Rafael Nadal obliterated the competition on his way to a record 10th French Open title. Roger Federer, after his hiccough against Tommy Haas in Stuttgart, brushed aside his first-round opponent to start his campaign for a 9th title at the Gerry Weber open in Halle, Germany. Federer’s feat was accomplished while some of the toughest players on tour – world number one Andy Murray, French Open finalist Stan Wawrinka, and last year’s Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic – crashed out in the opening round of London’s Queens Club tournament. Federer and Nadal, both of whom have won so much and been on tour for so long, are not fading. They are playing some of the best tennis of their careers and sit comfortably in the number 1 and number 2 spots in the singles race; the ranking that charts performance in a calendar year. The fine form both have displayed is unquestionable, but their rampant success is complicated by the underwhelming performance of two of their greatest rivals: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Can Federer and Nadal’s current domination be attributed to the lack of competition in the rest of the field, or have these two great champions risen above their peers once again?
The Case for Federer
Novak Djokovic has been the thorn in Roger Federer’s side at major tournaments. Three of Federer’s last five grand slams ended in a defeat at the Serb’s hands. No other player consistently beat Federer in 2014 and 2015. If Djokovic had not reached his unplayable heights, Federer likely would have won Wimbledon in both years, and it is hard to imagine another player challenging him seriously in the 2015 US Open final – a final he reached without dropping a set. But it is important to remember that, while he fell short at the majors, Federer was also the only player who consistently beat Djokovic during his best seasons on tour. The Federer of 2017 is also not the Federer of 2015. He takes the ball earlier, hits it harder, and plays more freely. Thousands of words have been spilled already about what happened to the Federer backhand during his six-month break from the tour. It’s a new weapon so powerful it saw him through to an Australian Open title against Nadal who has gleefully picked that shot apart for a dozen years.
Murray, for his part, has not managed to beat Federer since returning from back surgery in 2014. Their meetings in 2015 in the semifinals of Wimbledon and the Western and Southern Open were straight sets victories for Federer. If Murray came up against the current version of Federer it is hard to imagine that he would stand a chance. Murray’s best tennis did not come until the latter half of 2016 when he rose to take the year end number one ranking. His match up against Federer has, however, become a one-sided affair. The matches are almost always high quality, hotly contested affairs, but Federer has found a way to win in recent years.
Big four challenges aside, Federer has also bested his countryman Stan Wawrinka, and a red-hot Nick Kyrgios. No one, not even a rejuvenated Nadal, who Federer beat on three separate occasions, could stop him from mopping up the three biggest hard court trophies of the year so far.
The Case for Nadal
Nadal has shown only one weakness so far this year: Roger Federer on hard courts. Other than the Swiss, no player has consistently challenged Nadal. Like Federer, Nadal was sidelined with injury for much of the 2016 season. His return in 2017 was almost as spectacular. Never as comfortable on hard courts as on his preferred clay, Nadal still reached the finals of a grand slam and Masters 1000 displaying the kind of confident, consistent tennis that had been missing from his game since 2014. The surface switch brought a return of the Nadal of old. He won historic 10th titles at three tournaments including the French Open. The way in which he battered the field into submission at Roland Garros deserves acknowledgement. He obliterated every player he faced including Stan Wawrinka. The shell-shocked Swiss struggled to win a game in the final set, unable to find a way through Nadal’s aggressive baseline game.
Is Nadal the player he was ten years ago? No. He’s significantly slower around the court, however, he also hits the ball harder, serves with greater accuracy and variety, plays with more aggression, and has an improved backhand. The inability of any player to mount a serious challenge to him during the 2017 clay season should be an indication of his level.
The greatest challenge to Federer and Nadal has not come from their traditional nemeses, Murray and Djokovic, but from the champions of tomorrow. Federer’s toughest match of the year was against Nick Kyrgios, a mercurial player who, when fully dialed in, can use his natural talent and booming serve to devastating effect against anyone. If he stays mentally strong and physically healthy, Kyrgios could be a Wimbledon future champion.
The most consistent rivalry of the hard court season was Federer and Nadal’s. Though Nadal is not a natural hard court player, he displayed exceptional tennis to reach the Australian Open and Miami Open finals beating strong competition along the way. Federer, who had not previously won three consecutive matches against Nadal has won all three of their meetings in 2017.
The rivalry of the clay court season was between Nadal and Dominic Thiem, a young man many expect to win at least one French Open title in his career. Their three meetings were split 3-1 in favor of Nadal. The one loss to Thiem was Nadal’s only loss on clay in 2017 and it came against a power-hitting young player almost a decade his junior.
The absence of Djokovic and Murray from the latter stages of big tournaments has not meant a lack of competition for Federer and Nadal. Both have displayed some of the best form of their respective careers on their preferred surfaces, putting up unreal numbers on hard and clay courts. Some commentators may try to attribute their rampant success to a lack of competition, however, it is hard to imagine even peak Murray and Djokovic standing a chance against the 2017 versions of Federer and Nadal. With 18 and 15 majors to their names, these men are indisputably the greatest champions of the open era, and both are writing new chapters of tennis history every time they step on court. Should their early-year form hold, it is likely fans will see Federer and Nadal, deservedly, competing for the world number one ranking.