Note from Jonathan: This is a post from Gaurav one of the readers here and it takes an interesting look at the Fedal rivarly and how the surface bias effects the H2H, I found it a very interesting take and I hope you do too so look forward to reading your comments. Take it away Gaurav…
Every now and then in sport, a rivalry comes along, that catches the attention of all who are watching, inadvertently nudging them into swearing their respective allegiances and be the reason for a broken television remote here and a vicarious celebration there. If you’re lucky, such a rivalry will entertain you, engross you; because that’s what sport does.
But seldom, comes along a rivalry that will one day come to define the history of a sport. Because to be in an era of genius is rare, but to be in an era of two greats at the peak of their abilities, each forcing the other to raise his level beyond the boundaries of what was previously thought possible, the net result being that the sport in whole is lifted, rarer still. Such a rivalry will captivate you. It will define you.
Today we are lucky to be, in what most would agree, is the Golden Era of men’s tennis, with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the helm of the sport. Few would argue the impact the two have had, not just on the court but off it as well. Rafael Nadal, the left-hander from Mallorca, Spain- the land of bull fighters and olive oil drenched breadsticks, with his vicious top spin, kicking up the red dirt, high to the majestic one handed back hand of Roger Federer, the wizard from Switzerland- the man who has come to epitomize the game.
Roger and Rafa have played 29 times, with the head to head standing 19 – 10 in Rafa’s favour. Looking solely at that number tells us that Rafa stands twice as likely to win a match when these two giants meet. But what this number doesn’t tell us is how those 29 matches can be broken down.
These 29 matches have seen epics that have gone down to the wire, in the fading sunlight on the hallowed grass of Centre Court. Matches where one has blown the other off the court in a mere hour, under the psychedelic roof lights of the World Tour Finals. Matches that we will tell our grandkids we were privileged enough just to witness on our television sets.
Coming more to the point of this article, what this ratio doesn’t tell us is the types of surfaces these matches have been played on. Tennis is played on a variety of surfaces. It’s what makes the sport stand out from the others.
Just to list out a few there’s Grass, Clay (we’re talking about red here, because most would agree blue’s another story altogether), Indoor Carpet and Outdoor Hard court. You could say these are the four main categories that one could divide the ATP calendar into.
Now one could argue that within these surfaces itself, there is significant variation (For e.g.- Arthur Ashe stadium (US Open) and Rod Laver Arena (Australian Open) are both hard courts, but the two couldn’t be more different.
Arthur Ashe is significantly faster than Rod Laver Arena where the balls move slower and bounce much higher, mildly resembling the trajectory of a ball on a clay court). And then of course there are other factors that kick in, like the type of ball used, the altitude of the stadium, the weather etc all of which play their respective parts in making our sport what it is today (or at least was yesterday)
Anyway, coming back to the various kinds of surfaces, which is the focal point of the article, what we see is that of the 29 times these two have met, they’ve met a staggering 14 times on clay, 10 on outdoor hard court, 4 indoors and a mere 3 times on grass. Here’s the table:
|Outdoor Hard Courts||2||6||8|
|Indoor Hard Court||4||0||4|
What we can see is that Rafa is clearly the clay court favorite, (no surprises there) with the slow and high bouncing ball playing to his strengths and Federer’s weaknesses, which he quite easily exploits.
Indoor Hard court is undoubtedly Federer’s turf, where the court plays fast and the ball stays low, allowing Roger to use his staggering arsenal and variety to unhinge Nadal’s standard pattern of play to the Federer back hand.
Outdoor Hard courts are a slightly strange occurrence. Where we would typically expect Federer to come out on top, we see that Rafa has the advantage here with a 6- 2 head to head. A closer look into the venues tells us that most of these matches have been played on slow hard courts that play akin to clay (which now seems to be becoming the norm rather than the exception).
These are the Australian Open, Miami, Indian Wells (which are all becoming slower by the minute) and Dubai (the one fast hard court in their matchup). It should be noted that they’ve never met at the US Open, Cincinnati, Rotterdam, and Montreal etc., which could be considered faster hard courts.
They haven’t had enough matches on Grass for us to say something definitively, but we do see Roger edge ahead in Grass (and reasonably so). Were it a decade ago, I would give Roger a definitive vote on the grass courts of Wimbledon, but again, with the centre court playing progressively slower with the new kind of grass they’ve sown, it’s a hard toss up. But I’d still have to go with Roger on this one.
What I’ve tried to do now is to see what the outcome would be, if they played the same number of matches on the 4 broad categories of surfaces. Assuming they played 7.25 (7 for simplicity) matches on each surface (which would add up to 29- their current tally), using the same win loss ratio that they have currently we get the following table:
|Court Type||Federer (7.25)||Nadal (7.25)||Total (7.25)|
|Outdoor Hard Courts||1.8125||5.4375||7.25|
|Indoor Hard Court||7.25||0||7.25|
Now what we have here is a much more honest head to head, with all surfaces equally accounted for, and none over proportionally weighing down the final ratio. What we see is that the head to head ratio would actually be in Roger’s favour, 15- 14.
I must add that the analysis is not factoring in what would have happened if the two had played a few matches on faster outdoor courts, or treating the blue clay of Madrid as a totally different surface (it clearly isn’t clay, and most definitely not hard) which might further push the balance in Federer’s favour.
A lot of Federer fans have argued that if Federer hadn’t reached all those clay court finals (or slow hard court finals for that matter), he probably would have had a more respectable ratio on clay. In other words, we’re saying if Federer wasn’t the second best clay court player of his time, he’d never have faced Rafa, and we would have never be having this discussion in the first place.
Also, had Rafa reached a few more fast hard court finals he’d have run into Federer, where the matchup would have given Federer a slight edge (I’m not saying it would be a washout, but Federer would definitely hold the advantage with his naturally aggressive pattern of play). Anyway, that is all conjecture (as is this article really) and we’ll never know until they do face a few times on faster hard courts and grass (which I hope they do).
Most would agree that tennis surfaces are starting to become all too homogeneous, with tournament organizers slowing down the pace of the court or using heavier balls in order to facilitate the long grinding rallies we’ve all got so accustomed to. Variety is essential because it brings out so many aspects of the game (and a player’s natural style) that otherwise get stymied at the expense of defensive cross-court play.
Take serve and volley, chip and charge for example. When was the last time you actually saw a game of pure serve and volley tennis? (and I’m not counting Radek Stepanek because my grand mom could pass him all night long) Variety is what differentiates our sport from the others and makes it all the more exciting. It adds flavor and new dimensions to the tennis court. And it is essential in order to bring back the different styles of play that once were an integral part of the game.
Rafa’s game breaks down the opponent mentally more than physically I would like to believe. It hammers a weakness time and time again, resorting to the same pattern of play and court usage over and over again.
He is constance personified, unwavering in his concentration and intensity. His level rarely changes, rarely dips, and rarely peaks. Every point is played as though it might be his last. His commitment to every point is further amplified by his brilliance in defense, his speed, accuracy and topspin. That and being a lefty was always going to be an advantage.
Roger on the other hand couldn’t be more different. His forte is… well it’s hard to pin point one thing with Federer really. Roger’s levels are going to dip- he’s going to frustrate you when he just decides to switch off- back hand shanks, chipped second serve returns missed, break point opportunities treated with sheer disdain.
He’s going to make you throw your remote control, punch a wall, become creative with abuses… and then, just like that he’ll decide to unleash his magic, with the twirl of a racket, a flick between his legs, his trademark ‘come on!!’ and that fist pump. And then you know that you’re in for something truly special.
We are lucky to be in an era of such greatness. Let us embrace them. Tennis isn’t just about winning and losing. Well, I mean it is, but when these two legends grace the courts, it becomes so much more than that. Tennis then transcends the result. What we see is magic unfold, where what is happening in front of our eyes is more important than what is to be.
These two have shown us that the greatest rivals on the court can be pretty close friends off the court, something that is unheard of in many sporting circles.
Who could say otherwise after watching these two giggle like babbling schoolgirls, unable to complete a sentence without being consumed by laughter. If you didn’t know any better, would you believe me if I told you that these two guys are one of sport’s greatest rivals?
Like both have said at some point or the other over the course of their glittering careers- “At the end of the day, it’s just a game.” …But what a game it is. And what a rivalry.