Reading the Readers: 4/5

Friday, April 05, 2013 /by

Don’t know what to do until the U.S.-Serbia tie starts? Here are a couple of questions from the readers of TENNIS.com to fill the time. It beats staring at a blank TV screen, right? If you have a question for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com. I’ll be back later with a post on the first day of Davis Cup in Boise.

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I’ve heard some TV commentators talking about which means more: Roger having 17 majors, or Rafa being ahead in the head-to-head between them, but only having 11 majors. It sounded like they were saying that Nadal could be called the Goat someday, even if he has less Grand Slams than Federer. That seems silly to me, but I think a lot of Nadal fans might twist it that way. What do you think?—Todd

Thanks for the easy, uncontroversial question. I’m guessing this topic came up because of Nadal’s win over Federer at Indian Wells, which extended his head-to-head lead to 19-10. 

The first answer is that it’s too early to say where Nadal will end up in the historical pecking order, or where he and Federer will end up in relation to each other. We don’t know how many Slams they’ll have, what the final head to head will come to, or what the surface composition of both will be. 

That said, the situation does pose a couple of interesting questions/dilemmas for the armchair sports historian: Can you be called the greatest of all time at your sport when you’ve potentially lost two-thirds of your matches to another long-time rival? And which means more in deciding who’s the better player, tournament titles, or the one-on-one matchup?

Tournament titles, and Grand Slam titles in particular, are the best measure of greatness, because that’s what the players aim for and train for. The goal each week is to win a tournament, to beat five or six or seven players, not one specific opponent (unless, perhaps, you’re Victoria Azarenka and you see Agniezska Radwanska in your half of the draw). For the top players, the goal at the start of the season is to win majors, to make themselves ready to beat everybody as many times as possible. Thus my feeling is that Federer, at this moment, is the greatest ever, despite the fact that I’ve watched him lose to Nadal 19 times.

Nadal himself maintains that Federer’s 17 to 11 lead in majors trumps his 19-10 lead in the head-to-head. 

“He has more Grand Slams than me,” Nadal said of Federer after beating him in Indian Wells. “That means his career the day of today is better than my one, and that’s the real thing. And if I think that I am better than him because I beat him, I think, 19 against 10, something like this, I will be very stupid and arrogant.”

Note that Rafa, while acting like he wasn’t sure what the current H2H between them was, did happen to know the exact numbers. Rafa may not believe it makes him the better player, but I think he's proud of his record against Federer. And however much he protests, he must realize that the head-to-head isn’t meaningless, especially when it’s so decisively in one player’s favor. Tennis is a game of titles, and greatness is measured by wins over all opponents; but at its core it’s also a one-on-one competition.

Which is why we’ll have to wait until both players are retired and all of the stats are final to draw any conclusions. Nadal, who will be 27 in June, could conceivably win five more French Opens; he could also, of course, run into more knee problems, and/or Djokovic problems, and not win any. But I wouldn’t bet on him winning less than two more in Paris. Could there be a point where he gets close enough to Federer’s Slam record where you might, factoring in the head-to-head, plausibly declare Rafa the greatest ever? What if, for instance, the tally ended up 18 to 16 in favor of Federer in majors, and 22-12 in favor of Nadal in the H2H? Who would be the Goat-ier of the two then? 

In general, I’m not a believer in slicing records up by surface: a match is a match, and a tennis court is a tennis court. But if the verdict were in doubt between Roger and Rafa, I think you’d have to break the numbers down. How many of Nadal’s majors came at Roland Garros, and how many of his wins over Federer were on clay? How many of Federer’s Slams came at Wimbledon, and how many of his wins over Rafa were on indoor hard courts? Who would we judge was the better overall player on all surfaces, against all opponents?

Unless Rafa catches Roger in the Grand Slam title race, I don’t think I would elevate him above Federer in my personal list of all-time greats. I’m guessing Rafa would agree.

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Steve, I know it’s an old question, but do you think the Davis Cup format should change? It’s tough for these guys to come out of a big tournament and right into a Davis Cup tie. Wouldn’t having it less often mean the top players could play it more?—Adam

Until recently, I would have agreed with you. To me Davis Cup was fine for what it was, but it also seemed outdated, a relic from the no-money amateur era. Worse, it was a lost opportunity. Why not take a page from golf’s Ryder Cup, one of sport's most gripping events, by holding the Davis Cup in one location, once a year, or once every two years. Get the top players involved and committed—they're more involved in the game than ever, so why not in Davis Cup? Why scatter and hide this historically prestigious competition in small arenas around world? Sponsors would likely agree.

All of that would still be fine, of course. It would be great. But I guess I’ve watched too many exciting Davis Cup matches, and seen too many other team-tennis ideas come to nothing, to think that the format needs to be changed. It isn’t as lucrative or high-profile as Ryder Cup, but the ties aren’t any less gripping, and we get to experience them four times a year. Yes, it would make it a bigger deal if Federer and Nadal and Murray were in it every time, but this weekend we get to see Djokovic come to Boise, Idaho— not for money, but for love, of country and teammates and tennis. And if you lose the close-up intensity of the home-and-away format, you lose a lot of what makes DC unique within the sport.

With its hard-to-follow schedule and archaic terminology, Davis Cup is a peculiar, de-centralized, almost excessively international competition. But tennis is a peculiar, de-centralized, almost excessively international sport, too. Isn't that part of why we like it? Davis Cup may not be all it could be, but it never lets you down.

For better and worse—mostly for better—Davis Cup is the tennis fan’s best-kept secret.

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