Roger Federer: Why Gold at Olympics Won't Solve His Rafael Nadal Problem

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Roger Federer: Why Gold at Olympics Won't Solve His Rafael Nadal Problem
Julian Finney/Getty Images
Roger Federer is 2-6 against Rafael Nadal in Grand Slam Finals. Against all other opponents, Federer is 15-1.

If Roger Federer should win Olympic gold in singles than it would be wise to stow your foul weather gear within close reach.

The tidal wave of articles proclaiming Federer to be the "best ever" in the field of men's singles tennis will flood the internet faster than a Kim Kardashian wedding announcement. 

As we march towards what appears to be an inevitable Olympic tennis final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in London, it's difficult not to imagine Federer adding his first Olympic gold medal in men's singles tennis to his extensive trophy case back in Wollerau, Switzerland.  

That's not to say Mr. Djokovic won't have something to say on the matter.  

Djokovic's recent drubbing of Andy Roddick in the second round of the Olympics seemed like the tennis version of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back" statement in The Terminator.  

Certainly, with 17 Grand Slam titles and a freshly minted gold medal to his name, Federer may well earn that distinction.  

However, before casting a "greatest of all time" crown and planning a posh, Rolex-sponsored coronation ceremony, it might be in all of our best interests to save the celebration for a little while longer. 

Like for instance, until after all of the "big three" of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are retired. 

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Nadal consoles Federer after the 2009 Australian Open Final

While Roger Federer's list of achievements may be extensive, there is one particular segment of his career that suggests the "best ever" designation may be a bit premature. This asterisk on Federer's otherwise sterling resume is best known as Rafael Nadal

The Spaniard known as Rafa has had uncommon success against Roger during their extensive rivalry. 

To date, Nadal and Federer have played 28 official matches, in which Rafael is 18-10 against Roger overall, including 8-2 in Grand Slams.  

These Grand Slam tournaments are particularly interesting. 

While Nadal is perceived to be the "king of clay," he has in fact defeated Federer on all three unique surfaces during Grand Slam competition: clay, grass, and outdoor hard court. 

Federer, on the other hand, has only beaten Nadal on one surface during a Grand Slam competition—the grass at Wimbledon.

 

An even deeper dive into their rivalry reveals some even more startling numbers. 

Against players not named Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer is 15-1 in Grand Slam finals, virtually untouchable. This statistic is as impressive as it is astounding.

It took an inspired and historic effort by Juan Martin Del Potro under the lights in New York for him to become only the second person on earth to beat Federer in a Grand Slam final. 

Well done. 

While the Nadal-less record is hugely impressive, what does that mean for Federer's 2-6 record against Nadal in Grand Slam finals? 

Federer's overall results in Grand Slam finals transform from a godlike 15-1, to a much more human 17-7. 

That's a pretty amazing change. 

So amazing, that it might reveal the real reason Federer was reduced to tears after his defeat to Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open final. 

I'm sure at the time Federer was wondering what these statistics seem to bring in question today: How can Federer be so dominant against the field, but so mediocre against Rafael Nadal? 

The reasoning behind Nadal's ability to overcome Federer might fill a book, but certainly some portion of the answer must lay in factors such as mental toughness and competitive desire. 

That analysis might also be better left until after both players are retired.    

Despite Federer's victory at the 2012 Wimbledon Championships and subsequent return to the No. 1 ranking, recent meetings between the two players haven't changed the skew of their rivalry. 

Nadal recently beat Federer in the semifinals of the 2012 Australian Open, yet again on an outdoor hard court surface that many believe should favor Federer.  In fact, the last time Federer beat Nadal in a Grand Slam match was at Wimbledon in 2007—over five years ago. 

 

This is the real reason I suggest we wait to start planning the coronation ceremony marking Mr. Federer as the official king of tennis.  

Nadal is five years younger than Federer.  While his 11 Grand Slam titles are still far fewer than Federer's 17, he has plenty of time left to make up the difference.  Deciding the "best ever debate before all players have completed their careers would be like deciding the winner of a sprint before anyone has passed the finish line.   

Does it look like anyone else is going to win the French Open in the foreseeable future? 

Never mind that Nadal collected his 7th French Open title in the same year that Federer collected his 7th Wimbledon title, despite the obvious gap in their ages. 

Minus a much improved Novak Djokovic over the last 12 months—or several knee problems—the "best ever" distinction might have already started creeping in Nadal's direction. 

Let's not forget, Rafa is the youngest in the Open Era to complete the Career Grand Slam and is also the youngest of the two that have completed the Career Golden Slam—Andre Agassi being the other.

The latter a group Roger is hoping to join at the 2012 Olympics, not surpass.   

It's for these reasons that I think even discussing, much less awarding, the "greatest of all time" crown is a bit premature. 

I think that even the most zealous Federer fans would begrudgingly admit that if nothing else, Nadal's hard fought head-to-head record against Federer has bought him one courtesy—to wait and see how the Nadal and Djokovic finish their careers.

This is the only way to ensure a complete comparison of their careers and rivalries. 

And who knows, Novak Djokovic may overtake both of them before it's all said and done. 

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