This is transition time in tennis. Spring turns to summer, green grass replaces red clay, long rallies give way to big serves, and a quieter, quicker cadence comes to the game.

Since 2005, that transition has been echoed by an equally abrupt baton-handoff at the top of the men’s tour. Just as one legend, Rafael Nadal, closes out his customary two months of domination on dirt, another, Roger Federer, begins gearing up for his customary one month of domination on turf. Last Sunday, as Nadal was putting the finishing touches on Dominic Thiem for his 11th title at Roland Garros, Federer could be seen taking practice swings at the grass-court event in Stuttgart. With his title there yesterday, he began his drive for a ninth Wimbledon title, and in the process took back the No. 1 ranking from Nadal. The 36-year-old Swiss and the 32-year-old Spaniard have already traded that spot back and forth five times in 2018.

You might think all of this would be cause for celebration among tennis fans. As we get set to mark the 10th anniversary of their best and most famous match, the 2008 Wimbledon final, the two most popular players of this century are still going strong, still playing as well as ever, still finding new ways to improve, still packing arenas, still embracing their roles as ambassadors for the sport, still setting new records and still seeming to enjoy the grind and the fight as much as ever.

TRAILER—"Strokes of Genius", sponsored by Humana:

Advertising

Instead, this Indian Summer of the Federer-Nadal era has been (a) turned into fodder for more friction between the two players’ fan camps; and (b) greeted with angst and pessimism among some former players and mainstream sports journalists, who believe it spells doom for the future of the men’s game.

The fan friction revolves around, of all things, Federer’s and Nadal’s schedules. In 2017 and 2018, Federer has skipped the clay season—i.e., three Masters 1000 events, in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, and the French Open. This decision was in keeping with how he said he would approach his schedule when he returned to the tour last season. At 35, after undergoing knee surgery and missing half a season for the first time in his 17-year career, he said he made a promise to himself that, “if people see me, that they see the real me and a guy who is so excited that he’s there.”

“How can I remain healthy, and how can I keep the fire and the motivation for the tournaments that I will be playing?” These were the paramount questions in Federer’s mind going forward.

One of the tournaments that Federer will always play, and one that he has always focused on, is Wimbledon. In his mind, skipping the clay season gives him the best chance of being at full strength when he gets to Centre Court. It’s hard to argue with his reasoning: last year, Federer won Wimbledon for the first time since 2012, and finished a stellar 52-5 for the season. Why wouldn’t he repeat that formula?

Younger and less accomplished players don’t have that option, of course. If they skip mandatory events, they’re penalized. But the ATP offers a sort of senior-citizen discount to its legends. A player receives one exemption from a mandatory tournament for reaching each of the following three milestones: playing 600 matches, spending 12 years on tour, passing his 31st birthday. If you’ve done all three, as Federer has, you don’t have to play any Masters events at all.

It's not a bad sign for tennis that Roger & Rafa are still dominating

It's not a bad sign for tennis that Roger & Rafa are still dominating

Nadal’s situation is different. While he missed mandatory events in Indian Wells and Miami this year, it was due to a hip injury that also forced him to retire at the Australian Open. And while he pulled out of this week’s grass-court tournament at Queen’s Club, it was hard to fault him for that. Over the previous two months, he had gone 25-1 and won titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris. After his last win, over Thiem at Roland Garros, Rafa looked exhausted.

Yet Federer and Nadal have been knocked for cherry-picking their tournaments, not supporting the tour, ducking their least-favorite surfaces and even ducking each other.

Criticism of Nadal on these grounds is obviously not valid. While he always peaks for clay, it’s not as if he’s given up on other surfaces. Over the last year and a half. Nadal has played 14 hard-court events, and 10 on clay. Since 2005, he’s missed Wimbledon just twice, and he plans to be there again in two weeks. Like Federer, Nadal has the exemptions he needs to skip every mandatory event if he chooses, but since the start of 2015 he has played 25 of 28 Masters 1000s and 13 of 14 majors. His 67 wins last year, including seven at the US Open, were the most he had in a season since 2013.

Advertising

It's not a bad sign for tennis that Roger & Rafa are still dominating

It's not a bad sign for tennis that Roger & Rafa are still dominating

Criticism of Federer for skipping the clay season is equally wrong-headed. The most practical defense is that, by rationing his playing time, Federer—who has played the French Open 17 times, nearly twice as many as Bjorn Borg—is prolonging his career and giving himself a better chance in the tournaments he does enter. That’s definitely true. But there’s also historic justice in the freedom he has earned to set his own schedule.

For decades, players chafed under the control of high-handed amateur officials, who decided when and were they could play. More than anything else, the goal of the ATP in its earliest incarnation was to give players the power to control their own careers. When the mandatory-event system began in 1990, the players agreed to gather at certain tournaments, and the tour agreed to grant exemptions from those obligations for length of service. Federer can skip the clay season not because of any vague idea that, as a future Hall of Famer and all-around popular guy, he should be allowed to do whatever he wants. He can skip it because he has fulfilled his specific professional obligations to the tour, obligations that were negotiated by the players with their own careers in mind. Mandatory tournaments are crucial to the sport, but so is the health of those pros, like Federer and Nadal, who have built their own fanbases. The exemptions helping Federer today may soon extend the careers of Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and other top ATP players.

Which brings us to the other strange complaint that has arisen about Federer and Nadal this year: that it’s a bad sign for the men’s game that they’re still trading the No. 1 ranking back and forth in their 30s. Yes, they’ve won six straight majors, and no, there are no younger player, or players, who look ready to take over for them. But there will be a future; there always is. When Sampras hung up his racquet in 2002, no one saw Federer and Nadal coming. Would we rather not have Roger and Rafa still around in 2018? Would we rather watch Thiem and Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios slowly learn to be champions on their own instead?

Would we, in short, rather not have a chance to watch the two players with the most major titles in history for as long as we can? Indian Summers don’t last forever, which means we have to savor every last minute—and Grand Slam victory—we can.

It's not a bad sign for tennis that Roger & Rafa are still dominating

It's not a bad sign for tennis that Roger & Rafa are still dominating

Advertising

A LANDMARK DOCUMENTARY DURING THE MOST PRESTIGIOUS EVENT IN SPORTS, CELEBRATING THE UNPARALLELED FEDERER-NADAL RIVALRY AND 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GREATEST MATCH EVER PLAYED.

In association with All England Lawn & Tennis Club, Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment and Amblin Television.  Directed by Andrew Douglas.