Renaissance Men: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal keep defying the odds

by: Steve Tignor | January 13, 2018

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Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer combined to win all four Grand Slams in 2017. (AP)

"That’s where both Rafa and myself said, ‘OK, enough of this already.’ Let’s get back to 100 percent, enjoy tennis, enjoy the practice. Not just practice, treatment, match, treatment. All the time all you’re doing is fighting the fire.”

When Roger Federer said these words near the end of the Australian Open last January, he had good reason to be proud of what he and his old rival Rafael Nadal had accomplished over the previous two weeks. After cutting their 2016 seasons short due to injury, the two 30-somethings stunned the tennis world by reaching the final of their first major they entered, and facing off in a Grand Slam title match for the first time in six years.

But Federer couldn’t have known how prescient his “enough already” statement would be, or how much being healthy again would mean to the Swiss and the Spaniard. Over the next 10 months, Federer and Nadal would go on to stage a two-man, good-guys’ version of The Empire Strikes Back.

Federer would win his 18th and 19th Grand Slam titles, at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. He would add three ATP Masters 1000 titles to his haul, in Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai. He would finish No. 2 in the rankings and 52–5 overall, with seven titles, his most in a season since 2007. Federer would also turn the tables on his longtime nemesis by beating Nadal in all four of their matches. And he would do it all while turning 36.

“He shattered any concerns we had, and totally reset the bar of what might lie ahead for him,” ESPN commentator Darren Cahill says of Federer’s astonishing 2017 season.

Aside from the defeats to Federer, Nadal’s year would be every bit as impressive. He would also win two Slams—a record 10th French Open and a third US Open—as well as two Masters titles, in Monte Carlo and Madrid. He would go 67–11 and win six titles, his most in a season since 2013. And he would become, at 31, the oldest man to end a year at No. 1.

“He’s dedicated to the sport, second to none,” Alexander Zverev told TennisTV when asked about Nadal’s comeback. “The fighter he is, even with some body problems, a few injuries, we always knew he was going to come back so strong.”

Most tennis lovers cheered this year-long revival. Nadal and Federer aren’t just the best players of their era, they’re also the most popular. Yet even their devotees probably could have done with a little more drama in their comeback stories. Roger and Rafa didn’t just beat their competitors in 2017, they ran them out of town.

Nadal won the French Open without dropping a set; Federer did the same at Wimbledon. Their victories in the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open finals—over Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Kevin Anderson, respectively, —were mind-numbingly one-sided. By July, their three most prominent rivals—Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Wawrinka—had pulled the plugs on their seasons due to injury. Nadal and Federer each ended the year with more than 9,600 ranking points; the player in third place, Grigor Dimitrov, had just over 5,000.

Yet few in tennis are going to complain about having Roger and Rafa as the game’s standard bearers. The sight of them playing doubles together was enough to successfully launch the Laver Cup, a promising new team event. Now, the question is: Can they repeat their success in 2018?

For Federer, the most important factor in his success—rest—will be even more crucial at 37 than it was at 36. His performance at the Australian Open, where he returned from a six-month layoff and won three five-set matches in one tournament for the first time in his career, made him a believer in the healing powers that come with conserving energy.

“What I don’t want to do is overplay and just get tired of traveling and tired of just playing tournaments,” Federer said last March. “If people see me, [I want them to] see the real me and a guy who’s so excited that he’s there. That’s a promise I made to myself, that if I play tournaments, that’s how my mindset has to be and will be.”

Federer kept his promise. He skipped the entire clay-court season, as well as the Paris Masters in November, despite having a chance to catch Nadal for the year-end No. 1 ranking. If Federer’s game developed rust during his weeks away, it was hard to detect. His winning percentage of 91.2 was as impressive as it had been during his mid-20s prime.

Back in his mid-20s, of course, Federer wasn’t able to design his own schedule the way he did in 2017. In those days, he was automatically committed to play the four majors and the nine mandatory ATP Masters 1000s. But the ATP allows exemptions from those events for players who have (1) been on tour for 12 years; (2) played 600 matches; or (3) are 30 or older. If you meet all three criteria, the way Federer does, you can skip as many of the nine Masters events as you like.

Will other players follow Federer’s lead? If so, we could be moving from a Golden Age into an Exempted Age. By the middle of 2018, Wawrinka will be 33, Nadal 32, and Djokovic and Murray 31. All four veterans will be within their rights to cut their schedules back if they think that doing so will extend their careers.

By the end of 2017, Nadal’s fans were begging him to do just that. While Federer husbanded more of his energy over the last 12 months, Nadal expended more of his. For the first time since 2008, the oft-injured Spaniard competed in all four Grand Slams and all nine Masters 1000 tournaments. That rigorous program helped him finish No. 1, but it also led to a lateseason knee injury.

“I had a long year, a lot matches,” Nadal said. “I pushed the body.”

Nadal would never skip the clay swing, à la Federer. But if he wants to emulate his friend’s success into his mid-30s, it would make sense for him to consider shutting down his season after the US Open from now on.

Of course, as Nadal knows, scheduling will only get you so far. What matters most is what you do when you’re on court.

“When somebody is winning a lot, it looks like the calendar is perfect,” Nadal said in the fall. “When somebody is losing, looks like the calendar is not good.”

While time is a formidable foe, it’s not the only one, or perhaps even the most immediately daunting one, that Federer and Nadal will face in 2018. Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka, who have won a combined 18 majors, will all be returning after their own lengthy breaks. Presumably, they’ll feel as rested and hungry at this year’s Australian Open as Federer and Nadal did at last year’s.

Of those three, Djokovic will be the most closely watched, and feared. He’s a 12-time major champion who has winning records against both Federer and Nadal. (He’s a combined 49–46; Murray and Wawrinka are a combined 28–75 against Roger and Rafa). There were some concerns at the end of 2017 about Djokovic’s recovery from the elbow fracture that sidelined him, but Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach, doesn’t foresee any prolonged drop-off

“Greatness doesn’t just stop,” Annacone says of Djokovic, who will be coached by Andre Agassi in the new year. “His biggest challenge at first will be sustaining his consistency. But as Roger and Rafa have shown, just because you’re a little older doesn’t mean you’re not great anymore.”

Last year Federer and Nadal opened themselves up to new ideas from their coaches, and quickly discovered talents that, even after more than a decade on tour, they didn’t know they had. If anyone can put those improvements to the test, though, it will be the metronomically relentless Djokovic and Murray.

“The backhand was the shot that defined [Federer] in 2017,” Cahill says. “Not only was he more prepared to be aggressive with it, but he also stroked it from a stronger court position.

“He looked to have a new mindset that making mistakes was OK as long as he stayed aggressive, whereas previously unforced errors would annoy him. That will need to continue for Federer if Djokovic and Murray return strongly: playing on his terms and staying true to the aggressive plan no matter what.”

If Federer’s most-improved shot of 2017 was his backhand, Nadal’s was his serve and return. In the same way that Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, encouraged him to let his one-hander fly, Nadal’s new coach, Carlos Moya, encouraged him to move his serve around, and stand back on his return.

“Rafa started using his serve more as a weapon instead of starting the point on a weakness, and because of that he looked to hurt players with his first forehand,” Cahill says. “His overall confidence lifted in 2017 and with that he was more aggressive.”

But Nadal’s biggest assets remain his tenacity and physicality; even at 31, he can still wear down most opponents, including the three big names who will be returning in 2018.

“He’ll want to make any encounter with Djokovic, Murray, and Wawrinka really physical, especially the early ones,” Cahill says. “Let them know that his legs are tennis toughened and remind them of what’s needed. I reckon he’d be hoping he meets them in a best-of-five match before playing them over three sets.”

Should we expect Roger and Rafa to finish No. 1 and 2 again? Not at their ages. But we should be satisfied that they’ll play a big role in what will be an intriguing and potentially explosive reunion of the ATP’s top players.

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