Rafael Nadal Often Measured Through a Roger Federer-Centric Lens
The ease with which Rafael Nadal cut through Tommy Robredo and the rest of the players he's faced thus far at the 2013 US Open seems almost unfair.
Nadal has played so well this summer that he is starting to look as dominant on hard courts as he’s historically been on clay.
The Spaniard hasn't had his serve broken a single time on route to the semifinals of the 2013 U.S. Open. In the quarterfinals, he faced only one break point—which he subsequently saved.
Despite Nadal's dominance off clay this year, one still has to wonder just how long this player will have to live in the shadow of past greats.
Although Nadal has delivered such an innovative approach to the top levels of the sport, it's arguable that his distinctive style is being lost in translation because of imperfect comparisons to other players.
Players that barely resemble Nadal.
A perfect example of this is illustrated by the popular characterization of Rafael Nadal as a "match-up problem" for Roger Federer.
Use of the phrase in that particular context is about as far off the mark as Christopher Columbus was when he landed on North America while shooting for Asia.
Framed in this manner, "match-up problem" is a not-so-subtle way of describing Federer’s troubles with Nadal as "technical" in nature. Inferring somehow the high-bouncing spin Nadal generates off his forehand is too much for the one-handed backhand of Federer to handle.
In this context the word "technical" also sounds a lot like the word “unfair.”
The worst part of this revisionist phrasing is that it unquestionably detracts from the sensational drama that characterized their matches and instead attempts to dismiss this epic rivalry as a some sort of predictable afterthought.
At minimum, it’s an incomplete way of framing what many people call the most competitive rivalry in tennis history.
Even worse, it muddles the waters in understanding Nadal as a unique player, because it forces the understanding of his game through a Federer-centric lens.
In his article for the The New York Times Magazine titled "Roger Federer Can Still Get His Game Face On," Michael Steinberger provides an excellent example of how Nadal is often miscast within a Federer-dominated world.
Steinberger says of their rivalry: "Nadal's cross-court forehand is difficult for anyone to handle, but it is practically Kryptonite for players who rely on a one-handed backhand."
Steinberger sums up a couple sentences later by saying: "All these factors might suggest why he (Nadal) has amassed a dominant 21-10 record against Federer, one of the few remaining players on the tour with a one-handed backhand."
It's puzzling why Steinberger first tells us that Nadal's forehand gives every player problems on their backhand side, but then restricts the breadth of his dominance to only Federer.
Nadal has a winning record against every player he has faced on more than three occasions except for Nikolay Davydenko, with whom he is 5-6 against. Including only elite players, Nadal has a winning record against every single one.
Based on these facts, a more accurate statement would have been to say that all these factors suggest why Nadal has amassed a dominant record against virtually every player he's ever faced.
Carving out a special designation for Federer and his one-handed backhand seems not only extraneous but also misleading.
Watching Nadal play, it’s fairly obvious that he usually attacks his opponent's backhand in order to push him off the court before unleashing a nasty inside-out forehand winner to the open space.
Why do we need additional "help" or "clarification" in understanding how Nadal defeats Federer as opposed to everyone else?
And do the limitations of a one-handed backhand speak to a “technical problem” for Federer or “technical advantage" for Nadal?
It all depends on the lens and perspective through which one assesses the situation.
The fact is the entire men's professional tour faces a "match-up problem" with Nadal.
Nadal is an ambidextrous player trained to strike a forehand with his less-dominant left hand that produces so much torque on the ball that it literally explodes off the ground on his opponent's side of the court.
Should other ambidextrous players follow in Nadal's footsteps?
Combining this vicious weapon with Nadal's never-die attitude and fine defensive capabilities creates almost the perfect player. A veritable fortress of offensive and defensive capabilities.
When Nadal consciously presses his opponents by standing closer to the baseline and taking balls earlier, as he has on hard courts in 2013, his game moves from dangerous to life-threatening.
Observers that continue to stress how “badly” Nadal matches up with Federer or any other individual opponent are seeing the trees, but missing the forest.
In a world of comparisons, it is of course nearly impossible to evaluate Nadal's career in a vacuum.
However, at some point it is necessary to separate Nadal from current and former legends of the game and recognize just how unique his personal development has been.
When coach Toni Nadal and Rafa originally partnered to start building his career, they made the risky decision to have him use his left-hand in hitting a forehand.
That experiment has been a resounding success.
Of course this atypical approach has been harder to quantify—there's so little to compare it with in tennis history.
In better understanding Nadal's impact on the game, it would serve the sport and its participants to more frequently examine him through a clear lens, and not one that is distorted by preconceived biases.
As Steinberger illustrated, looking at Nadal through a Federer-centric lens doesn't necessarily reveal the complete picture.
At the end of the day, it's probably a better idea to simply try and enjoy Nadal for what he truly is—a distinct player with one of the rarest and most innovative styles the game has seen.
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