proven wrong.
So far in 2017, Federer and Nadal have shared 12 titles between them, including all the four Grand Slams—the Australian Open and Wimbledon went to the former, and the French Open and US Open to the latter. In contrast, Djokovic and Murray have a total of three minor titles, all of them secured in the first half of the year. In a complete reversal from 2016, Murray and Djokovic are the ones now facing questions on the two fronts of form and fitness.
More than their competitors and injuries, Federer and Nadal had to conquer their inner demons. The last time Nadal won five or more titles in one year was in 2013. He lost his No.1 ranking in the middle of 2014, plunged to No.10 in 2015, and regained the top slot only in August this year. Before this year, his last Grand Slam win came in 2014—and on a non-clay surface, it came in 2013. The turnaround for Federer has been sharper. Before January 2017, his previous Grand Slam victory was at Wimbledon in 2012. That too was his solitary Grand Slam title between the entire period of February 2010 and December 2016. He is yet to regain his No.1 ranking after October 2012—he is currently No.2—and was perched at No.17 when he entered the Australian Open earlier this year.
While Nadal has made a habit of making comebacks after injuries, the territory was much more unfamiliar for Federer . The suggestions of retirement were no longer mere whispers in distant corridors. But a six-month rest in 2016 did wonders for him. Not only did Federer return with a fresh body and uncluttered mind, his backhand was also working much better. Federer’s struggles with timing and power on backhand drives had been an open secret. And the shortcoming had been fully exploited by his rivals, especially Nadal. It was perhaps fitting then that Nadal was at the receiving end of the improved backhand at the Australian Open final. Federer produced an astonishing 14 backhand winners in the match.
Nadal’s return to glory hasn’t been accompanied by similar overt changes in his game. Perhaps this is also because of the kind of player Nadal is. His impressive forehand aside, Nadal is a gritty player who likes to wear out his opponent. He has always been the king of clay courts but 2017 has seen him play some of the best tennis he ever has on hard courts. His victories at the US Open and the China Open are a testament to that. Even in Shanghai (ATP World Tour Masters 1000), Nadal was on song before the Sunday final when Federer demolished him.
With the spectacular return of Federer and Nadal, one can hope that Murray and Djokovic return with a bang too; that would make 2018 a delightful prospect for tennis fans. Federer will continue to pick and choose his tournaments. At 36, he will not wear himself down by playing everything; he will most likely continue with his current strategy of skipping clay courts altogether. Nadal would like to chase Federer’s record of 19 (and counting) Grand Slams but his greatest challenge will be to remain fit while doing so. His playing style will make it difficult to continue playing at the age Federer is currently able to. With no obvious flaws in his game, it is hard to decode what is ailing Djokovic. His former coach and a tennis legend himself, Boris Becker has said the problem is that tennis is no longer Djokovic’s priority. A mental reset is perhaps what Djokovic needs. And while Murray has been widely acknowledged as the fourth member of this quartet, he still has a lot to do to achieve the greatness of the other three. Improving his second serve is perhaps where he can begin.
Has this year settled the “greatest of all time” debate? Of course, the current crop is better placed compared to the legends of yesteryear because there is much better support from sports and medical science and racket technology, all of which help players achieve longevity with relatively less strain on the body. Among the current players, Federer and Nadal are way ahead of the others.
The overall numbers in straight duels with Federer still weigh in favour of Nadal (23-15). But Federer has closed the gap this year through four consecutive victories against his long-time arch-rival. However, Federer has achieved this by avoiding clay courts on which he has a very poor record (2-13) against Nadal. On grass and hard courts, Federer leads 2-1 and 11-9, respectively. In terms of overall titles and Grand Slams, Federer is ahead again. Moreover, Federer looks good to continue another year or two and maintain his lead. It is difficult to choose the better among the two. But if the performances in 2017 have a bearing on the “greatest of all time” question, Federer seems to be inching ahead.
Can Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray displace Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal from the top of the rankings in 2018? Tell us at email@example.com