Roger Federer's third-round loss at the Madrid Open derailed his quest to improve his standing on clay.
But even if Federer never wins another clay-court match the rest of his career, his legacy is in tact. He remains perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time.
Kei Nishikori defeated Federer, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2. It's the second consecutive tournament that Federer has played in which he failed to reach the semifinals. He lost to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells.
It's still shocking when Federer goes out of a tournament before the semifinals. We may need to get accustomed to that.
The whole surface superiority debate in tennis is odd. Tennis is the only major sport where athletes are asked to prove their worth by playing on surfaces completely foreign to the turf they learned the game on.
Still, when fans debate the greatest players of all times, they check to see if they've won on all three surfaces and all four Grand Slams. If so, how many times?
Federer has won 17 slams and has 76 titles. He has eclipsed his childhood idol, Pete Sampras, in nearly ever category.
To offset Federer's achievements on grass and hard courts, Nadal would have to win a few more times at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He's certainly capable, although it will be difficult because Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have superior skills on those surfaces.
Where Nadal separates himself is his 92.9 winning percentage on clay, the surface he grew up on. Meanwhile, Djokovic only has an above 80 (81.5) winning percentage on hard courts.
Clay courts require more patience, not necessarily better skills. Sara Errani, whose serves are often slower than 70 mph, is a Top 10 WTA player largely because she excels on clay. Ranked No. 7, this year she has 32 doubles faults to four aces.
After a surprise run to the French Open finals last year, Errani catapulted from No. 21 into the Top 10. Weeks later she was on the wrong side of a golden set. She didn't win one point in an entire set against Yaroslava Shvedova at Wimbledon.
Federer clearly can play on clay. He has 10 clay-court titles. Not dominating on clay just means it's not his best surface.
Twenty years from now, the debate over whether Federer is the greatest player in tennis history will hinge on his game, not one surface.
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