How Nadal's eighth French Open impacts GOAT debate; mail

Wednesday June 12th, 2013

Rafael Nadal became the only man with eight wins at a single major with his eighth French Open.
Bob Martin/SI

Cut the crap with the Rafael Nadal/greatest of all time discussion. Clay-court tennis is so different from the other surfaces that it could legitimately be considered a different sport. Clay slows everything down so much that seniors can play on it and be reasonably competitive. All clay does is allow marginally talented players to have pro careers by playing mostly clay events. Now, obviously Nadal is not a marginal talent. But, if he ends up with 16 majors and, say, nine or 10 are French Opens, in my opinion you can't really count all those titles as equivalent to other major titles. He is far more than a specialist, but one or two titles in the other events makes him a great player, not the GOAT by a long shot.
-- Willie B., Bethesda, Md.

• First, I don't get the passion that this discussion -- fun, hypothetical, and, above all, ongoing -- triggers. That the Internet breeds incivility and discourteous remarks is something other than a news flash. But this subject seems to engender a spectacular level of nastiness. To wit: A reader -- from progressive Bethesda, no less! -- beginning an email to a complete stranger with the directive, "Cut the crap." But, yes, Willie B. of Bethesda, let's indeed cut the crap ...

One of the consequences of the French Open is that it has fanned the flames of the GOAT debate. We call the Nadal Truthers to the stand:

Hey, he just turned 27 and won his 12th major. That is, he's closing in on Pete Sampras, within sniffing distance of Roger Federer (17) and still has years to go. He has won a major nine straight years now -- something Federer never did. He was won more Masters Series titles than anyone in history. He's doing it all in this -- forgive the cliché, Your Honor -- golden era.

And, yes, there's that most damning bit of evidence: (jury box gasps) the head-to-head record against Federer. 20-10. Tony Kornheiser has, allegedly, been called as a witness and has vigorously testified in Nadal's favor. I'm not sure this was on the record, but a well-regarded former champion recently put it like this: "How can Federer be the greatest of all time when he's not even the greatest of HIS era?" Anything further counsel? No? Then let's hear from the defense.

Federer Truthers, please approach.

Federer still has 30 percent more majors. His titles are less concentrated, his majors far more diverse. He has played more consistently, been healthier and that quarterfinal streak (36 straight at majors) is the real mark. Also, note how many times Nadal has won the year-end shebang? (Hint: zero, because his body can't last the entire season, and durability is part of "greatness.")

Nadal is the best on clay. We'll give you that. But that's only one surface. Take away clay, and Nadal has won "only" four Slams and fewer Masters Series titles. He doesn't even have a winning head-to-head record against Federer off clay. Artistry and style has to count for something, and Federer is Flaubert; Nadal is James Patterson. Federer moves on little cat feet like the fog; Nadal grinds. Federer's racket is a paintbrush in his hand; in Nadal's it is a truncheon.

Me? I think there's a fun and vigorous debate to be had. Right now, I think Federer still holds the slight edge. Here's an exercise a reader suggested. Go to their respective Wikipedia pages, scroll to the Slam results grid and then look at the color coding. Hard to see that and not conclude -- today, anyway -- that Federer is superior.

But the operative phrase is "right now." This is fluid. And in the end, why not -- after a nod of gratitude, or at least awareness, to our good fortune, of living through a time two GOAT candidates playing simultaneously -- we wait until their careers are over before making a grand and final determination? Here's a nice write-up (pre-Paris) by Richard Hinds.

I'm sure we'll have this discussion now after each Slam. And that's fine. Part of the run of fandom, even if the GOAT title is mythical and inherently subjective. But -- at the risk of triple mixing metaphors -- why not hold fire and wait until all the results are in before reaching a verdict?

French Open by the numbers

Serena Williams won her second French Open 11 years to the day after her first.
Bob Martin/SI

Can you see Serena Williams (16 majors) passing Steffi Graf's total of 22 Grand Slams?
-- Ian, London

• I can see Serena's achieving pretty much anything she sets her sights on achieving. She's 31, but she is simply playing a different sport from the rest of the field right now. Anyone who saw her play in Paris, I ask: Can you come up with a reason why she can't win a half dozen more of these things? I think it's probable she surpasses Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18. After that, who knows?

Nadal holds the record with the most ATP 1000 Masters titles (24) in part because of his title hauls on three Masters events on clay courts. Had there been even one ATP 1000 Masters event on grass, would Roger Federer (who has 21) hold the most then?
-- Nathaniel, Cebu

• Good point. Had there been even one Masters 1000 event on grass, Federer might be in the running here. What I was told long ago: Before even getting to the calendar issue, it's a question of facility. There is no grass-court venue that meets all the Masters requirements (camera positions, stadium size, on-site gym, etc.).

Can Serena Williams beat David Ferrer on a grass court?
-- Ahmed Mahmoud, Cairo

• No. But a) so what? And b) I would pay to watch that. More than I would pay for a standard exo. On the subject of men and women and tennis miscegenation, here's my pal Bruce Jenkins.

Who will end with the most Grand Slam titles: Nadal (12), Serena (16), the Bryan brothers (14) or Federer (17)?
-- Clay Allen, Houston

• I'll take the cheap and easy way out, thanks. Bob and Mike Bryan (who are 35). Fewer rounds. Fewer best-of-five matches. You have to cover only half the court. And if you're a smidge injured or off, a partner can carry the weight. They also benefit from monogamy in a culture of promiscuity.

Enjoyed reading your 50 thoughts from the French Open. Two things came to mind. 1. You didn't mention Victoria Azarenka. Is she a nobody now? 2. The more time passes, the more incredulous it seems that Maria Sharapova beat Serena in the 2004 Wimbledon final, at age 17 no less (or no more, rather). How did that happen?
-- Russianista, Bloomington, Ind.

• a) I hadn't even thought of that. When was the last time the winner of a previous Slam -- and recent No.1 -- had such a modest profile, even after reaching the semis?

b) Azarenka went toe-to-toe (and larynx-to-larynx) with Sharapova.

c) For all the mail we got this week, you were the only one to bring that up. Interesting.

How did Sharapova beat Serena at Wimbledon way back when? I think she benefited from having nothing to lose and the blissful ignorance of youth. In retrospect, I'm sure that's one Serena thinks got away.

Tennis' newest Twitter superstar

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga didn't lose a set en route to the semifinals, where he was swept by David Ferrer.
Bob Martin/SI

A constant reader of your column, enjoy your appearances on the Tennis Channel and am now counting on you to explain something that left me totally baffled. I watched as many of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's matches at the French Open as I could and thought he was playing beautifully, better than I had ever seen him play. And then came the match with David Ferrer. Admittedly it was a semifinal, but do you have any idea why his play collapsed so dramatically? I could not even watch the end of that match, I felt so embarrassed for him.
-- Margaret, Philadelphia

• I appreciate your kinds words, but I don't have much for you here. Tennis is unpredictable and unscripted. (Usually, anyway). Which is one of the beauties.

Here's pop psychology based largely on speculation: Tsonga beats Federer in the quarterfinals and allows himself to think, "Wow, I could actually win this. Especially if Nadal and Novak Djokovic beat each other up." Then what happens? Nadal and Djokovic do just that, playing to 9-7 in the fifth. And the guy with the dodgy knees wins. Problem is, Tsonga has been waiting around for hours. When he takes the court, he is flat. The crowd doesn't help much either. It's on a Moet break after the previous five-setter.

Against other opponents, you can play yourself into the match. But if you're not on your game, Ferrer makes you pay. He gets every darn ball, allows you few cheap points on your serve and prolongs points, forcing you to take risks that aren't prudent. The worst possible opponent for Tsonga. Playing steadier, more poised tennis, Ferrer takes the first set. He extinguishes a Tsonga break and takes the second set. Then it's surrender.

Hi, I saw this article about James Ward's landing in the hospital back in April, and it made sense to me that even an elite player feels the effects of long matches. However, this begs the question in this post-Lance Armstrong era: How are other players able to play multiple long, five-set matches within a few days without showing any adverse physical effects? Awfully suspicious, to say the least.
-- Anthony Imbriani, San Francisco

• Different players have different stamina. No disrespect to Ward, but I suspect that if he had the stamina of a top-five player, he wouldn't be ranked No. 215. I was going to add that a guy ranked this low, who won't make Grand Slam main draws without qualifying or as a wild card, won't have much five-set experience. But then I saw this line in his bio: "In February 2009 at Roehampton, took part in unofficial playoff competition to earn a place in British Davis Cup team against Ukraine. One playoff match resulted in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-7(3), 2-6, 21-19 loss to Chris Eaton that lasted 6 hours, 40 minutes."

I see the calls have already begun to change the seedings at Wimbledon. I get why folks want that based on absolute player ability and, let's be honest, TV ratings, but let's consider things from David Ferrer's perspective before we act too hastily. Seedings exist, in part, to reward players for consistently excellent play. Ferrer earned his No. 4 ranking fair and square. It seems to me that a potentially softer draw is exactly the reward he deserves. Said differently, let's try to remember that if we choose to favor one player, we are, by definition, penalizing another.
-- John Dugan, Memphis, Tenn.

• Wimbledon made a Solomonic compromise. When it comes time to sow seeds in the fields, as it were, they account for grass-court aptitude, but there's a formula so it isn't perceived as random or subjective.

Which country has the best tennis fans? I will definitely vote for the British. It's Monday, 1 p.m., two journeymen (Guido Pella and Dan Evans) are playing in London (Queen's, not Wimbledon) and Center Court is packed. That is truly amazing and great to see (especially after once again seeing many seats empty during Roland Garros).
-- Oliver, Trier, Germany

• The Roland Garros turnout is pretty disgraceful. These high-stakes matches occur among the sport's stars -- millions of TVs are tuned in; tickets are going for small fortunes on eBay -- and, consistently, the stands are half-empty. Yes, the "fans" are present, usually in the hospitality tents eating canapés, and they'll arrive eventually. But the optics are atrocious.

As for the best fans, I would say Montreal gets serious props. Wimbledon is tough to assess: Yes, the crowds at Centre Court are routinely present. But the venue is so venerable that you're not sure who's there for the tennis and who's there for the bucket list.

John Tomic watches son Bernard play at Queen's

Given that Nadal has nearly no ranking points to defend for the rest of the year, I'm guessing his schedule until October (when he may be compelled to play an indoor event) will be: Wimbledon, Cincinnati or Canada, U.S. Open, and that's it.
-- Justin DePietropaolo, Chester Springs, Pa.

• The knees are the X factor. But, yes, Nadal has a very good chance to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in 2013. He is almost comically self-minimizing (in an endearing way), but after the French Open final, even Nadal boasted about his ATP points haul this year. And, yes, from here on out, he's basically playing with casa money. He has reportedly committed to Beijing in September.

David Ferrer lost to Rafael Nadal in the final but passed Nadal in the rankings.
Bob Martin/SI

Did you really compare Maria Sharapova with David Ferrer? Like you said, Sharapova has yet to figure how to slide. Ferrer moves better. Ferrer has no weapons and no majors. Sharapova used to have a reliable serve and still has a backhand. How about Sharapova and Andy Roddick?
-- O Garcia, Manila

• First, we say it again: A disproportionate amount of mail comes from the Philippines. My point was only this: Sharapova may be portrayed by the image-makers as elegant and graceful and ethereal. Her tennis is all grinding and fighting.

• Shame on you, Marat Safin:

"You are all a 'generation perdue,'" or a lost generation. While living in Paris, did Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald have a vision of 21st-century French tennis? Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are extremely talented, fun to watch and have reached the top 10 during their careers, yet with no Grand Slam titles, they've fallen short of expectations. Can this French generation redeem itself, or are they "The Beautiful and Damned"? (By the way, I know that "The Beautiful and Damned" isn't about France; it's a fun FSF reference, that's all. Let's be thankful it wasn't a novel about Princeton.)
-- Daniel Rabbitt, Morrisville, N.C.

• Well played, good sir. And, yes, once Fitzgerald got the hell out of central Jersey, the stories got better.

Shots, Miscellany

• Ian of Herndon, Va.: "Just an observation: Credit to the conventional wise people. In the last two Slams, the conventional wisdom was right on the mark. In the Australian, the CW from the start was that Novak Djokovic would have an advantage because he drew David Ferrer in the semifinals and Andy Murray and Roger Federer would beat up on each other in the other semi. That's exactly what happened. In the French, the collective wise people said Djokovic-Nadal was the de facto final. Might seem a bit unfair to Ferrer, but that's how it turned out."

Win a hitting session with the Bryan brothers.

• Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sam Stosur, Marion Bartoli and Dominika Cibulkova lead the Bank of the West Classic field in Stanford in July.

• Will of Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Regarding what Jelena Jankovic did to Garbine Muguruza at the French Open, losing the first three games and winning 6-3, 6-0. Let's call it 'a baker's dozen.' Twelve in a row, but no double bagel."

• U.S Open ballkid tryouts: Participants can either pre-register online at or register on site on June 20 beginning at 3 p.m. The evaluation process will begin about 4 p.m. after a welcome by U.S. Open Ballperson Director Tina Taps and a veteran ballperson demonstration.

Wimbledon kits for Nadal, Federer, Serena, Sharapova

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