Mailbag: Comparing Federer-Nadal at 2017 Australian Open to 2008 Wimbledon final
The calendar has moved on, but many of your questions remain—understandably—in Melbourne. We’ll take a few more questions this week, off the 2017 Australian Open but then let’s move on, shall we? Too much good tennis being played elsewhere….
As an unabashed Fedophile, I've childishly had a bee in my bonnet about the impact of the fading daylight on the outcome of the 2008 Roger vs. Rafa Wimbledon final...and I've affixed my own asterisk to that match as the greatest ever played. Fast forward nine years to the '17 AO men's final—a match not many of us saw coming. Would you share your thoughts comparing and contrasting the quality of the two matches? (Perhaps with a stroke of luck, we'll see a book on the topic?! Lots to discuss: Age, injury, equipment, coaching influences, backhand strategies...)
—Paul F. Guimond, Framingham, Mass. 01701
• First, the zip code is a nice touch.
You're right there’s a great discussion here. I don't know where to begin, but perhaps here: I have zero objectivity. In fact, I have a vested interest in preserving the 2008 Wimbledon final as the greatest match ever played. Pressed to mount a defense, I’d start with the scoreline: 6–4, 6–4, 6–7, 6–7, 9–7 versus 6-4 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. Statistically, the Wimbledon match was cleaner. Fatigue was less of an issue. From a context standpoint: Federer and Nadal were one/two at the time, and had played in final of the previous major. (In Australia, they were No. 9/17 and neither made a final in all of the previous year.) Vaunted Centre Court versus an arena. A match in diminishing daylight (the last Centre Court played without the possibility of lights) added still more intrigue and symbolism.
I'll stop now.
This exercise is akin to the GOAT debate where you end up, necessarily, denigrating greatness as your argue for different greatness. Given where Nadal and Federer were/are in their careers, given the arc of their rivalry, given this joint stand against the Murray/Djokovic duopoly, given their ages, given the unlikely sways of the match (As a colleague asked me days later, seeking confirmation: “Wait, Federer came back against Nadal? Isn’t it always vice versa?”…… maybe we just agree that they were both magical, historical moments for tennis. We are in debt to both players and the rivalry they built. And that one man won the first match and the other man won the second leaves us with a nice bit of symmetry.
Here's one thing I didn’t like about the Australian Open final: the challenge on match point. I can’t blame Nadal. He had nothing to lose at that point. But we wanted the reaction of Fed celebrating after a winner. Instead he looked up at the replay video and the moment was lost. Thoughts?
• Sure. A few of you wrote in about this. I suppose you’re right.
INTERIOR: CRIMINAL COURT, LATE AFTERNOON
Gallery packed. Tensions etched on the faces of all those present as the jury returns.
Judge: Will the court please rise….Jury have you reached your verdict?
Foreperson: Yes, judge we have.
Judge: Please, then, deliver your verdict.
Collective gasp settles. Defendant’s mother knits hands in prayer. Lawyers draped arms over nervous defendant. Prosecution team looks on earnestly.
Foreperson: We the jury rule….well, we think it’s not guilty but we first need some clarification on state statute 102(3)(a)(ii) just to make sure we’re interpreting it right. Can we meet in your chambers, judge?
Yes, the replay on match point wasn’t exactly the ending as we all would have scripted it. But what can you do? Rules are rules. Deny Nadal his rights on the grounds that it’s not cinematic?
My beef came a minute or so later. You have this historic match, ending 6-4 in the fifth set. Federer wins his 18th major! At age 35 this is a crowning achievement, against his rival no less! Nadal sits on the threshold of a double Career Slam and cementing his dominance over Federer, only to lose his 3-1 lead in the fifth! Federer is elated! Nadal is dejected. The tableau is laden with emotion. Hell, when the roles were reversed at this same round, on this same court in 2009, we had tears. In 2017, at this historic interval, with emotions bubbling, with this wealth of human drama, with fans worldwide riveted and eager to witness this animate of agony and ecstasy…. what do we get?.... Kia Man.
Here's a crazy idea: before playing a national anthem at any event, find a citizen of that country and ask them "Is this your country's CURRENT national anthem?" Problem solved!
• Archie, of course, refers to the uber-embarrassment, if you will, of the USTA inadvertently feting the German Fed Cup with the wrong national anthem last weekend. Andy Roddick was the first to note that this is “just too easy of a thing to get right.” Thirty seconds of internet research would also have obviated this. Two observations: in the current political climate, acts perceived as being inhospitable (or blithely careless) towards people from other counties will be magnified. We’ve argued in the past about the USTA putting too much emphasis on the U.S. and too little in the TA. Note the military tributes and the prevalence of flags and the national anthem at the U.S. Open—and note how this is a departure from the other majors. When the USTA commits a gaffe like this at the expense of another country, it will be magnified as well.
Hey Jon! Hope you're well. Looking forward to Reilly Opeilka podcast. Question: With Roger winning his 18th major, is the (younger) Andy Roddick thinking, “I could have stuck it out a few more years on tour? Or at least, I could have prolonged my career by managing my workouts and schedule differently?”
• A few years ago at Wimbledon I spoke with Roddick about this. Paraphrasing, he essentially said that he was content with his decision. For the first year there was a frustration knowing he could turn on a tennis broadcast and feel he could beat a good many players who were out there competing. But there was a realization that there’s a world of difference between “I could beat Player X if went out there today” and “I could devote myself to competing week-in, week-out.”
All that said, as I wrote in the Sports Illustrated Australian Open “wrap” story, it was ironic that the two players announced for the 2017 Hall of Fame enshrinement (Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick) were younger than the two tournament winners (Serena Williams and Roger Federer.)
Mailbag question: Besides the big three, who else has achieved the feat of winning a Grand Slam by winning both their SF and F in 5 sets? I only know the big three did it— and all at the Australian Open! Nadal (2009), Djokovic (2012), Federer (2017).
—Regards, Paul, Manila
• We go to Sharko the Great: Players who have won Slam titles winning 5-set matches in SF and F rounds:
Wilander, Mats, Australian Open, 1988
McEnroe, John, U.S. Open, 1980
Ivanisevic, Goran, Wimbledon, 2001
Borg, Bjorn, Wimbledon, 1977
Nadal, Rafael, Australian Open, 2009
Djokovic, Novak, Australian Open, 2012
Federer, Roger, Australian Open, 2017
Before the AO Final, there was so much talk about Nadal's semifinal of five hours vs. Fed's semifinal of three hours. Considering the ball is only in play in about 17% of a match, and that Nadal typically takes 35% more time in between points, could there be better comparison? I would even argue that running with less time between points is way more tiring than running for more hours with more time between points.
—Olivia, Mountain View, Calif.
• The real point was that Federer had the extra day of rest between the semis and the finals. But Olivia raises a good point: time-of-match, like so many tennis statistics, can be deeply misleading. Never mind the failure to account for breaks between points. What about the fact that the clock runs while there are trainer calls and bathroom breaks and injury time-outs? A separate statistic for “time ball is in play” would be more meaningful. Though that, too, could be “dirty” data.
“Australian tennis player Oliver Anderson has been provisionally suspended from playing professional tennis by independent anti-corruption Hearing Officer Richard McLaren. The suspension applies with immediate effect and will remain in place until the conclusion of Tennis Integrity Unit investigations. During this period Mr Anderson, currently ranked 1083, is excluded from competing in, or attending, any tournament or event organised or sanctioned by the governing bodies of the sport.”
—Tennis Integrity Unit
• I am quoting a press release above. This story was first reported by the Melbourne Age.
While it is true that Anderson is ranked outside the top 1,000 and—as is so often the case—this alleged misconduct came at a Podunk challenger, this one is deeply distressing of multiple levels.
a) Oliver Anderson was the 2016 Australian Open boys champion and here he is—only 18 and less than a year removed from winning a junior Slam—alleged to have played dirty.
b) I spoke with a tennis official in Melbourne who saw the video of Anderson allegedly dumping points. He conceded that it was awfully difficult to discern what looked like intentional tanking and what simply looked like an unforced error. This is yet another reason why tennis is so vulnerable. Hit a mid-rally ball into the net? It could be dumping. It could also be the kind of error that even the best players make dozens of times per match.
At the AO, Martina Navratilova said Alexander Zverev lacked the stamina to stand in with Nadal so long, had no reserves (fat) to rely on. That it takes time to develop. But Murray and Nadal don't have fat. So what exactly is it, what does the average player go through, to get his body in condition to go 4+ hours repeatedly? Can it just be genetic? Do the most serious give up liquor and chips during slams?
• I don't profess to speak for Martina but I think there a few things going on here. First it’s physical. It’s not a question of fat. It’s a question of having the fitness base and the leg strength to withstand best-of-five tennis. Talented as he is, Sasha Zverev isn't there yet. We saw that when he played Nadal. Someone like Taylor Fritz isn't there either. It comes with time. (Reilly Opelka was very insightful discussing this on the podcast this week.)
But these best-of-five matches also require a level of mental fitness. You have to know your body. You have to know when your reserves are really low and when you suspect a second (or third or fourth) wind is coming. With no clear finish line—do we have an hour left? 90 minutes?—it’s not such a simple exercise.
In the first half of 2016, I was watching Dominic Thiem and was confident that he would be the first "Next Gen" guy to win a Slam. Now, I'm doubting that. In the second half of 2016 it was easy to attribute his struggles to playing too many tournaments and going deep in a lot of those tournaments. Sure, in Brisbane he ran into an unstoppable Grigor Dimitrov and Goffin in Melbourne, but how about that loss to Dan Evans in Sydney and Basilashvili in Sofia? He seems inconsistent. And since it's the beginning of the year, the problem shouldn't be fatigue. Could it just be a confidence issue after struggling in the second half of 2016? And is he planning on playing less tournaments this year? It seems like that would be a wise choice. It makes me reconsider my prediction for which "Next Gen" will win a Slam first.
—Lane Heyboer, Michigan
• Dude plays a lot of tennis. Part of the issue with Thiem’s work rate is simply running the machine into the ground. But another issue: play that much and there’s constant pressure to defend points. There’s an awful lot to like about Thiem’s game. And his team will tell you that he needs match play and what’s overplaying for others is normal for him. But a quick look at his schedule over the past 18 months evinces one word: unsustainable. Either the body will break down or mental fatigue will set in. But, including doubles, he played more than 110 matches. Wahnsinnig, I tell ya!
I loved your Beyond the Baseline podcast with Mary Carillo on the last days of the Aussie Open. Every day since the men's final, I've been checking in to see if there's going to be a post-Open episode to listen to on my commute. Is there to be no new podcast?!?
Please bring Mary back to talk about the incredible match. Would love to hear her thoughts on what Federer was able to do (which defied her pre-match prediction), and both of your thoughts on the match, on the singular Fedal rivalry and friendship, and on this incredible chapter in the history of tennis!
• Mary is coming back, don’t you worry.
• Young, tall American Reilly Opelka is this week’s guest on the SI/Tennis Channel podcast.
• Next guest: fashion icon (and Hall of Famer) Stan Smith.
• Speaking of podcasts, from the support-the-Mailbag-community department: Reader Michael Dalton launched a podcast "Who Wants Pancakes? A podcast about dads.” Read about it here.
• Non tennis but here’s the Indy Vice story one of you asked about.
• Who wants to buy Martina Navratilova’s art (to benefit a good cause)?
• Who wants to play tennis with Chris Evert (to benefit a good cause)?
• Zverev likes Boris Becker, only one problem.
• Bet on It. Joel Drucker’s Don't Bet on It.
• H/T David Parry. The Atlantic’s top photos of 2016. Note No. 9.
• Dell Technologies has committed to a five-year, multifaceted sponsorship of the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) that includes the title sponsorship of the Hall of Fame's annual ATP World Tour tournament.
• John McEnroe talks Roger Federer:
• LLS comes from Jay Jayanna: How about Jerzy Janowicz and "The Royals" Tom Austen for LLS?
• This week’s reader riff comes via Mark of Taipei, Taiwan:
As someone who has watched tennis for over three decades, I haven't seen a single-tournament accomplishment that matches Federer's recent win. I actually think he hasn't received enough credit for it. He hadn't won a tournament for well over a year, leaving aside his injury layoff. This vaults him much higher in the historical rating of players. Navratilova couldn't do it. Sampras came close to matching him against a weaker field at a younger age with his last major. Rosewall is very close with his third-to-last major win; his last one was more like winning a somewhat weak Masters 1000 tournament, though still very commendable. His second-to-last had a pretty good field but not comparable to this year's Australian draw. And then he won the big WCT finals to cap it all off!
I personally rate Rosewall as the most accomplished player with his combined record of pro and amateur majors and longevity. However, if you look at the present day, Djokovic's overall record is the one that rivals Federer's, not Nadal's. Rafael only has 16 hard court titles, though 3 majors are among them. That is not enough in a hard court era. Djokovic is perhaps the best ever on hard courts and the most accomplished in Masters/Grand Slam hard court play. He also has enough records overall to compare favorably with Federer. He does not necessarily need to reach 18 majors, though 15 or 16 would be helpful. Nadal, though, is the hardest to beat in big matches, with a commanding lead over the other big three in Grand Slam action (all three matchups have virtually identical numbers too). So for now, why not say Nadal is the most unbeatable, Federer is the most consistently great, and Djokovic is the perfect technical player, the most likely to come close to or surpass Federer?
I also think Djokovic's personal issues are likely nothing more than loss of motivation. Once he won Roland Garros, he had no immediate goals. He'll be fine eventually. We've seen this before from him.