Saturday 21 April 2018

Tennis: Tennis has a rivalry to stand alongside the greatest

Federer's fluidity and skill still tops Nadal in the great debate, writes Paul Hayward

The idea was born in a column by America's Rick Reilly, who argued that you are either a "Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson kind of guy". This was before we found out there were two Tigers but it works across all sports.

Chances are that, if you think Steven Gerrard is the propulsion in the England midfield, you will see Frank Lampard as its passenger. Devotion to the ice man Borg precluded an affinity for the histrionic McEnroe. Prost-Senna, Ali-Frazier, Ovett-Coe, Denman-Kauto Star: These are the polarities that force us to take a stance and then ask ourselves what the choice says about us.

It is time now to declare in the tightest talent test of them all. And I don't mean Eubank versus Benn. You are either a Roger Federer hide-out-in-the-mountains-and-defend-his greatness-to-the-death sort or a convert to the gang that says Rafael Nadal is usurping him as the greatest men's tennis player of all time.

Look for me in the hills, because there comes a time when a man just has to fight. It's not just that Federer has won more grand slam titles (16) than Nadal (nine). It runs deeper. At the heart of it is how you see the game. Nadal is about as captivating as power is ever going to be. But Federer has mastered an art far harder than lethal counter-punching and beautifully orchestrated aggression.

The now fading all-time grand slam nonpareil has transcended our sense of what seemed possible in the athletic realm. This soft agility, this fluidity and skill, has sent plenty of top writers into raptures they would be wary of deploying in any other literary sphere for fear of being thought hyperbolic.

On the scale of outrageous improvisation Federer will always be untouchable. The shot he plays backwards through his own legs may be the tennis equivalent of exhibition snooker shtick but it affirms his great spatial awareness and the deftness of his hands.

Long before Nadal rose to world No 1 and completed a career grand slam at 24 in last week's US Open, David Foster Wallace wrote: "Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and best-coached field of male pros who've ever existed, with everyone using a kind of nuclear racket that's said to have made the finer calibrations of kinesthetic sense irrelevant, like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert."

Disparaging Nadal out of loyalty to Federer ought to carry a prison sentence. There appears no crack in his dedication or humility. He seeks no immortality shoot-out with Federer, insisting instead that 16 beats nine every time. As a protagonist in the greatest passage of live sport this witness has had the privilege to cover -- the 2008 Wimbledon men's final -- he earns eternal admiration. Here is a modern star who measures his accomplishments by how well he is playing the game, not by how much it can bring him. It counts as a miracle for tennis (and sport) that a single generation has yielded such a glorious rivalry.

But Reilly was right. You end up choosing. And Federer's creativity is at a level Nadal can never hope to match. "That's your GOAT [greatest of all time]" tweeted Brad Gilbert after Nadal had beaten Novak Djokovic in the final in New York. With trigger-thumbs like that you wonder how Gilbert ever got a job. Bombast, mainly. The affront was deep. Djokovic was no better. "He [Nadal] has the capability already to become the best player ever," the victim said.

Nadal is a year younger than Federer was when the older man reached nine grand slam gongs. Impressive. He reached his career grand slam three and a half years quicker than his Swiss adversary. Impressive, again.

Missing from this analysis, though, is precocity and its opposite: longevity. We saw this with Jack Nicklaus and Woods. People said old Jack's majors record would be crushed by the new Nike-backed machine. Then injury intervened -- and chaos back at the ranch. The coronation of Woods as the greatest man in slacks is no longer predicted with certainty.

It might sound craven to point out that Nadal is already playing through knee pain. For him to rise so thrillingly, also, Federer had to slide, fractionally. There will be new threats to Nadal, fresh energy further down the age line. Temptation would normally be factored into a career trajectory but Mr Sunshine shows no signs of succumbing. His next mission, in Australia in January, is to become the first since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles consecutively.

Acclaim deafens, as it should, as it does when Denman beats Kauto Star at Cheltenham. But what is this deep cognisance of Federer's genius? Perhaps, the sense of just how hard it is to make the body function so beautifully. Nature says it should be impossible. Observer

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