The French Open has what every tennis tournament on earth dreams of: another final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Another chapter in a storied rivalry that balances squarely in Rafa’s favor 16-8 according to the ATP website. However, there are a few factors that make that record more interesting that it first appears.
Number one, most of the wins Rafa has against Fed were on a clay court, certainly a surface that favors Nadal heavily.
Number two, the wins on other surfaces have come since the balls and the courts were slowed down on grass and hard courts as well (see Wimbledon next month when baseliners will rule the roost, then take a look at the last century’s dominance by serve-volleyers). This slower trend has created a cloning effect with professional players on both the men’s and women’s tours. Most players now have two-handed backhands and venture to the net less often than rabbits visit lion dens. Even excellent serve-volleyers like Federer had to give up the practice because of the slower surfaces. Lendl would have won Wimbledon several times had it been the pace it is today, but he lost to Boris Becker and Pat Cash because it was truly a fast court that favored volleying over groundies.
Number three, tennis and boxing both exhibit the classic issue of match-up problems for certain athletes. Federer matches up pretty well with Novak Djokovic and has a 14-9 record against the Serb, despite Djokovic playing lights out tennis lately. Nadal, could not muster a set off Djokovic during this clay court season in two matches. Does that mean that since Federer beat Djokovic on clay that he’s a better clay court player than Rafa? Certainly not, but it does mean that his game matches up better with Djokovic’s game than Nadal’s. Nadal’s lefty style and high kicking forehand, that hooks into Federer’s one-handed backhand is the fly in the ointment for Federer. One-handers have difficulty with high balls, but a two-hander like Djokovic or Murray are not nearly as bothered by Nadal’s high balls as Federer. Match-ups.
Tomorrow, we shall see if Federer can put another stroke of genius onto the greatest career in tennis history, or if Nadal can add to his legacy of dominance at Roland Garros. Whatever happens, remember that head-to-head records don’t always tell the whole story, and Rafa has a long way to go to prove that against the rest of the field he’s as great as Roger.
By the way, don’t miss the match tomorrow (Sunday, June 5th) on NBC at 6am pacific time!