Nadal offers Federer no easy answers
Swiss star looks to live up to No. 1 ranking
Bruce Arthur, National Post Published: Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Technically, it was the first day of the Rogers Cup yesterday, complete with top-10 players, a rain delay, the works. It all looked like the real thing, from the matches to the practice courts to the sandwiches on ciabatta bread.
But everybody knew the tournament hasn't really begun yet, because of the Tiger Woods rule: If the best player in the world isn't playing, it's just not the same. In tennis, however, there are two Tigers -- No. 1 Roger Federer, and fast-closing No. 2 Rafael Nadal, and the tournament doesn't truly start until they do.
The consensus that is supposed to be tested this week is that Nadal has finally surpassed Federer by overcoming him in yet another French Open and -- more significantly, in the greatest match anyone can remember -- at Wimbledon. As tennis legend Boris Becker put it, "There is still a No. 1 called Federer, but I think if you talk to anybody in the world of tennis [the person] who is considered for now the No. 1 player in the world [is] the winner of French Open and Wimbledon. I think there's a change in position at the moment."
Federer, of course, disagreed on Sunday, putting Nadal just a level above fallen or unproven challengers like Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, and the world's current No. 3, Novak Djokovic. Nadal, too, deflected the suggestion that he is the best, though he also admitted he wouldn't say it if he felt it was true.
"First of all, I never going to say something like this from me," the Spaniard said in his charming and idiosyncratic English. "Second, I don't think so, no? ?I think nobody don't wants to be No. 1. I wants to be No. 1 for sure, but right now I don't want to be No. 1. Right now I only want to play a very good tournament here in Toronto."
Everyone else wants that, too -- another epic Federer-Nadal final, the tennis of the gods. But as much as this week could provide another chapter in the world's most compelling sporting rivalry of the moment, it's also just the first step of a long march that will visit Beijing, the U. S. Open, and the season-ending Masters Series in Shanghai. There's still time for Federer -- who suffered silently from mononucleosis early in the season -- to redeem his year of living dangerously.
"I think for me, Roger is the best player ever in the world, and Nadal is one of the best for the moment," says Stanislas Wawrinka, Federer's Swiss countryman and doubles partner, ranked 10th in the world in singles. "We didn't realize what [Federer] did the last few years, and now of course, Rafa is in good shape -- he's been very good.
"But I want to see the next few months to see what's going to happen, because if you see the last few years Nadal didn't really play good in the end of the season ? and I think Roger is going to play very well."
Nadal has never quite soared on hardcourt, but he seems unconcerned. But then, he seems unconcerned about everything. Yesterday, he was a thickly muscled human shrug.
"I can improve my game in every surface, no?" he said. "On clay, grass, hard, indoor, every place I can improve, no?"
That's a terrifying thought, given that at age 22 he is already probably the best clay-court player in history, and his improvement on grass was enough to deny Federer a sixth consecutive Wimbledon title. As Becker puts it, "You cannot really blame [Federer] for playing badly. You can only give credit to Nadal." This begs the question: Where can Federer, who will turn 27 on the first day of the Olympics, get better?
Ask Wawrinka, who knows Federer well, and his face scrunches up like it's a final exam.
"Is difficult, is tough question," he says after a pause. "I think there is always something you can do to improve, to be better, to win more and more matches, and to be the best player. But I don't know what, exactly.
"Maybe, maybe -- maybe for him it is good that Nadal is better now," Wawrinka adds. "Because you know what? I think when you are number one -- and you are like him, you're number one easy -- it's difficult to be better, to see you need to be better, because you are the best player. But now you have Nadal, he's coming, coming, and he's knocking on the door. So maybe [Federer's] going to try to find something to be better. He has to be, because if not, Rafa is going to be number one, I think."
Richard Gasquet has beaten Federer and while he says a meeting on anything but clay is 50-50, he also agrees that "With Nadal, [Federer] has to improve." But how? Federer insists he can do it because he only started winning Grand Slams at 22, he has "many, many more years left." On the other, he says "I've worked as hard as I could trying to always stay ahead of the pack." So harder work doesn't seem like the answer, if there is one to be found.
Will this week decide anything? Only if Nadal wins another epic final. If tennis is truly fortunate, this Valhallan wrestling match will continue for years. If Toronto is truly fortunate, it will make it through the week.