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No end in sight to Nadal-Federer G.O.A.T. debate among fans


I just saw you on CNN discussing Rafa's 17-8 record against Roger and whether he should be considered the best. Tough one! Rafa's in his prime and Roger is not. Roger's been the second-best clay player for the last seven years [had he been worse, he might have never met Rafa on clay and would be even at 6-6 I think; of course, he would also have been a worse player, i.e., the head-to-head record may not be the best metric of relative ability] while Nadal only recently became a top player on other surfaces, so they didn't meet often on other surfaces where Roger was dominant for several years (they played 13 times on clay but only 12 times on all other surfaces). Question: Assuming Rafa had been born the same day as Roger, whom do you think would have been the dominant player both in general and on the various surfaces?--Maurice, Washington, DC

• I wanted to say bah to the G.O.A.T. questions and dodge the Federer-Nadal/Is-there-a-new-king? line of inquiry altogether. It all seems kneejerk and premature. But the questions keep coming and clearly this is "top of mind" in Tennis Nation, especially after Mary Carillo's dumped petrol on the fire during the Sunday's NBC broadcast.

So here's my take: Federer is still the G.O.A.T. And he doesn't even feel Nadal's hot breath on his neck. At least not yet. Federer has six more Slams. He's been to nearly twice as many Slam finals. Plus, he has that vastly underrated semifinal streak to which Nadal hasn't come close. If you were trying to argue against Federer, there's no question that his 8-17 record against his rival would be Exhibit A. Unquestionably, this cuts against Federer. But it's still a tad misleading. The bulk of Nadal's wins have come on his preferred surface and Federer's least favorite surface. Nadal is younger, he's a better competitor -- which is to say, a peerless competitor -- and, body willing he may ultimately take the mantle. But I don't think we're there yet.

I'm ambivalent about this discussion. It's great that it engages and captivates so many fans. I was at a kids' piano recital yesterday and two moms, otherwise dignified, were about ready to throw cocktail weenies at each other, debating this issue so fiercely. But, necessarily, it diminishes either Federer or Nadal. My suggestion: we take a step back, acknowledge how fortunate we are to be fans in this era, marvel at a rivalry which -- six years in; after almost twice as many matches as McEnroe/Borg -- is still vibrant and vital. I say we table this. At least until July 4th.

I have given you the benefit of the doubt up to now, but to come out with a statement as you did: "What about a simple rule for both tours: a player cannot claim the top ranking if he or she hasn't won a major in the last 12 months?" makes no sense. Clearly you just want to stir things up but have no sensible opinions. Simple? What's simple about a situation where at the end of the year the Nos. 5, 7, 10 and 19 have all won majors? No. 5 leaps to No. 1? What ranking do you have in mind for Nos. 7, 10 and 19? What happens to prize money, endorsements and qualification for future tournaments? This is right out of the Sarah Palin handbook, nothing to offer except mindless potshots at the folks who try to construct a sensible dialogue.--Elsie Misbourne, Washington, D.C.

• I can't resist the siren call of responding to a letter that compares me to Sarah Palin. First, I'm not "stirring things up" so much as I'm floating an idea that many others -- including at least one WTA board member -- have also discussed. It's problematic when the top-ranked player has not won one of the four biggest prizes. Should we make it mandatory that a player can't claim the top spot without winning a major? I lean toward "no." But I hardly think it's a mindless potshot. Apart from public perception, the WTA point allocation tells us the majors are, well, major. Should the top player be a champion at one or more of these events?

You're right that it's not simple. For years tennis has wrung its hands over Serena Williams who wins majors but doesn't always play often enough at the other events to warrant the top spot. But, if, say Kim Clijsters -- winner of two majors in the past 52-week span -- were No. 1 instead of Caroline Wozniacki, I think most fans could abide by that. Your example is absurd, too. No player wins a major and is ranked No. 19. In a perfect world Wozniacki wins a major and her ranking has more heft. But until that happens -- and fans, fairly, wonder whether she is truly deserving of being considered the best in the business -- I think it's reasonable to at least discuss tinkering with the ranking system.

Roger Federer might be the second best clay court player in history. It sounds ridiculous, but if you look at his record against everybody except for first best ... Your thoughts?--David Arnold, Amherst, Mass.

• Is Federer underrated on clay? Yes. But you have to win the French more than once before you can be considered the second best in history.

Just a quick observation: I think tennis is in a sad state as a sport when the Federer-Djokovic semifinal has 20-30 percent empty seats. The cameras kept panning around the stadium in that fourth-set tiebreaker, and it was embarrassing to see so many empty seats for what may be one of the most historically important matches of the year.--Steve Berke, Miami Beach

• But there's air conditioning and catering in the sponsor tent. This is going to sound more "name droppy" than I want it to. But during the event, I was contacted by an NFL coach who couldn't get tickets the conventional way and was looking for a hook-up. That's how coveted these seats are. It would be one thing if Roland Garros suffered from a lack of demand. But fans -- from die-hards to NFL coaches -- would kill to spend a day at the matches. It makes the vast pastures of empty seats all the more galling.

It seems that the French Open match scheduling has been very strange this year. Is there a reason that the men's semifinals couldn't have started earlier than 2 p.m.? It isn't a stretch to see both matches go to four sets, which would mean there is a big risk of the second match being called for darkness. Wouldn't it make sense to start the matches earlier to avoid that risk?--Trevor, Toronto, Canada

• There's a lot the French can do differently, starting with the seating policy. But cut them slack here. You're a global sport with a global audience and you try to accommodate as many fans worldwide as possible. Starting at 2 works for most folks. Any later and you're really screwed with light. Any earlier and you might alienate your American partner -- you know, the ones who think so little of your event that, in 2011, they are still contemplating tape delay.

I'm sure I'm not the first to notice this, but your mailbag headline uses the phrase "Giving Schiavone her due". Perhaps by the next mailbag, we'll have to give her her "due" (Italian for "two"). Does your headline writer speak Italian? Or do you now make bilingual puns?--Fred, Hamilton, N.J.

• Or do we get lucky sometimes and you generously give us far more credit than we deserve. Thanks for noticing. And, alas, we only gave Shiavone her uno.

Is there a corresponding men's player (current or retired) who like Schiavone is playing their best tennis at the end of their career?--Scott G., Atascadero, Calif.

• There are certainly mini versions. It took a while for Pat Rafter to get going. Jurgen Melzer was north of 25 when he began playing his best ball. Petr Korda to some extent. But I can't recall anything like this, a player not far above journey-donna status suddenly surging like this.

I just heard McEnroe say he hopes Djokovic breaks his consecutive wins record. And Sampras is on record as hoping (before it came true) that Roger break his record of Slam wins. I've noticed similar "hopes" in other sports for other records. How do you explain this? Why would one want their record to be broken? Sorry to be cynical but is this "hope" genuine?--Nick De Toustain, Montclair, N.J.

• Records were made to be broken. Unless you're one of those hubristic, self-absorbed members of the undefeated Miami Dolphins team, you realize that. A good citizen of Sports Nation accepts that games and athletes evolve. You just hope your successor is worthy -- which is why you feel for the Maris family. In this case, I think Pete Sampras nailed it. Essentially he said: "If anyone's going to break my record for all-time Slams, it may as well be this guy. He's honorable. He's worthy. He reminds me of me." Same with McEnroe vis-a-vis Djokovic. This wasn't some hack or some player gaming the system. Djokovic won his matches playing at a dizzingly high level. He would have been a worthy successor.

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How about Rafa rule No. 1: an NBA-style shot clock to keep the action moving? At the end of each point the timer is set to 25 seconds. For second servers 15 seconds. When the clock expires the point is awarded to the non-server (Umpires can review close calls). Warnings are for children, not professionals. Side note, the woman's game is being destroyed by these grunting beasts. The WTA had better make a ruling before the fans revolt.--Bob Peterson, Tulsa

• The shot clock idea is a no-brainer. It's desperately needed for the sake of fairness. It's desperately needed for the sake of TV. It's desperately needed to prevent subjective judgment by the chair. And it would be an added bonus for the fans. I don't like the review idea. Just start the clock and if the horn goes off, there's a price to pay.

And, yes, the topic has gotten a bit tired so I've dialed back reprinting your anti-grunting mail. But the torrent continues. The WTA has a real issue on its hands and the longer the tour says silent (again with the puns) the more insulted the fans get. This is an old David Stern technique: when an issue gets traction among fans, you acknowledge that, even if your response is "you guys are overreacting and we don't share your views."

Now that I think about it, I'm going to include this letter: Sonja of Apex, N.C.: "I've been following the discussion on shrieking and I just had to add this. I watch quite a bit of tennis on TV so the grunts and noise from the women doesn't really bother me. Today I turned on the last part of the Petkovic/Kirilenko match at the French Open and my two daughters, ages 8 and 5, were in the room with me. After one point (I believe it was 4-4 in the third) they both started going 'ungh, ahh, unghhm, ahh' in perfect imitation of the sounds coming from the TV. I started laughing and asked what they were doing and my 8-year-old said, 'Why are they doing that? That's so annoying!' Think I should email the WTA?"

Is there a bigger irony in tennis these days than Victoria Azarenka wearing ear buds when she enters the court from the locker room?--Mark, Menlo Park, Calif.

• What about tennis battling the scourge of match-fixing and then allowing gambling websites to sponsor events. It's like allowing online HgH pharmacies to sponsor cycling. But, yes, Azarenka, wearing ear buds is funny.

My thought on Djokovic? He really got screwed by Fabio Fognini. He should be tied with McEnroe's record, and not one win short.--Helen, Philadelphia

• Don't disagree. It was amazing to me that Djokovic was THE story of the tournament for the first 12 days. He loses an insta-classic to Federer -- and, again, could not have been more gracious in defeat. Barely 12 hours later, we have our first Chinese Slam champ. Then we get Federer-Nadal. Wimbledon awaits, a tournaments at which Young Novak has not, historically, played well and has never reached the final. Suddenly, he drops out of the conversation.

Perhaps instead of railing at the TV niche-type scheduling you should be commenting on the causes? Three real deterrents: 1) "Quiet please" (Can you imagine a major sport with "Quiet please"), 2) The elitist tennis scoring and 3) The uncertainty in time of match. All are easily correctable with minor rule changes.--Jerry White, The Villages, Fla.

• I still say there's no faster way to euthanize a sport that to take it off the air. In a few years it might be different. But right now television remains the lifeblood of most sports. As for Jerry's remarks, ticket-payers are quiet at movies, quiet at the opera, quiet at golf. This doesn't cut against tennis' appeal. (And besides, if it's volume you want, just watch Azarenka.) Try explaining cricket to an American or football to a foreigner. Tennis; scoring system isn't off-puttingly complicated. I'm with you on the uncertainty of match time. I once spoke with an NBC executive -- not in sports -- about the Wimbledon coverage. He contended that tennis could expect shabby TV treatment as long at it couldn't given broadcasters exact starting times and end times. I get it, but what's the alternative? One of tennis' essential qualities is the absence of a clock. Hard to imagine the sport with "time certainty."

• Michiganders, consider this charity tourney.

• Ian Katz of Herndon, Va.: "Nice tribute here to four-time U.S. champion Pauline Betz Addie, who died May 31. Many tennis fans know that the careers of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales were cheated by the pre-1968 professional/amateur conflict, but few got as raw a deal as Betz Addie, who as reigning Wimbledon and U.S. winner in 1947 was banned from the Grand Slams just for exploring the possibility of turning pro.

• Jim Barber of Atlanta notes: "At the 2009 French, Francesca Schiavone lost first round to Sam Stosur 6-4, 6-2. In 2010, she beat Stosur 6-4, 7-6 in the final. At the 2010 French, Na Li lost early to Schiavone, 6-4, 6-2. One year later, she's a 6-4, 7-6 winner over Schiavone in the final. What's the likelihood of that happening, especially given that the previous years' defeats occurred in early rounds?"

• Jordan Lawson of Knoxville, Tenn.: "I watched this clip this morning. It's Hingis vs. Serena at the 2001 Australian Open. Two things of note: Level of play and almost complete lack of grunting (except for some huge shots by Serena)."

• Shar of Lancaster, Ohio: "My husband and I just returned from a two-week trip to the U.K. and one of the highlights of the trip was a guided tour of the Wimbledon grounds ... awesome. We just happened to stumble across the information about the tour in a magazine and we are so glad we added it to our itinerary. The tennis museum is also included and we were really impressed with it as well. Things were crazy on the grounds because of preparations for the actual tournament, but it just added to the excitement of the tour. We highly recommend the tour to any tennis fans visiting the U.K. no matter what time of year you go."

• New Yorkers, note the Housing Works tennis event, Wimbledon on the Water, on June 21.

• Good to see the Paris Reviewreport on local happenings.

• In case you missed it, The Oniontook on Djokovic. I think "Ned Drucker" was the dude who showed up for the second set of the semifinal.

• Gordon of Truckee, Calif.: "Long lost siblings: Novak Djokovic and Beastie Boy Mike D. (Beasties even drop the name of Novak's sponsor, Sergio Tacchini, on the song "Long Burn the Fire" from their new album.)"

Have a good week everyone!