Nadal likely to catch Federer

Sport24 columnist Herman Mostert (File)
Sport24 columnist Herman Mostert (File)
Barring injury, Rafael Nadal should pass Roger Federer as the most decorated tennis champion in history.

After claiming his 13th major title by beating Novak Djokovic in the US Open final on Monday, the 27-year-old Nadal is now only four behind Federer’s all-time Grand Slam record of 17.

The way he is currently playing - in addition to the ageing Swiss’ steady decline this year - Nadal should equal and perhaps surpass his great rival at the top.

Nadal’s 2013 season only started in February after a seven-month injury layoff, an absence which saw him miss the 2012 US Open as well as the London Olympics and the Australian Open this year.

But he’s now won 10 titles since his comeback, a 60-3 match record and is yet to lose a match on hard-courts this year.

During this remarkable run he won an eighth French Open title and five ATP Masters titles, with his only hiccup being a shock first-round loss to unheralded Steve Darcis at Wimbledon, where the tight two-week turnaround between Roland Garros and London proved troublesome.

As for Federer, who is now 32, 2013 is by far his worse season since winning his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon 10 years ago.

He was ranked seventh at the US Open where he lost in the Round of 16 to Spain’s Tommy Robredo - a player who had never come close to beating him in 10 previous meetings.

The Swiss also entered the year’s final Grand Slam with his lowest ranking at Flushing Meadows since 2002, boasting only one tournament win in 2013 at a low-key grasscourt event in Halle, Germany.

He also suffered a shock second-round loss at Wimbledon - his earliest Grand Slam exit since winning his first major title there.

Federer's recent dip in form has left many questioning how long he could stay competitive at the summit of the game - as 32 is considered "old" in tennis terms.

And while it would be foolish to write Federer off completely, the fact remains he is clearly half-a-step slower than he was in previous years which means he is now dominated by more powerful and aggressive players.

The difference I have picked up in Federer’s game is he doesn’t possess that ability to simply break his opponents’ serve at will anymore - something he used to do with consummate ease.

Therefore - as I’ve often noticed in the last while - he struggles to hit back when falling behind in sets and his opponents have realised that.

As for Nadal, he now seems to have risen above his closest current rival, Novak Djokovic, having won six of their last seven meetings, including two in Grand Slams this year.
After Djokovic’s heroic 2011 season - when he won three majors and defeated Nadal in six finals - the 26-year-old Serb seems to have lost his magic touch. He has now lost four of his last five Grand Slam finals and his record in major showpiece matches reads: played 12, won six, lost six - a record far inferior to Federer and Nadal’s.

While Djokovic should win more Grand Slam titles, I don’t ever see him coming close to Federer or Nadal’s tally, while the only other current major contender, Andy Murray, has only two majors and is in a similar age bracket (26) as Djokovic and Nadal.

Djokovic may still be the current world No 1 according to the ATP rankings, but it’s clear Nadal is the best player on the planet.

His 2013 record speaks for itself, and while he will always frustrate the tennis purist with his sometimes boring defensive game which sees him retrieving balls as far back as 15m behind the baseline, he has improved his attacking game to such an extent that he has become the perfect all court player.

He is not only the King of Clay anymore, but can now also lay claim as King of Hard-courts.

He is also physically the strongest player on tour, and should he remain healthy, I see him eclipsing Federer in Grand Slams won in the next few years.

Therefore, in my mind, it’s only his dodgy knees that stand between him and passing the Swiss Maestro.

Tennis players rarely win Grand Slam titles after 30, so realistically speaking, Nadal has three, four good years left in him. That’s 16 Grand Slams - during which I’m sure Nadal would at least win four or five more times, provided he stays healthy and Federer doesn’t surprise all by adding to his tally.

Federer should console himself by the fact that he leads Nadal in one area often left forgotten by pundits and fans alike: The ATP World Tour Finals.

At the end of every year the best eight players in the world meet for one week in arguably the toughest tournament of the year in my view. Yes, it’s not best of five sets like the majors, but the winner plays five matches against only the world’s best in one week, unlike in the Grand Slams where top players often are only tested towards the latter stages.

Federer has won the year-end finals on six occasions, while Nadal is yet to register a win, with his best effort coming in a final loss to Federer in 2010. The slick indoor hard-courts are more favourable for the attacking Swiss, and the Spaniard has often also looked too worn down at the tail-end of seasons to really mount a serious challenge there.

So, whether Nadal breaks Federer’s Grand Slam record or not, at least the Swiss will always have the bragging rights for the tour finals, where he is also yet to lose to the Spaniard in four showdowns.

But when all’s set and done, there will be no doubt that the duo have taken the sport to new heights over the last decade.

Their rivalry has transformed the sport and both will rightly go down as two of the greatest players ever to grace a tennis court.

Herman Mostert works at Sport24 - and fancies himself as a bit of a tennis player and sports writer...

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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