Wiedmer: Let us enjoy the twilights of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal while we can

Wiedmer: Let us enjoy the twilights of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal while we can

June 11th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Rafael Nadal celebrates after beating Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to win the French Open on Sunday in Paris. Nadal won the tournament for the 11th time in as many appearances in the final.

Photo by Michel Euler

Rafael Nadal celebrates a point during the French Open men's singles final Sunday in Paris. Nadal beat Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to win the tournament for the 11th time in as many appearances in the final. It was the 32-year-old Spanish star's 17th Grand Slam title overall.

Rafael Nadal celebrates a point during the French...

Photo by Alessandra Tarantino

The key takeaway from Rafael Nadal's 11th French Open crown in 11 appearances in the final wasn't that he won, preposterous as that stat is. It was what he said to runner-up Dominic Thiem after his straight-sets victory Sunday in Paris.

Noted Nadal, the undisputed King of Clay: "I am sure you will win here in the next couple of years."

Just maybe not next year, because the 32-year-old Nadal isn't planning on going anywhere other than moving a bit closer to 36-year-old Roger Federer in total majors won.

While he still trails the Swiss Maestro 20-17 in that competition, if Federer finally starts acting his age, there's no reason Nadal can't catch him before the Spaniard retires three or four years down the road.

You'd think the young guns such as Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian, would have begun to topple Federer and Nadal here and there by now. Instead, the Dynastic Duo appear to not so much be getting older as getting better. Nadal's latest French title on the red clay of Roland Garros means he and Fed have evenly split the past six Grand Slams, dating back to the 2017 Australian Open, which Federer won over Nadal.

Since that time, Nadal has captured the 2017 French Open and 2017 U.S. Open while Fed has also added the 2017 Wimbledon crown and this year's Aussie title to his trophy case. Let Federer win Wimbledon in early July, and you'd have to believe these two ageless rivals will almost certainly head to the U.S. Open as co-favorites.

How is this possible?

For starters, both these guys aren't just pretty good, they're gre-e-a-a-t, as Tony the Tiger — not to be confused with Nadal's former coach, Uncle Toni — used to bellow on Frosted Flakes commercials.

Regardless of whether or not Nadal ultimately overtakes him in majors, Federer will go down as the most graceful, versatile, artistic champion ever. There's a reason why he led all professional athletes in endorsement money earned last year. He's the most popular, most marketable, least polarizing sports star on the planet.

But despite owning five straight wins over Nadal, Federer still trails him by a fairly wide margin overall (23-15), though 13 of those Nadal victories have come on clay. Federer has the edge on both hard courts (11-9) and grass (2-1).

Still, as majestic and mesmerizing a talent as Federer is, Nadal often seems cut of tougher emotional cloth when healthy. With bulging biceps and withering glare, he often seems to overwhelm his opponent as much emotionally as physically. Consider this stat: When winning the opening set in any French Open match, Nadal is 77-0.

If you're arguing for versatility, Federer is the clear winner. His 20 titles include one French, eight Wimbledons, six Aussies and five U.S. Opens. He holds the records for most Wimbledon titles and most U.S. Open titles, and he shares the mark for most Aussie championships.

Yet Nadal also has a 6-3 lead on Federer in head-to-head meetings in majors. And while the bulk of Nadal's résumé is built on clay, he's one of only eight players in history to have won all four majors at least once.

A single quote to perfectly describe their differences in style came from 1987 Wimbledon winner Pat Cash this past weekend.

"Rafa is like a Ferrari: You hear him coming around the corner like Formula One, but it will break down from time to time," Cash said to Tennis World USA. "Federer is like an electric car: You don't hear him, he's like a flash, that fast."

It could all end in a flash, of course, this most amazing and timeless of sports rivalries. Nadal has battled injuries much of his career and Federer, who will turn 37 in August, has understandably begun to suffer the ravages of time the past six or seven years. His have rarely been as serious as Nadal's, but a balky back has rendered him almost mortal at times.

Fed certainly still has the game to win a ninth Wimbledon crown in July, and if his back holds up, he'll be no worse than the third or fourth choice to win the U.S. Open, along with Nadal, Thiem and Juan Martin del Potro, should the latter not have to play Nadal and Fed back-to-back.

Nor should anyone assume Nadal won't catch Federer for the most majors. He had tears in his eyes after Sunday's French win, despite being a prohibitive favorite from the start of the tournament.

"Of course, I have ambition," he said when asked about catching Federer. "I have passion for what I am doing."

But he also said this: "You can't be frustrated if somebody have more money than you, if somebody have a bigger house than you, if somebody have more Grand Slams than you. You can't live with that feeling, no? You have to do your way."

For more than a decade, both Federer and Nadal have done it better their own ways than any other male who has played their sport. One may roar and one may purr, one may menace and one may mesmerize, one may grind while the other may glide, but they both entertain and energize a sport that would be sorely lacking without them.

As if to downplay the Federer rivalry, Nadal said Sunday, "Let me enjoy this title."

May we all be fortunate enough to enjoy their diverse genius for at least one more year, if not a couple.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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