Why Tennis Needs a Healthy Rafa Back

Akshay MadhavanContributor IJuly 6, 2009

With Roger Federer having been crowned almost unanimously by the greats of the game as the greatest tennis player of all time, Nadal fans, veteran tennis enthusiasts, and even casual fans (who like a little spice in their sport) are wondering, What Next?

That Federer has been dominant is beyond the realm of the subjective now. It is as clear as day as an objective fact could possibly be. And dominance is something that pales in all sports and is detrimental to the sport in more ways than one.

Nobody grudges Federer his success, let there be no mistake about that.

The man is a genius, a true one of a kind sportsman. The likes of which tennis hasn't seen in a long time. His style is unmatched in the long history of this game. There is no more aesthetically pleasing player to watch in the game (again, a subjective claim, but one almost unanimously agreed upon).

The man is a champion, humble, and pleasant, both in the locker-room and outside of it. He is mindful of the legacy of the sport and of his career in it. He understands his role as an icon in the sporting world and has been a responsible statesman for the game. He's won everything in sight and more, but one only wishes we could make it harder for him to do so.

His triumphs would only be sweeter and the sport and its audiences the richer for it. In this regard, there is no greater service Rafael Nadal could do to the game of tennis than to come back to the tour as fit as he can, and make it as hard as hell for Federer to do what he wants to do.

It has been made abundantly clear that, apart from Nadal, Federer has no equal on the tennis court. With his win yesterday, he became again in the eyes of everyone the best tennis player in the world (a title he had temporarily lost to Nadal in the last 13-14 months), and quite rightly assumed the No. 1 ranking too.

The rest of the field has been shown up as merely pretenders to the throne, with no semblance of consistency from Novak Djokovic or big game mentality from Andy Murray. Andy Roddick had to play the match of his life simply to go five sets and lose to a far from on song Federer.

All this leads everyone to believe that there is only one man who can do anything about the Federer juggernaut, and it is in the interests of us all that he come back to the game as quickly as possible.

Nobody should doubt Nadal's credentials for the job as champion beater. If there is one man who can make a match of it with Federer and challenge for each and every title and make this an interesting few years, it's him.

He has beaten Federer (more often than not) on all surfaces, and especially in the big matches. McEnroe once said he would chase Borg to the ends of the earth; Rafa has done much the same with Federer.

As one sports writer put it after the Australian Open Final, where Nadal beat Federer in the fifth set, “Rafael Nadal is not the No. 1 because Federer is having an off year. He is not the No. 1 because a champion is fading. He is No. 1 because he has taken on and beaten the best, time and again on the biggest stages tennis offers.”

Nadal may no longer be No.1 (which is probably how things should be as his manager Carlos Costa says, “Inside him, I don’t think anything has changed—he still thinks Federer is the best,”), and Nadal is comfortable being No. 2.

As a recent, lovely NYT article put it, "Nadal was a phenomenal No. 2. His No. 2-ness was heroic and inspirational, and he was known to mention it quite cheerfully in press conferences: “I’m not the best, but I am a very good No. 2 in the world.”

Nadal fans definitely don't mind him being No.2. Most true Nadal fans started supporting him simply because he was No. 2 in the world—the underdog and inspirational hard worker to take down the great and universally celebrated (with a lot of bandwagoners to boot) Federer who could do no wrong.

It is precisely this that has made Nadal everything that he is in the eyes of his fans. And now, all of tennis should want him to do it.

When Federer started his hell on the loose tear through men's tennis in 2004, people did not envision him getting to 15 so quickly, but soon it became obvious as to the dominance of the man.

For Federer fans, they have got all they wanted. Complete annihilation of his opposition in final after final.

For neutral observers, apart from the aesthetic quality of his game, it was getting tedious.

Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt were mere pretenders to Federer’s crown; a real challenger was needed and the world got one. Rafael Nadal fit that role perfectly. He raised the stakes for Federer and thereby legitimized his greatness by the sheer force of his challenge.

Every victory over Nadal was hard earned for Federer and as the rivalry was becoming legendary, the prism with which we began to view Federer’s greatness was unalterably shifted.

It is unusual in a sport for one supreme talent to face another in his own generation. Typically, an extraordinary talent has a lopsided career with very few challengers. We wish we had seen or could see legitimate challengers to Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, Valentino Rossi, Sergei Bubka, and now we want Michael Phelps to have one.

In Federer’s case we wished for it and got one.

Nobody will doubt that Nadal is Federer’s equal on the court. Perhaps not in terms of talent alone or in an aesthetic sense, but when the point is played, Nadal can match Federer every bit of the way.

This is extremely rare to see in sport, and we are privileged to see it happen.

For Nadal fans, it is an amazing story that their man has come from seemingly nowhere to heroically disturb and stymie, for sometime at least, Federer’s march to immortality.

In many ways, it is the ultimate achievement against the odds; the quintessential example of an underdog champion (though he can no longer be considered an underdog).

It is a phenomenal effort, and I do not believe there is a parallel anywhere else in the sports world. We have been witnesses to something extremely unusual and amazingly inspiring.

For Federer fans, while their man might well have 20 Grand Slams by now were it not for Nadal, they should welcome the Nadal challenge and accept it for what it is. It is a clarion call to Federer to raise his game even more, dig deep, stare adversity in the face, stomach the Nadal challenge and triumph, so as to cement his greatness and make each victory of his that much sweeter.

It will make him more human, his losses more tragic, and his achievements more heroic.

Many people have asked that if he cannot consistently beat his main rival in his own time, wherefore does he become the greatest player of all time?

Federer’s genius deserves this test, and we would be lucky to see him challenged.

Another writer had written this after the Australian Open Final : "After their effulgent Wimbledon encounter, much was spoken about how these two great athletes were by themselves reviving interest in the sport, especially here in the United States.

Many fans who had neglected tennis for so long had welcomed home their prodigal son of sports and were once again interested in its happenings. Surely, there has never been a duo who so represent tennis—or any sport—in such a fine manner.

And if that match seven months ago is indeed considered the greatest display of tennis in a century, then the post-match ceremony yesterday will certainly be remembered as the ultimate graceful nod to sportsmanship.

Federer's tears and Nadal's sincere embrace and words for his rival will only solidify and crystallize this brilliant period in tennis history. And it leaves us all begging for more, wondering what other gifts these two wondrous athletes will bequeath to future generations of tennis followers."

Let us hope we can get a healthy Rafa back to the game and have the rivalry back on track.

Indeed, it is the best thing that could happen to the sport.



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