The more things change, the more things stay the same, say the French. That sums up the tennis scene on the eve of Wimbledon. The English championship still rates as the most prestigious tennis championship, either because of, or in spite of, the fact that grass is now an oddity in tennis.
Hardly anyone grows up on the surface, or emphasizes it, given the shortness of the season, and the fact that only one of the four majors occurs on the slippery surface. That would suggest that surprises can happen here, since no one can claim to be fully at home on it in the way that Nadal thrives on the clay.
Yet it's hard to see upsets happening this year, on either the men's and women's sides. Each draw features two players head and shoulders above the others in temperament, skill, experience, and results; all of which creates a deep inner confidence that may be the most precious quality of all, barring physical injury.
On the men's side it's obviously all about Federer and Nadal. It begins and ends with them. They are both so good and so consistent that it's almost beside the point to ask commonplace questions like "Who's playing better at the moment" or "Who's got the momentum?"
Take the consistency barometer. Federer has reached twenty semi-finals of majors in a row? That's beyond astounding--that's Dimaggioesque for quality control, and for the mental toughness required on those dreary days in early round matches when one lacks one's A game, yet finds a way to grind out a victory.
And though Nadal cannot match that record, when is the last time that any sport featured such a rivalry of numbers one and two for five years and counting, which is what we're now up to with these two. They're on the mountain top all by themselves, fighting it out. How will this bout go?
There are a few things to think about as we wait. First, Nadal's health. It's hard to see him being 100 percent, but what will that mean? Look what he did to Federer in five sets in Australia even after Verdasco pushed him to five taxing sets the day before.
Nadal is as mentally and physically as tough as they come. Never underestimate him. Soderling's victory showed the way to beat him. One must serve like Sampras and stroke like Agassi, strong and deep and consistently. One must live and die on the offensive.
Can anyone do that for up to five sets? He won last year because he improved his serve and his volley, to boot. And Federer? No one except Nadal has come close to beating him at Wimbledon for six years. The one "weakness" in his game is that he doesn't volley enough.
He doesn't usually have to—his strokes are so good that they've changed the way we think about frontcourt/backourt and offense/defense. That's true for both of these guys. Against Nadal, even on Federer's beloved grass, he must come to net more, pressure Nadal's serve more, and serve and volley more.
It's hard to factor in intangibles like motivation, mindset, momentum. In Australia we winced as Federer said in effect of Nadal, "He's my daddy." It was hard to imagine him turning things around, either mentally or on the court. Then came Madrid, then Paris, then Nadal's knees.
It doesn't take a shrink to sense that the French victory knocked a giant boulder from Federer's shoulders; he can relax now that he's got the career slam and have renewed confidence that he will soon break Sampras' record. And he lacks the pressure of a Wimbledon streak to keep up, unlike last year. No wonder that Borg picked him to reclaim the trophy. Does all that translate into anything, particularly confronting a warrior like Nadal?
Do other players deserve to be mentioned? Absolutely. Fine players like Djokovic and Murray can and may make a serious run. One of these days someone's going to crash the party of the big two at a major; it happened last year for both of the "other two" and may again. But neither Djokovic or Murray has ever beaten either of the big two in a slam final, and that's a big hurdle to surmount.
So let's forget about handicapping the race and offer some unsolicited advice to the forlorn many--all those players not named Federer or Nadal. Remember first principles: On grass it's about the serve—it opens everything else up—one's strokes and one's confidence in attacking the other guy's serve. As John McEnroe said recently, only by serving and volleying will any other player be able to force either Federer or Nadal out of their comfort zone and maybe take them down.
For the women I confess to much less enthusiasm. It's the Williams sisters and everybody else—forgive the politically incorrect adage of thinking of them as the equivalent of "men among boys."
Venus is a different player here—it's in her head that she's the best even against her more talented and consistent sister. It's the big sister's to lose. If Sharapova is healthy maybe she can put up a fight, but no one else among the myriad Russians has the serve to put anyone else on the defensive. And no one since Henin's departure believes they can consistently beat the Williams on either grass or hard courts.
Enjoy these historic rivalries—they don't come around often and we shouldn't take them for granted. They're for the ages.
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