Tuesday, 14 September 2010

What Nadal’s victory means for tennis

On Monday, Rafael Nadal made history by winning the US Open for the first time, completing a career Grand Slam. At 24, he is the second youngest player behind Rod Laver to achieve the feat, and suddenly his list of records, as well as his trophy cabinet, is starting to compare with that of Roger Federer, the man with the greatest records of all. The victory is his third major title in a row, making him the first man to win these three consecutively since Laver in 1969, and the first to do so on three different surfaces. This article looks at how Nadal's fantastic fortnight changes tennis history, and what it means for its future.

First of all, the victory further reinforces the known fact that Nadal is the greatest player in the world right now. In dropping just one set on his way to victory, Nadal completes a truly dominant year, made all the more impressive by his doing so on all major surfaces. No player in recent tennis history, Federer included, can boast the same all-court mastery Rafa can. I stated in my preview of the tournament that there were many players capable of winning with Nadal a slight favourite (held back slightly on the premise of playing on a surface less-suited to him), but in truth nobody came close to Nadal. He was superb, his serve and movement better than ever, and his blistering ground-strokes simply too big for his opponents. His intensity never once dropped. 2010 eclipses 2008 in terms of achievement for Nadal, an unlikely feat, and Nadal just gets better and better. I believe the 2009 Australian Open final between himself and Federer to be if not the greatest match of all time, then the highest-quality match of all time, with Nadal playing a near-perfect match to beat a himself brilliant Federer. Nadal has improved since then.

He is playing better tennis than ever, and as for his opponents, a brave but inferior Novak Djokovic fell well short, while Federer again failed to produce his best. Against high quality opponents, Federer makes too many errors and drops his level too often compared to the sheer consistent brilliance of Nadal. This tournament is confirmation of the reality that Federer's place now lies among the chasing pack. Had he made the final, which he did not deserve to, Nadal would, in all likelihood, have outplayed him over five sets. Andy Murray, like many players, is capable of beating Nadal in a major, but is nowhere near Nadal's consistency to be equally reckoned with in the coming majors. This is not a specific criticism of Murray, though it is the biggest weakness in his game, because the rest of the field have the same problem. There really is nothing stopping Nadal from winning more majors.

Rafa's achievements have a deeper meaning to the game than just confirmation of his current dominance. While last year critics and former players were hailing Federer after he added the missing piece to his 'Greatest of all time' jigsaw in winning the French Open, this perspective now needs re-evaluating. Federer is still the greater champion. His six Wimbledon titles and five US Opens (and, with that, ownership of the world's two greatest courts) remain among the standout achievements in tennis history, alongside those of Sampras and Laver, while his talents and shot-making ability are the greatest the game has ever seen. But this generation will now be remembered as the one of two truly great champions; Federer is no longer a clear number one in that regard, especially given that his career record versus Nadal in major finals stands at 2-5, with Nadal beating him on three surfaces. Nadal has now matched Federer in winning three consecutive major titles, though Federer achieved the feat twice, and stands alone in history in winning one on each surface in the same year. His record is starting to match against the greatest.

Federer, now 29, has now tasted sweet victory and bitter defeat in equal measure, and with that has learned a great perspective in recent years. He takes defeat, and seeing Nadal lifting another trophy, as motivation to win next time. "The last thing I want to do is watch another tennis match which I'm not a part of". Even after a career in the sport in which he has won everything on offer, his appetite for victory remains strong. I expect him to win more slams, but now not very many more. He is still capable of consistent, high-quality tennis. I expect this just as I expect Nadal to lose important matches, simply because there are too many good players out there these days. That said, he has upped his game and the others around him will have to respond, as he has now made winning a major that much harder.

Djokovic remains the 'best of the rest'. After three successive defeats to Federer on Ashe, he finally beat him in a strange match. Federer, committing 66 unforced errors, did not deserve to take the match to five sets, while Djokovic made his own mistakes, including curiously shaking his head on a serve at 5-5 and 1 set all. He still has a long way to go to fulfil his early promise as a contender to the Federer/Nadal dominance, but that is more down to the two's constant improvements to their own game rather than his own shortcomings, which have only been magnified when compared to these two greats of the game. Djokovic will win a major in the next two years.

As for the others, for all the hype around an open and exciting tournament, which largely delivered its promise, it was the top three seeds at the business end once more. But I see the chasing pack challenging again next time, and hopefully the exiting talent of Juan Martin del Potro can recover fully from injury to become the player he is capable of being.

This is still a highly-competitive sport blessed with more potential major winners than ever, but everyone will have to further improve their games to challenge the one man dominating the sport right now.