Brothers to the Death

by: Steve Tignor | May 17, 2010

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Rf-rn They say that married couples begin to resemble each other as they get older. Can it also be true of tennis rivals, who spend so much time in the same rarefied air, far above the rest of us? At their peaks, Borg and McEnroe each sported long locks and headbands. By the end of his career, Pete Sampras was beginning to catch up to Andre Agassi in the hair-loss department. If anything, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have gone their predecessors one better. Standing next to each other during the trophy ceremony in Madrid on Sunday, these two 20-somethings from Western Europe, each 6-foot-1, each smiling thinly and politely for the cameras, each with hair that has been tamed and trimmed from its youthful overabundance, looked more like big brother and little brother than they did hated combatants.

Watching them, I wondered whether this might be the beginning of a new, mellower, let-bygones-be-bygones stage of their rivalry, one that Borg and McEnroe never had a chance to reach, and one that, as we found out at the Hit for Haiti in Indian Wells in March, was never in the cards for Agassi and Sampras. After all, the driving dynamic behind Federer vs. Nadal for all these years was the fact that each wanted to win on the other guy’s Grand Slam turf—Federer at the French and Nadal at Wimbledon. Now, for the first time, that dynamic doesn’t exist. Even Nadal’s sincere words to Federer after this final—basically, “Congratulations on winning the Australian Open. You are amazing”—had a sort of, ‘At this point, there’s no need to belabor the fact that we respect each other,’ feel to them.

Thankfully, rivalries are just what they sound like: They can be friendly, but the core of the relationship is always adversarial. Even though Federer has a French and Nadal has a Wimbledon, the edge between them lives on, as it must. Nadal wants to add titles to his resume while he has the chance, while Federer, at the most basic level, doesn’t want to see Nadal pad his winning record against him even more. (If you thought Federer didn’t have any more reasons to be motivated, try to imagine the putative greatest of all time contemplating a career head-to-head with Nadal that continues at its current pace and ends up being something like 18 to 9 in Rafa’s favor. There’s some motivation.) You could see the edge between before the Madrid final, and hear a little more of it in their press conferences afterward.

From the first time I saw a 16-year-old Nadal play at the U.S. Open in—was it really this long ago?—2003, he has made a point of controlling the tempo of the match, and it begins even before the first ball of the warm-up is hit. Even then, when he was nothing more than a rookie prospect making his Open debut, he took whatever time he needed to concoct his fitness drinks on the sideline before the coin toss. While the chair umpire and his opponent waited somewhat impatiently at the net, he then took a couple of seconds to gingerly align his two water bottles in whatever mysterious configuration he needed them to be in. I remember being surprised, slightly annoyed, but in the end impressed by the kid’s willfulness. He made you take notice of him for more than just his forehand.

Nadal has never deviated from this ritual, and in the seven years since that Open I can remember only one time when he was the first player out to the net for the coin toss—last year against Federer in Madrid, when he may have decided that, with the effort he’d needed to put in to win his semifinal over Novak Djokovic the previous day, he needed to get the blood flowing right away. Aside from that day, Federer, like everyone else, has been the one kept waiting, awkwardly, hands behind his back, looking around aimlessly, while Nadal sits and sucks down a tube of energy gel (I’m guessing someone here can tell me what it is). Yesterday, Federer came prepared to do something about it. Rather than wait at the net, he stayed in his own chair until he saw Nadal make his move.

This spared Federer the wait with the umpire, but the larger point is that Nadal was still in control of the tempo, and Federer was still, whatever his status as the greatest player of all time, the one who had to react to what his opponent was doing. And this carried over into the match, where Nadal, as always, dictated the match’s pace. Whether you find his various tics irritating, or whether or not he’s taking too much time—obviously, he shouldn’t be allowed to do this—it’s difficult to play against someone who plays more slowly than you like to play. By the time the serve gets to you, you’re just a little more anxious than normal. Owning the tempo is not a small thing in a tennis match.

That’s not why Nadal has beaten Federer 14 times, or why he beat him yesterday. But the reason he did is related. Maybe it’s because they hadn’t played in a year and I’d forgotten exactly how their rallies typically unfold, but I was amazed at how efficient Nadal was at tilting them in his favor right from the first ball. When he’s been asked in the past about what he does differently against Federer, Nadal typically, and blandly, says something along the lines of “be more aggressive.” Specifically, he wants the points to take place from his forehand to Federer’s one-handed backhand, and not the other way around. With this in mind, Nadal forces the action and plays with more urgency against Federer than he does against anyone else. Of course, Federer wants to do the same thing as Nadal, and he did control his share of rallies, but Nadal can do more with his two-hander from deeper in the court than Federer typically can with his one-hander. At 1-1 in the first set yesterday, Nadal broke with a heavy backhand up the line, and he continued to hit it well, especially crosscourt, all match.

The bottom line is that on clay (and on other surfaces to a degree), Federer must come out of his comfort zone more often than Nadal if he’s going to make anything happen in a rally. He has to find an extreme crosscourt angle with his backhand, or, as the match progresses, he must go to the drop shot more and more. Federer hits the drop shot well, and contrary to what we’ve been told, he’s been using it for years—remember the vicious backspinner he hit against Safin late in their classic semi in Australia in 2005? But the drop shot will always be a risk, no matter who is trying it, and it will never win you a match the way a serve or a forehand can. Up 4-2 in the second-set tiebreaker, Federer missed what at first glance appeared to be an easy drop shot into the net, one that was almost certainly going to be a winner. He was disgusted with himself, and, judging by the way he played the rest of the breaker, he couldn’t get it out of his head. But the fact is, the judgment and touch needed to place a drop shot perfectly—and against Nadal they must all be close to perfect—will always make it a dicey shot to try under the pressure of a tiebreaker, and one you don't want to have to rely on.

The changes of pace that Nadal threw in were less reactive and more assured—more pro-active—than Federer’s. Down 15-40 in the first set, Nadal won the point by hitting, for the first time in the match, a kick second serve out wide to Federer’s forehand. On important points, Nadal was able to nail his first serve up the T after having sent a dozen straight out wide; his first ace of the match didn’t come until the second set, but it came when he needed it, on game point at 2-2. And at 5-6, 40-30 in the second set, Nadal won the game by suddenly and surprisingly drilling his forehand up the line instead of crosscourt. On clay, at least, Nadal has an uncanny way of staying one step ahead of Federer, from the coin toss to the clinching tiebreaker.

Afterward, Federer said that, fair or not, their clay-court seasons would be judged on the French Open alone. Nadal disagreed, understandably loath to say that the three titles he’d just won were meaningless. Federer is at a stage in his career when he can treat the Masters as a way to set himself up for the majors, for history. He wants to use his energy to go hard for the ones that everyone will remember. For Nadal, the Masters are a big part of what will be his legacy; he’s going to retire as the all-time winner of them. Beyond that, I’ve always believed there’s more to tennis than the Slams, because, well, there’s more to tennis than the Slams. Why are all of these other tournaments played, otherwise? Why shouldn’t they be enjoyed in their own right, with our total attention and commitment, and not just as appetizers for four tournaments that cover a mere eight weeks of the year? I’ve always liked Nadal’s attitude: Go for the win every time you set foot on a court, give every fan in every venue a chance to see you put yourself on the line, and honor them by celebrating and being equally proud of every win, no matter where it takes place. This, no doubt, is not as practical in the long run as the dour old Lendl-Sampras mantra, “Only the majors matter.” But look at it from a fan’s perspective. For us, as viewers who like to watch tennis more than four times a year, Nadal’s passion for every match offers a lot more entertainment and satisfaction.

Let me return to the two rivals on the victory stand, looking a little like brothers. Why choose between them at this point? Here you had the greatest men’s Grand Slam winner in history next to the greatest Masters Series winner. Here you had two guys who keep coming back coming back coming back, even as the contenders/pretenders below them fade into the woodwork. If they’re starting to look more alike as time goes on, that may be because, as they continue to defy the odds of tennis gravity year after year, Federer and Nadal both keep looking better and better to us.

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