March 18, 2022, 01.09 PM

Federer and Nadal’s popularity was in fact the main reason for the negative induction rubbing onto the opponents who beat them. For Novak, this was certainly a big shock to the person who was adored as funny, friendly, and had hardly any controversies to his name before reaching the top.

Analyzing the statistics is equally divisive. Nadal with 13 French titles and tens of other titles on clay is undoubtedly the Greatest Clay court player ever in the history of the game. If there is any record that might stand forever, it might be Nadal’s clay-court performances.

Federer with 8 Wimbledon titles comes in the elite category because Wimbledon is the Royalty of Lawn tennis. His unbeaten run of 237 weeks as the number 1 ranked player is also a record that will take superhuman effort to beat. The domination of Federer was so absolute that many analysts would actually doubt the class of his opponents. That is not a fair observation because outclassing the opponents was the essence of Federer’s game that makes tennis look easy and effortless.

The playing style

Such variation in styles, as shown by each of the Big Three, was unimaginable in the past. A lot of that can be credited to technology. Federer came as a fresh breath that combined grace and grit, tact and timing, precision and speed that caught the imagination of all, especially when he beat Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon 2001 in the match famously named “Change of guard”.

For a phenomenal talent like Federer, he started late for his Grand Slam scorecard as he was almost 23 when he won his first Wimbledon on July 9, 2003. Nadal, on the other hand, won his first French Open just two days after his 19th birthday, whereas Novak was a few months short of his 21st birthday when he won his first Australian Open.

While Federer is grace, Nadal has redefined the top spin forehand that has unsettled most of his opponents, forcing them into mistiming their shots. Rafa’s forehands seem like looping slow returns to the viewer, but the spin has decimated his opponents as mere mortals. A bagel for Novak in the 2020 French Open final stands testimony to that. His never say die approach has made his brand of tennis a unique feature that will be adopted by many players in coming years.

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Novak on the other hand has redefined the art of service returns and capitalizes on the fact that a player completing the serve is hardly in a position to take advantage if the return is fast, precise and forces him to move rather than receive the return within a few feet of the center. This was the strategy used by Jim Courier to win against Stefan Edberg in the early 90s and by Andre Agassi against Boris Becker but seemed to have been forgotten till Novak made it his greatest weapon. Novak excels in returns and neutralizes the opponents’ advantage to a great extent, making him the only player to beat Rafa twice in the French Open, four times in Clay court finals, and in a streak of seven finals they played. Novak’s agility makes him cover ground faster and his shots while sliding enable him to keep still and execute better placement of winners.

If playing style were to be the sole factor to evaluate the Greatest, Federer would be the greatest and will perhaps continue to be the most graceful player for a long time. Style, however, is not the only factor and with a heavy heart, I have to keep the style as only one of the factors and give time to the other aspects so that a fair evaluation would be possible. That shall be done in the next edition of this article.

(Manoj Bhat, founder of SpIns Interactional School Surabaya and tennis spectator wrote this article. The views expressed in this article belong to the writer).

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