A matter of time

2013-09-14 00:00

RAFA Nadal and Tiger Woods have one thing in common, apart from being scarily proficient at what they do for a living. This is that they are each within five titles of becoming known as the best that has ever played their respective sports.

In Tiger’s case, he has been stuck on his number of major victories for 273 weeks, whereas Rafa has barely touched down on the last of his, which was the U.S. Open title that he claimed last Monday after a gruelling battle against Novak Djokovic.

Of these two great athletes, the smart money is on Nadal to reach his summit before Woods, whose ability to match Jack Nicklaus’s tally of 18 Major titles, let alone overtake him, received a setback with his failure to make any progress in 2013. At 27 years of age, Nadal has more prime time on his side despite the physically demanding nature of top-class tennis.

Nadal’s resurgence during this year was not foreseen by anyone, including those in his own camp. This time last year he had disappeared from the tennis courts as he sought to recover from repairs to his battered knees. There were some who predicted that he was finished as a top player and that the immediate future of tennis would be dominated by Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Others thought that Nadal would confine himself to playing on clay where he has been all but unbeatable for the past decade. Such thoughts seemed to have been confirmed by his early exit from Wimbledon as little as 10 weeks ago. Since then, however, Nadal has not been beaten on the ATP tour where he has won three titles on the very hard courts that were thought to have been too damaging to his suspect knees.

Nadal lost just one set throughout the U.S. Open, which was the kind of dominance that Roger Federer exerted over his opponents during his very best years. This suggests that provided Nadal is able to husband his physical resources over the next three years he ought to be able to win three French Opens, at least two hard court slams and probably one Wimbledon before he turns 31, which was the age at which Federer won his last, and almost certainly final, grand slam title. This would take Nadal past the Swiss maestro.

Federer had won 13 of his 17 slam titles before he turned 28. This is precisely the same number possessed by Nadal. This implies that the going became tougher for Federer in his late 20s, but this was probably due more to the emergence of Nadal and Djokovic than anything to do with his passing years.

On the evidence of last week’s U.S. Open there is a considerable distance between Nadal, in his present form, and the rest. If anything, Nadal is a better player than he was prior to his enforced sabbatical. His serve is stronger, his volleying is sharper and he has acquired the ability to finish off points quicker than in his earlier days when he ran his opponents into the ground.

Djokovic remains the one player capable of upsetting Nadal but once again, as at Wimbledon in July, he had the strength in his legs drained out of him by an arduous U.S. Open semi­-

final. Unlike the present version of Nadal, and Federer at his best, Djokovic does not have the ability to shorten points successfully against the better players. This shortcoming condemns him to more enervating five-set matches than Nadal endures.

As far as Murray is concerned, I cannot see him posing a problem to Nadal if the Spaniard continues in something like his present form. It was revealing that Murray complained of mental exhaustion following his loss at the U.S. Open. Federrer and Nadal have accumulated 30 grand slam titles between them over the last decade and never once have we heard either of them complaining of mental fatigue and Murray did not even play at this year’s French Open before he won the Wimbledon title that so “fatigued” him.

Murray is a fine tennis player but the Lendl medicine has worn off. At the U.S. Open he was back to the ungracious, complaining miserable son of Lady MacB that he has always been when things do not go his way.

One never knows when a new player will emerge to challenge a champion but Nadal’s horizon seems clear for at least a couple of years.

In contrast to Nadal, Tiger Woods is not short of opponents who have the ability to thwart his ambitions. Since Woods last won a Major title in 2008, there have been 19 different winners of 22 Major titles. Woods may be the undisputed number one golfer in the world but anyone in the world’s top 50 golfers and beyond is capable of winning a Major.

In favour of Woods achieving his goal is the fact that he probably has another 40 Majors in which he should be able to play with a genuine chance of winning. There have been signs, however, that the strain on his body has occasionally begun to affect his performances. Like Nadal, Woods has a dodgy knee and he will have to be careful about his general fitness as he grows older.

What Woods has to do is to win another Major title soon. I wrote earlier this year that the Masters represented his best chance in 2013 and that if he failed to win at Augusta he was unlikely to win elsewhere where the courses did not suit his eye. So it proved.

This means that the 2014 Masters may be one of his last chances to get things moving if he wants to catch the Nicklaus record of Major titles. Failure next April may render his ultimate target beyond his emotional capacity. Sadly for Woods, he has no real banker such as the French Open is for Nadal.

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