The talk has all been of their rivalry, of the 21 matches they have played, of the 17 finals they have contested, of the balance of power on clay and on grass, and of the hopes for a fourth final at Roland Garros.
The debates have raged about whether Roger Federer, though now with a French title to his name, can ever hope to beat Rafael Nadal in the crucible of Philippe Chatrier.
Until their careers are over, however, the measure of each against the other cannot be made. Until then, their achievements stack up inexorably, tracking the greats who have gone before them.
At 2010’s French Open, there are targets aplenty, records that could fall, more landmarks they might achieve. Many of these are against men who have closed the book on their own records.
For Federer, it is invariably Pete Sampras. For Nadal, it is as often Bjorn Borg. For both it is Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, and, of course, each other.
There is one very old record that Roger and Rafa could take together, should they both reach the final at Roland Garros.
The have met seven times in a Grand Slam final, the same number of times that Bill Tilden faced Williams Johnston in the 1920s. No other pairing has met as often.
Now that is illustrious company. And it seems appropriate that these two 21st century men should inherit together.
There is one nice round figure looming that Federer will reach if he wins just three matches at Roland Garros: 700 Tour match wins. He would be the 10th man to do so.
He has some way to go to catch those above him. While Boris Becker, Ilie Nastase and Sampras are in striking distance—713, 724 and 762 respectively—the top scorers are out of sight. Lendl has 1,070, and top of the pile is Jimmy Connors with 1,222.
As Federer trims his schedule to focus on the more significant tournaments, his chances of reaching those exalted heights seem to diminish. But, when it comes to Grand Slams, the story is different.
This is Nadal’s chance to draw level with possibly the only man who can claim to be Nadal’s equal on clay. Borg has twice won the French Open without dropping a set, in 1978 and again in 1980.
Nadal has already achieved that once, in 2008—Nastase is the only other man to do so.
On the form Nadal has shown coming into Roland Garros, and with the carefully paced schedule he’s followed, this year more than most could give him the chance to sweep aside all competition in straight sets.
Then he would stand alongside Borg in one more clay record.
If Federer reaches the French semifinals, he will achieve 200 Grand Slam match wins, and that takes him within three wins of a lesser known Sampras record: 203 Slam wins.
That seems almost certain to fall at Wimbledon, though Federer will have to continue his winning ways into 2011 to reach the next milepost.
Indeed he cannot reach Agassi’s 224 before next year’s Roland Garros, and only then if he wins all the Slams in between!
Here’s another record that both Nadal and Federer have in their sights, but this time it’s all or nothing. The achievement by the one will mean deprivation for the other. It is the coveted No. 1 ranking.
Admittedly, Novak Djokovic is in this race too, but realistically, it is between the two who have shared the top two spots for just 20 or so weeks short of five years.
If Federer reaches the semifinals, he will remain No. 1 after Roland Garros. But if he falls short of that target, Nadal can become No. 1 by winning.
Nadal’s been there before, and with so few points to defend in the coming months, there’s every prospect that he will, sooner rather than later, be there again.
Federer’s most publicized task, of course, is to hold on to his No. 1 ranking until the end of the French Open.
He is guaranteed to remain at the top for 285 weeks—the half way stage of the tournament—but to seal the all important 286 weeks, the Sampras benchmark, Federer has to reach the semifinals. If he does that, the deal is done even if Nadal or Djokovic go on to win the title.
If Federer fails to stay at No. 1, his task of regaining the top ranking, for this year at least, looks very daunting. He has lots of points to defend between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and Nadal has very few points to defend during the same period.
All this could affect the end of 2010, when Federer might hope to equal one more Sampras record: the number of times he ends the year as world No. 1.
Federer is currently tied with Connors on five. Sampras is the only man to have done it six times.
Amid all the permutations of points between Roger and Rafa, one thing remains inviolable. Federer’s record for consecutive weeks as No. 1, 237, almost four and a half years, stands like a monument to be admired but not touched.
The bottom line, of course, is to win this prestigious event outright, and such a win would be especially sweet for Nadal. It would take him one step nearer the ultimate accolade: to equal Borg in French titles.
Nadal has four. A win next week would take him to within one of Borg’s record six. It is surely just a matter of time.
On the way to new records at Roland Garros, Federer could also stack up the figures on the ones that he already holds.
If he reaches the semifinals, his consecutive streak of Slam semis reaches 24. It would take him to 26 Slam semis in total, equaling Agassi in third place.
If he reaches the final, it would be his 23rd time. That’s four clear of the next man, Lendl.
If he wins the French Open 2010, it would be his 17 Slam: three clear of the next man, Sampras.
And if he needs any more incentives, he can always look to the women’s records. Even with the 2010 French title, he would still need one more major to equal Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova!
This is, for the time being, Nadal’s big one. It’s his equivalent to Federer’s Grand Slam—until he too has another shot at that himself.
And he could achieve this unique record in less than two weeks’ time with victory at Roland Garros: the “Clay Slam.”
Nadal comes into the French Open this year with a one-off achievement to his name already. In winning the Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid Masters, he completed the triple crown of all three clay Masters titles in one season.
The achievement, should he win in Paris, would be unprecedented: three Masters trophies and a Grand Slam, on the most physically demanding of surfaces, in the space of just seven weeks.
And it is, most experts will concede, within touching distance.
It’s the Holy Grail of tennis, all four major titles won consecutively in a single 12 months.
Had Federer won the five-set thriller at Flushing Meadows last September, he would have achieved it with this year’s Australian Open victory, for he had his first French title in the bag.
As it is, Federer has once more to climb the mountain of Roland Garros—and more pertinently, Nadal—to have a chance.
It’s a rare feat, the Grand Slam, achieved by rare tennis players. In the Open era, indeed since the Second World War, only one man has achieved it—Rod Laver—and he didn’t have to do it on three different surfaces.
Federer would surely derive the ultimate satisfaction from joining the only woman to have made this iconic record in the Open era, Steffi Graf.