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U.S. Open

RAFAEL NADAL AND THE COMPLICATIONS OF A GOLDEN ERA

Matt Zemek

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Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America

The Golden Era of men’s professional tennis has received a new stamp of greatness with Novak Djokovic’s 14th major title, making the Big 3 a true big three in major championships. Federer 1, Nadal 2, Djokovic — and Sampras — at 3. The moment is historic, resonant and powerful, affirming how great these three tennis players — from Switzerland, Spain and Serbia — have been over the past 15 years.

As the 2018 U.S. Open recedes into memory, Djokovic’s championship and his triumphant 2018 rightly exist as the most important ATP tennis stories of the year. Djokovic has stolen Fedal’s major-tournament thunder to become the best Big 3 player at tennis’s four most important tournaments in 2018. Djokovic deserves to be spoken of in the same lofty and exalted tones Fedal has received in recent years. The Big 3 is much better viewed as a brotherhood than a three-part hierarchy with a clear order of quality.

This next sentence needs to be absorbed and processed with care, and I will do my best to make sure it is absorbed and processed with care: Rafael Nadal embodies the complexities of the Big 3 era more than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

The key word: embodies.

Nadal isn’t necessarily a more complicated player than Federer or Djokovic — that is not being said or implied. Nadal merely EMBODIES these complications in ways which are more conspicuous.

The 2018 U.S. Open brought those complications into full view.

The point is familiar — so familiar, in fact, that it does not need to be commented on at great length: Rafael Nadal has lost more major tournaments to injury than Djokovic or Federer have. Hardcourt tennis in particular, and full-season tennis in general, have been less kind on Nadal’s knees and knee joints than on any body part belonging to Nole or Fed. That is not a criticism. That is not an indictment. That is not a diminishment. That is a simple reality.

What people choose to DERIVE or CONCLUDE from that reality is the great debate involving the Big 3. Should Nadal be downgraded for these injuries, or should he be upgraded given how well he has been able to push past and transcend them so many times in his career? You could make a case for each answer, which means you could make a case for a “both” or “all of the above” answer as well. What you choose to do in the process of interpreting the meaning and value of Nadal’s injuries will shape how you view Nadal and the era.

This is not the only complicated story of the past 15 years. How Federer has played since 2010 has been very good, but not usually good enough to beat Nadal or Djokovic in their primes in five-set matches at majors. How does one evaluate that? It is a very complicated question.

Djokovic currently has six fewer majors than Federer, but he has won 14 majors by venturing into the teeth of the Fedal axis, whereas Nadal and especially Federer accumulated a large chunk of major titles before the Djokovic ascendancy of 2011. How does one evaluate that? Again, it’s a complicated question. All three members of the Big 3 own enormous complexities and contradictions. Nadal isn’t necessarily MORE complicated… but his complications are easier to identify, partly because they emerge more often, as shown at this year’s hardcourt majors.

It is a very striking fact, is it not? Nadal — who did not play Acapulco, Indian Wells or Miami, and then skipped Cincinnati when the time came — has played only three hardcourt tournaments this year. In two of them, both at major tournaments, he had to retire. Nadal is rightly celebrated for pushing to his limits and then finding a way to push PAST those limits. He is “the great transcender” of this era, the one who seems to defy reasonable limits of stamina and endurance.

Yet, much as a 37-year-old Federer has shown his physical limitations this year, and much as Djokovic finally ran into injury problems after his enormous level of output and success from January of 2015 through June of 2016, Nadal — for all his transcendent powers — is not able to defeat the laws of physics all the time, only occasionally. His work ethic, intensity, and full-tilt tennis have enabled him to climb the highest mountain, but they haven’t come without cost. This U.S. Open reminded us of that.

In reviewing the ATP side of the U.S. Open in 2018 — a tournament which put ATP players through a hellhole of profoundly attritional situations and forced them, including Djokovic and Federer, to play in conditions unsuited to tennis — the Nadal story is relevant for numerous reasons. It is probably beyond the scope of this column to dive into several different reasons. (It is also beyond my pay grade, given that Tennis With An Accent has not yet raked in large sponsorship dollars from businesses and is still dependent on donor support through our GoFundMe page, which is also posted on our website’s Twitter page.)

Allow me, therefore, to focus on just one question Nadal’s unfortunate exit from the 2018 U.S. Open raises about this Golden Era of men’s tennis: Has it been a blessing for Nadal to play on relatively slow(er) and homogenized courts which have similar speeds, as opposed to highly differentiated ones?

I would bet that if I asked 100 random people in a room this question — “Have slow courts helped or hurt Nadal?” — a solid majority (at least 60 people if not 65) would say they have helped him.

Uh-oh, you might be thinking. MATT IS GOING TO THROW THE CURVEBALL AND TELL YOU THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS WRONG.

No… but I’m not going to say that it is COMPLETELY right, either. Hashtag #ItsComplicated.

A slower court has often helped Nadal, making it easier for Rafa to play defense, engage in long rallies, and wear down opponents. Slower courts magnify Nadal’s immense powers of concentration, his stamina, his willingness to hit the extra ball, and his penchant for problem solving. Slower courts have helped Nadal in his matchups on grass and hardcourts against Federer…

… but you will notice that I did not refer to clay.

The one clay venue where Federer had reasonable success against Nadal was Hamburg, when the tournament was part of the Masters 1000 rotation and before it was downgraded to a 500 event played after Wimbledon. Hamburg clay was often heavier clay. Slower surfaces on hardcourts and at Wimbledon gave Rafa more time against

Federer’s attacking strokes, but on Hamburg clay, the heavier conditions made the ball bounce lower. This put more shots in Federer’s lower strike zone while reducing Rafa’s ability to plant that reliable topspin forehand crosscourt to Federer’s one-handed backhand. When Rafa hit the forehand to Federer’s backhand on Hamburg clay, it was a lot harder for Rafa to make Federer hit shoulder- or eye-level backhands.

In marked contrast, the clay of other ATP venues — Monte Carlo and Rome — plus Roland Garros was not as heavy. In those tournaments, a sun-baked clay court was much more receptive to the ball, creating the spinny, high bounce which would force Federer to hit backhands way out of his preferred strike zone. On clay, court speed worked differently in the Fedal rivalry compared to grass and cement.

Then consider this point about court speed, which goes beyond individual matchups in this era: What if more hardcourt tournaments — on a tour whose primary surface IS hardcourts — had noticeably fast surfaces? If processed through the prism of individual matchups, Nadal might have lost at times. However, if he knew he had to hit bigger — something Nadal definitely did at the 2010 U.S. Open, which might have been his best start-to-finish performance at ANY non-Roland Garros major tournament he played — Rafa probably would have been able to make the various adjustments needed to succeed.

Moreover, Rafa probably would have made those adjustments and, as a result, shaved many hours of court time — hardcourt time on those knee joints — off his odometer. He might have lost a few more matches in 2011 or 2013, but he might have won more matches in recent years and might not have had quite as much wear and tear on his body.

All the members of the ATP Big 3 own complicated careers and resumes which deserve extended examination. Rafael Nadal’s complications aren’t necessarily greater than those of his two celebrated peers, but they can be easy to miss below the surface…

… and below the speed of the surfaces of the courts on which he has played.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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