Rafael Nadal has bowed out in the last two Aussie Open quarterfinals. (Shuji Kajiyama/AP)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have developed an almost unnaturally cordial relationship over the years. Despite their fierce competitiveness, the two have always maintained a high level of respect for each other off the court, regularly praising and defending the other regardless of wins or losses. But it appears the debate about the overcrowded tennis schedule, which bubbled to the surface last fall, has finally done the unthinkable: create a rift, whether minor or major, between two of the game's most congenial stars.
Based on this Associated Press report, Nadal gave an interview to Spanish media on Sunday expressing his dissatisfaction with Federer's lack of support when the scheduling discussions took center stage. Federer said he didn't share the same concerns about the schedule as Nadal and Andy Murray, noting that it's up to the players to manage their time better.
When asked about Federer's comments on Sunday, Nadal had some strong words, at least in the context of their historically warm and fuzzy relationship.
"For him, it's good to say nothing," Nadal said in comments translated from Spanish. "Everything positive. 'It's all well and good for me, I look like a gentleman,' and the rest can burn themselves. Everyone is entitled to have their own opinions."
In quotes published by EFE and translated by Tennis.com, Nadal said: "I have had experiences in my life that I never could have dreamed of [because of tennis], but to finish your career with pain in all parts of your body is not positive. If [Federer] finishes his career as a rose, it's because he has an extraordinary body, but neither Murray nor Djokovic [nor] I will end up roses.
"He likes the circuit. I like the circuit," Nadal continued. "It's much better than many other sports but that doesn't mean that it couldn't be better. The Tour is fine, but there are some things that are bad. That's all we're saying. And the vast majority of players have this same opinion. He's got a different opinion. ... If the vast majority have one opinion, and a small minority think differently, maybe it's them who are wrong."
Nadal's comments to Spanish media add much-needed clarity and context to his demeanor during his pre-Australian Open news conference on Sunday. Asked repeatedly about the substance of a player meeting that took place Saturday night, Nadal sounded fed up (no pun intended) with all of the scheduling chatter, which to him is all talk and no action, and made it clear that he no longer wanted to be the face of player revolt.
"I don't have any thoughts about that," Nadal said, responding to rumors that the players could strike over prize money. "I am here to support what most of the players think. But I'm not going to be the one who is going to talk about these things, especially because I am always the one and I am tired.
"I give information for you to write newspapers. But at the end of the day I look like I am the one who always talks about things that must change, and I don't win nothing on that. I just lose time, energy, and the people can think that he's always the one who says the bad things, the negative things."
Nadal isn't wrong. While Federer and Djokovic skipped the Asian swing, he and Murray played on and were constantly asked about the scheduling issues. Having to reiterate their arguments for the need to shorten the tennis calendar, Nadal and Murray were widely mocked by observers, and their arguments soon came off as whining. Nadal clearly heard the feedback.
Aside from his refusal to continue to serve as the face of player dissatisfaction, Nadal seemed even more frustrated that a small minority of players (led by Federer, I presume, given Nadal's Spanish comments) were preventing what he considers to be the majority opinion within the player ranks.
"We are not in that way to change situations even with the support of the super majority of the players," Nadal said. "Even like that we didn't win nothing. When you are talking about individual sport, what must happen if a super majority thinks one thing, the rest of the players have to support that."
So if a super majority thinks one thing, I will support them -- that's all -- in anything. Not in a strike, not in calendar, in anything, because I understand democracy is like this."
The big question coming out of this is whether a "super majority" actually exists and it is indeed being stymied, or whether Nadal just thinks his view is the majority opinion and thus frustrated that he can't get what he wants. Needless to say, this is a story we'll be seeing more of over the coming weeks.