by Pete Bodo
I see that the news out of the Rafael Nadal camp, via uncle Toni, is good: Rafa is getting insoles to wear, which is a good thing. I learned the hard way (three foot surgeries) that very few people really walk properly, and almost everyone can avoid some measure of discomfort or injury by using custom orthopedic insoles. Sure, they're a pain to move around from shoe to shoe, and impossible to wear with certain kinds of footwear, but you figure it out. And you can skip wearing them altogether at reasonable intervals. There's my PSA for today.
But back to Rafa. One of my big takeaways from the Australian Open and the performance Roger Federer put on was that no matter what he or anyone else said, Rafa was in his head - as deeply embedded as a piece of shrapnel - until the unexpected events of last spring, starting at Madrid. For as Rafa has appeared to become vulnerable and suddenly less than picador perfect, Federer seems to have flourished. It's almost like the guy can breath deeply and freely again, or like a judge has just thrown out a legal action that had been brought against him. Since Federer won the French Open last June, he's looked like a man with a new lease on life. Is it coincidence that this occurred at the same time that Rafa hit the first serious roadblocks in his career?
Don't get me wrong. I don't think Federer spent last winter and spring sitting around, picking his cuticles, fretting over the threat represented by Nadal. And Roger always bridled at the idea that Rafa was in his head. That wasn't surprising; Federer is the greatest player of all time, do you imagine a guy in that position has no pride?
But the way Federer has looked - not just as a ball-striker, but as a presence and personality - suggests that Rafa definitely had a pied a terre somewhere between Roger's ears, even if it wasn't his official permanent residence. Federer has looked nothing less than liberated. Until Rafa comes back and hurts Federer again, he's going to be just another rival (and even if he does hurt Federer again, Roger probably will continue to describe him that way), and one who's run into serious obstacles in pursuit of his goals for the first real time. It's a pity. Helluva player, that Rafa. Nice guy, too. Phew!!!
All of this makes a certain amount of sense, for the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry has many more layers and complications than did, say, the Laver-Rosewall, McEnroe-Borg, or the even Sampras-Agassi competition. It's all pretty nicely summed up by that oh-so-deceptive head-to-head advantage enjoyed by Nadal.
That 13-7 edge may be the most un-representative H2H figure ever generated by by two great players, although that doesn't at all diminish the truth of it. Nine of those 13 wins by Nadal have been on clay, the surface on which he's not only overshadowed Federer, but towered over him in a way that Federer cannot match on any surface of his choice. Remove those nine "gimmes" and Federer is 7-4, a statistic that may give him a no less a significant edge than the actual H2H, but one that also underscores the true danger that Nadal represented even without his clay-court advantage - a menace that was only coming to full bloom when Nadal was laid low by injury.
That nine-match advantage had enormous repercussions - among them, Federers's failure to secure a clay-court Grand Slam title until 2009. If tennis history stopped right now, this much could be said: the only man who was able to win a title at Roland Garros during the Nadal era was Federer, but he was only able to do it with Nadal absent from the draw. That was a good effort by Federer. The guy can play on clay, but let's face it, he's no Adriano Panatta. You may recall that Panatta was the only man ever to beat Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros, and he did it twice - including a quarterfinal in 1976, after which Panatta went on to take the title. There's no real or imagined asterisk alongside that one, as there is beside Federer's Roland Garros triumph.
I'm not trying to yank the chain of Federer fans here; I just want to add another argument to the case that the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry is curiously and in some ways irritatingly asymmetrical. Until 2008, it could hardly even be called a rivalry in any meaningful sense, beyond the fact that it featured the top two players in the world. Nadal owned clay, Federer owned everything else. It was less a rivalry than the division of the empire - three parts to Federer, one to Nadal. It's too bad that Nadal had to come up lame just when things were getting interesting.
Nadal's recent difficulties have thrown this emerging narrative into utter confusion, and there's a real chance that the glory days of Federer vs. Nadal are a thing of the past - a half-finished masterpiece that's as intriguing and suitable for launching furious debate as the half-finished movie of some famous director, or an incomplete painting. Let's face it, we didn't even come close to having a good Federer or Nadal? brawl during the Australian Open. Everyone watched, holding his or her breath, not quite believing that we could be so lucky once again.
And we weren't.
The big question going into the spring clay-court events in Europe (personally, I wouldn't be surprised if Nadal takes a pass on at least one of the big upcoming hard-court events) will be whether Nadal can recapture anything close to the form he showed at those events through most of his career. You know that if Nadal plays anywhere close to the level of which he's shown himself capable, the Federer vs. Nadal theme will be re-ignited, and whatever happens at the French Open will really just be a table-setter for an ultimate showdown at Wimbledon.
Given the quality of the rest of the field, you'd have to be crazy to take it for granted that we can get back to where we once were in this rivalry. But the herky-jerky performance Andy Murray offered in Melbourne suggests that maybe this handful of promising contenders - Murray, del Potro, Djokovic, Cilic - are not as ready as some of us may think to challenge the two leading men.
I have a funny feeling none of those guys is looking forward to meeting a healthy Nadal on clay, and that nicely sets up a Rafa resurgence. Before you know it, we could find ourselves back where we left off in the early spring of 2009, although Nadal must be wondering if that space he so liked living in is still for rent.