Allow me to say something blasphemous.
Nadal isn’t the greatest clay court player ever to have played the sport.
But how could he be the greatest clay court player ever, when his opposition for ten years has included just one grand slam winner on clay? All this serves to indicate is that the competition during his era happened to be a bunch of players who turned flat-footed on the sight of the red dirt.
Over the last decade, Nadal has won 9 of the possible 10 slams on clay at the French Open, dating back to his debut as a teenager. Which goes to say that on clay, over the best of five sets, Nadal has lost just once in over 70 matches.
If that isn’t domination, I’m not sure what is.
What could explain such unprecedented dominance over a particular surface and at a particular venue?
Skill? Talent? Hard work? The countless hours put in on the clay in order to be better than the rest? The sweat and toil under the sun to be the best? The dedication to play that extra shot on a surface that rewards perseverance unlike any other? The willingness to endure physical pain for that one shot at glory? The ability to be more consistent that all your opponents out there? The stubborn refusal to give up? To fight to the very end?
The answer’s much simpler than that obviously. It could all be attributed to one ingenuous fact-
A weak clay court era!!
I mean come on, where do you find teenagers winning Grand Slams on their debut, at an age when most of their friends are out dealing with acne and their high school crush’s demands.
Nadal’s main opposition during his run of dominance included the ‘Golden Era’ of men’s tennis- Federer, Murray and Djokovic along with the likes of other incredibly talented players such as David Ferrer, Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Roddick etc. While all competent players in their own right, were any of them a threat on clay?
A look at their Grand Slam tally on clay would say perhaps not.
Between them, they share only the one French Open, that came in 2009 and allowed Federer to finally complete his Career Grand Slam and become only the sixth player in the open Era to do so.
One slam spread across a generation of players. Is that a sign of any threat on the surface whatsoever? Not in the slightest. You could even reason that were it not for Soderling, perhaps Nadal’s record at Roland Garros would have remained unblemished. Maybe Nadal just needed a break from winning.
One could argue that Grand Slams should not be the only yardstick to measure a player’s ability. Fair enough.
In order to gauge ability on clay more accurately, it might be more informative to look at the results at the smaller tournaments as well. At this point it is worth mentioning that, as unfortunate as it may be, we have long measured every individual’s potential based on results.
Results drive everything. Businesses are driven by profits, employees assessed based on their ability to generate those aforementioned profits; teams are ranked on their victories, lawyers judged on the number of settlements they have made and comedians judged on how many people laughed at their last joke.
A tennis player’s place in the history books is determined by Grand Slams. Anything not labeled ‘Grand Slam’ has no bearing on greatness. It is what is left over. You could be the most talented ball striker on the practice court, but if you froze up in a match while serving for the title, it all counted for naught.
So when we look at ATP 1000 and 500 titles, we are determining ability as opposed to greatness that in turn, defines legacy. And since titles reflect ability, the number of clay court titles Nadal’s opposition held should, fairly accurately, determine the era’s ‘ability’ on clay.
In the all-time list of matches won on clay, Nadal stands at 11th place barely having won half the number of matches as Vilas, who leads with more than 600 wins. Yet at 43, Nadal is second on the list of all time clay titleholders behind Guillermo Vilas who currently stands at 46.
Doesn’t that just reek of a weak clay court era? Who would even think of attributing all that success to Nadal simply being better than everybody else on the surface over that period of time? That’s just absurd.
Aside from Roland Garros Nadal has won 34 titles on clay, averaging approximately 3 and a half titles per year. In a year that sees Nadal participate in around 4 clay court events (Barcelona, Monte Carlos, Rome and Madrid) that’s nearly a clean sweep every time.
In fact since 2005, Nadal has compiled a 275-11 clay-court record (.961) on the ATP World Tour, never losing more than two matches in a season during that stretch.
From the ATP website, the Spaniard has the best winning percentage on clay in the Open Era with a 300-21 record (.934) and owns a 43-6 in clay finals.
|Year||W-L||Clay Finals W-L|
|2013||39-2||6-2 (l to Zeballos, Djokovic)|
|2011||28-2||3-2 (l. to Djokovic twice)|
|2009||24-2||3-1 (l. to Federer)|
|2007||31-1||5-1 (l. to Federer)|
Note: Nadal has lost to only three players in clay-court finals: Djokovic (three times), Federer (twice) and Zeballos.
Nadal has often gone years without losing a set, let alone a match, on clay. His longest streak currently stands at 81, which was finally ended by Federer over five grueling sets at Hamburg.
Of his total tally of 10 clay court titles, Federer himself has a mere 6 ATP 1000s to his name (Hamburg 2002, 04-05, 07; Madrid 2009, 12). Djokovic has won just 5 ATP 1000 titles on clay. Murray has never won a 1000 event on clay and neither has Roddick or Del Potro. Ferrer has managed to have some level of success on clay, despite never having won an ATP 1000 title.
In comparison, Nadal has won 19 ATP 1000 titles on clay. The rest of his opposition combined just barely has half as many titles as he does.
The reason? Weak era, of course!
So how could we call Nadal the greatest clay court player ever, if his opposition wasn’t even able to challenge him, sometimes for years on end? It would be easier then, to attribute all his success to his good fortune of having been born at such an opportune time, where his main antagonist for a good seven years was an aggressive player with the misfortune of having a single handed back hand, ill suited for a clay court, and perfect for the Mallorcan to feast upon every single time they faced off on a slow high bouncing clay court.
Also, would it also be fair to say that the era began to grow stronger just because Nadal started losing a few more matches on clay, as he grew older? It would be ridiculous to attribute the losses to age, because as the old adage goes, age is just a number, right? It’s still in accordance with the way we decide ability- the more titles, the better. The more titles for you, the less for your opposition. But keep too many for yourself, and it just reflects badly on the era.
That’s something along the lines of what I hear in context to Federer’s legacy. I occasionally come across the (absolutely absurd as I have hopefully amply demonstrated by now) weak era argument that states that, Federer only managed to be as ridiculously successful as has been, because for a period of time he was lucky to be in a weak era.
The suggestion while downright ludicrous is also offensive to someone, who, just like Nadal on clay, has managed to better than the rest of the field (on average) for so long.
Like Nadal on clay, the fact that Federer managed to win everything out there doesn’t indicate any weakness in the era. On the contrary, it highlights how much better Federer was than the rest of the field prior to the arrival of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, all of whom had to raise the bar and figure out how to be better than him in order to become the forces they now are.
The reason advocates put forward the weak era argument is because of the inability of the field to figure out the Federer problem, which basically boiled down to- “What do we have to do to beat this guy!!?”
The theory stems from the lack of Grand Slam titleholders prior to the arrival of what would become the remaining triumvirate of the Big Four hoping to topple the Swiss (parallel to the situation on clay)
Let’s have a look at Federer’s opposition in the so called ‘weak era’- Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Carlos Moya, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter. Admittedly the likes of Rafter, Agassi and Sampras, all ranked in the list of all time greats, if not some of the greatest, were at the tail end of their career, much like Federer has been for the last few years. Still, it must be noted that while Federer was active these players were still regularly winning Slams. Sampras won his last Slam in 2002, and Agassi had the best phase of his career towards the tail end, winning his final Slam in 2003.
Federer came into the tour in 1998 and was well established by 2002 having only recently ended Sampras’ seven year reign at Wimbledon in 2001, a match widely regarded then as the passing of the torch between generations.
In 2001, Hewitt had become the youngest man (to date) to become the world number one in men’s tennis, winning the US Open along with a doubles Grand Slam title and back-to-back Masters Titles (now called the World Tour Finals).
The enigmatic Russian, Marat Safin was also a two-time Slam winner, having won the US Open in 2000 and the Australian Open in 2005 (widely regarded to be Federer’s prime). He also reached the semi finals at Wimbledon, losing to Federer in 2008
But Federer’s main contender at the time was undoubtedly Andy Roddick, the then world number one, having won the US Open in 2003, just months after Federer had won his first Slam at Wimbledon. Roddick would go on to reach four other Grand Slam finals (3 Wimbledons- 2004, 05, 09 and one US Open- 2006) losing to Federer on all, tightly contested occasions. Raking up 32 career titles, Roddick was no mug on the tennis court. At the time, the faster court speed suited his big serve and forehand, which started becoming obsolete with the courts slowing down and exposing his movement.
Just as talented as he was profligate, why did the American or any one else for that matter never scale the heights Federer managed to achieve? Why has Federer managed to outlast nearly all of his generation, to this date looking livelier on court than some of his younger opponents?
You can’t write it down to a weak era. The era was as strong as Federer allowed it to be.
Take an example.
Say Roddick were to win three of those Wimbledon titles that he lost to Federer. That would pull Federer back to 14 titles, still leading the all time list along with Sampras. But now with the three additional Grand Slams, Roddick would have 4 (Djokovic has 7, Murray has 2, Wawrinka and Del Potro have 1 each), suddenly making the era (in exception to Federer) all that much stronger.
So in effect, were Federer not as good, his opposition might not be labeled a ‘weak opposition’ just because Federer wasn’t good enough to beat them? Does that make any sense whatsoever?
The era seemed might have appeared weak because Federer never allowed anyone to be anything but. He was that good. Just as Nadal has been on clay. In fact, players like Murray have gone on to quote (after the finals in Dubai, 2012) that were conditions similar to what they had been in Federer’s ‘generation’ Federer would still be as big a threat as he was in his prime, when the courts and conditions suited his game.
You only have to take a glance at his achievements to get an idea of what all he has managed to achieve on the tennis court. Aside from his 17 Grand Slams, his reign of 302 weeks as the number one ranked player in the world will possibly never be toppled. Nadal and Djokovic’s reign stands at around 150, and 100 odd weeks respectively, with neither likely to ever come close to Federer’s record.
Why I mention rankings is to bring to light Nadal’s stint as the world number 2, behind Federer, which stands at a record 248 weeks. Djokovic was the world number 3 behind these two for 143 weeks and Murray the world number four for 174.
These numbers only serve to shatter the weak era notion. If Federer were indeed from a ‘weak’ era, why was he ranked above these players for up to 250 weeks (nearly 4 and a half years). They were all clearly in or close their prime at some stage of these 4 and a half years, so to bring that up is again useless.
Federer came from an era where serve and volley was still the norm, due to faster courts that rewarded aggressive and positive play. To know what I’m talking about just watch a video of a young Federer playing at Wimbledon from 2000 up till 2003, which is when he won his first slam by reducing his forays into the forecourt.
Courts slowed down to facilitate longer rallies. To be fair, perhaps it was required at the time, when fans were getting put off by the one strike tennis that was becoming the norm.
Has it moved too far in the opposite direction? Definitely. A lot of top players, ranging from Venus Williams to Andy Roddick have stated how courts across surfaces have become nearly homogeneous.
At the controversial 2 011 US Open, many players complained that the court had slowed. Played on DecoTurf II since 1978, the US Open has traditionally been considered a fast hardcourt event. But adding sand to a court’s paint can greatly affect the speed of the ball after it bounces, and Roger Federer was one player who believed this ratio may have changed in 2011.
The issue for me more is maybe did they make a mistake. Maybe they did paint the court a bit too rough.
Federer said after his first round win:
It's just unfortunate. I think that maybe all the Slams are too equal. I think they should feel very different to the Australian Open, and now [here] I don't feel it really does… . I'm not sure if it's really what the game needs.
Mardy Fish, who reached the fourth round of the 2011 US Open, agreed with Federer.
This was definitely the fastest Slam, surface-wise, that we've had,
said the then-top-ranked American.
Now with it being much slower out here this year, it fits right in with Australia. There are a lot of really slow Grand Slams now surface-wise.
Another Grand Slam that many believe has slowed is Wimbledon. Once the showcase of serve and volley tennis, the grass courts now encourage long baseline rallies. It is likely that the courts slowed in 2001 when Wimbledon changed to 100 percent perennial ryegrass in order to minimize wear and improve durability.
Players have noticed. One such critic was Frenchman Michael Llodra, who said of Wimbledon,
Year after year, the courts are getting worse. I prefer [the clay courts of] Roland Garros. [Court Philippe-Chatrier] and Court One there, when they are dry, are much faster.
It isn’t just the Majors that are the subject of debate. One event that was considered fast, the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris, was slowed considerably in 2011. Andy Murray described the courts as
so slow, so much slower than last year.
Baseline tennis is, no doubt, here to stay, but six-hour finals like the one that captivated audiences at the 2012 Australian Open are dangerous for the sport and players alike if they occur regularly. Players and fans alike are concerned that slower courts – which mean longer rallies and more strain on the body – will lead to greater instances of injury. American Davis Cup stalwart Andy Roddick was asked after the 2 012 Australian Open why so many players struggle to stay healthy.
I think if you look at heavy balls and slower courts,” Roddick said, “I think that might have a little bit more to do with wear and tear.
The generation of Murray, Nadal and Djokovic has been brought up on the slower courts that one sees everywhere today. It should come as no surprise then, that their games are based on defensive strategies that aim to outlast opponents.
Is it possible to expect players of a different era to remain as relevant as they were under conditions that made tennis a different ball game altogether? Not really. Yet Federer, rapidly moving out of his prime mind you, has managed to do so.
It is just the way things are- Old gives way to new. Were it not for Federer, perhaps Nadal, Murray, Djokovic and the rest of the field would not have been forced to raise the game to the level it is at today. And were it not for these guys, Federer would not have been required to reinvent his game in order to stay relevant, in what is essentially, a young man’s game.
Yes, Federer has been unable to sort out the Nadal riddle. But that, I believe, is a question of matchups in combination with the slower conditions of today that swing the odds dramatically in the lefty’s favour.
In his prime, Federer rarely got to meet Nadal in anything save for clay court finals. Often it was Nadal who would falter on hard courts and grass courts before Federer got a chance to even out the playing field, accounting for many of the losses Federer has had to endure at the hands of the Spaniard. It is something similar to what is happening to Federer today, where he is failing to reach finals, stumbling along the way. In a perverse way, such losses only help to preserve the already the already lopsided head to head.
Weak eras? I think not. Both, Federer and Nadal have in their own ways raised the game to unprecedented heights, Nadal on clay and Federer on tennis in general. Their impact on each other has been even more indispensable. Will Nadal or Djokovic surpass some of Roger’s achievements by the time they hang up their rackets? Possibly some, not all… although only time will tell.