And the Australian Open Final is… Raphael Nadal vs. Roger Federer! No, there is not going to be a changing of the guard. No, Murray is not going to finally man up and win one. No, Djokovic is not going get over his string of illnesses and play the inspired tennis that he can play for more than one match. And no, Del Potro isn’t going have a come from behind win.
The only way anyone is going to upset Rafa/Rog cart is by hiring Tanya Harding to take out Rafa’s knees or Roger’s back. I guess there is a possibility that they’ll go out for dinner and get food poisoning or something, but if they’re healthy it’s going to the Rafa/Roger show once again.
Let’s start down the list, first, the long shots. Is there a possibility of a loooong shot winning the AO? No. All the long shots have been around for a while, guys like Jo-Willie, Monfils, and Ferrer, and at best they’ve had marginal success in Majors. The Majors are an entirely different beast, and some players seem to thrive at them while others wilt. The only guy that you could call a long shot with any kind of potential is Del Potro, but he’s not ready yet. Maybe by the US Open, but not here, not now.
How about a re-surging Nalbandian? Of all the players out there, other than top eight, he’s got a pretty good Slam track record. He’s only half a year older than Federer and if anyone, outside of the top eight, could pull a surprise upset it’d be David-he is an undeniably brilliant tennis player. But does anyone see that happening? He seems to love five set matches as no one seems to have more of them than Nalbandian. But that wears on you, so by the time he gets to the second week he’s already had some long matches.
What about Jo-Willie - one of my favorites to watch. But Jo-Willie is like an out of control bobsled going faster and faster doing some crazy moves until it launches off the course in a spectacular crash. Willie can beat anyone, but doing it over and over with the kind of physical demands that a Major puts on a body? I just don’t see it- again.
Rafa/Rog have a way of quickly getting through early matches, pacing themselves so they always peak at the right time. There is never a crash and burn in their game and that is incredibly important to sustaining over a two week period.
Maybe David Ferrer? Is he on anyone’s list to win the Australian Open? The Barclays showed his weakness against the top players.
The only long shot that’s got a real chance would have to be Roddick. Ironically, the very thing that gives him a chance is the also the reason why he probably doesn’t have a chance - his serve. It’s that bazooka that he carries into every match and has made him a crowd favorite for over ten years. But it is his dependency on that weapon that is hurting him now. Guys like Murray, Roger and Rafa can stand up his barrage and dodge that bullet, and though he has improved his other shots dramatically, he’s still not on par with the above mentioned three - unless they misfire just a little bit - then he’s got a chance.
Roger has an incredible read on Roddick’s serve, sure when it’s at its best Andy can maintain that bazooka for a long time but as we saw at Wimbledon a few years back Roger just wouldn’t go away.
The mighty duo have this ability to take anyone’s best shot and slowly turn it against them. They never seem to lose their edge in the big matches, and as Andy said after that epic Wimbledon final “I threw the kitchen sink at him, and then Roger went and got his tub.”
So how about Murray? Certainly he’s got the game, brilliant tactical movement, awesome serve, a back hand that can bring tears to your eyes - probably the best striker of the ball currently playing, and amazing fitness to boot. But he still acts like a kid, and kids don’t win Slams, men do. Murray can play aggressive tennis, and is as good as anyone when he does.
By nature though, he’s a pure defensive player, and when the momentum shifts against him he falls back into his defensive inclination. The top guys know they just have to hang with him pull a couple of tricks out of their hats, by returning the un-returnable, which Rafa and Roger do amazingly well, then Andy starts playing from his heels instead of his toes and then it’s just a matter of time before he starts to misfire.
Most past champions and number one’s in the world have been, by nature, aggressive players that learn restraint. It’s the rare number one that has been a defensive player that learns aggression. Rafa and Roger defend well but their games are built around aggression, and their ability to take it to the opponent when things aren’t going their way.
All of the greats have had an ability to turn things around when all seems lost. Federer, like Sampras before him, has the ability to serve his way out of 0-40 situations almost as though planned that way. Rafa is now adding that dimension with his improved serve, but more than that it’s Rafa’s ability to win tiebreaks with astounding consistency that breaks his opponents.
Nothing takes the wind out of your sails faster than fighting your way into a tiebreak and then getting smoked. Rafa has the highest tiebreak ratio in history. So even if your hold your serve that facts is always in the back of your mind. These are devastating psychological blows to an opponent and tend to make ones feet feel like someone poured cement into their shoes.
Can Djokovic do it again? Against a healthy Rafa and Roger, no way. Djokovic is just not a natural five set player; he has sustainability issues over the course of a two week Major. Sure he won once, taking out Roger when he had mono. But there seems to be a physical issue with his lungs.
There is no question Novak is hugely talented - a naturally graceful athlete. His serve is one of the best and one that most people would do well to copy for its easy motion and versatility. Then there’s that backhand. Actually, no shot seems beyond him. He’s certainly something special and in all a superb craftsman.
But Roger and Rafa thrive on the intensity of two week tournaments and five set matches. They have this ability to intensify their focus as matches go on. So where in a three set match Novak could pull out a victory by winning two out of three, winning three sets in a row is virtually impossible against Rafa or Roger. Once they get into the fourth set then fifth you’re entering their comfort zone, their feet stay light and their minds sharp. They never doubt themselves as most players do - why should they?
So maybe Robin Soderling can stop the dynamic duo? He can serve bigger than both of them, and has a forehand that he must have gotten in a deal at the crossroads. But for all his staggering ability and the capability to overpower both Rafa and Roger in these departments, his skills are fine tuned but maybe too tightly focused.
Rafa and Roger have the ability to adjust to conditions and playing styles. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” When you have as many weapons as the dynamic duo, you’re not going to get caught when someone is out serving you or throwing down forehand bombs. You mix it up, pick at the chinks and break open the opponent’s weaknesses. Roger is a master at picking apart the competition with his amazing array of shots and ability to hit winners from anywhere. He can prevent opponents from dictating to him and if he can’t nullify their game completely, he can make them feel they need to reach outside of their comfort zone to beat him, and that is all Rog territory.
But where Federer uses movement and subtlety to beat opponents, Rafa can throw down the smackdown. With his heavy handed shots he takes players’ legs from them and makes their arms ache with exhaustion.
Unlike Robin, who likes to pour down winners, Rafa uses tenacity and weight of shot. No one hits a heavier ball. They come in deep with so much spin that it takes just a bit more energy each time to return that ball, and because he’s not going for put-aways, it’s the culmination that starts to make your fingers tingle, your elbow hurt, and your lungs bellow for more air - and that pretty yellow ball just keeps coming back at you heavier and heavier each time until it’s just too heavy to return.
So maybe it’s Berdych’s time to take out a Slam, beating the dynamic duo? Tomas is a very clean back court striker of the ball. But he seems to have trouble adjusting to other players’ games - probably because it’s not something he has to do very often. But then we’re not talking about any tournament, we’re talking about one of the Slams, and two of the greatest ever.
Versatility is the problem for Berdych. As good and clean as he can hit the ball, and if he was in the laundry business we’d be calling him ‘Mr. Clean’ for his playing style, he doesn’t have the versatility to go five sets against Rafa or Roger. Of all the players mentioned, only Murray and Djokovic can possible match Rafa and Roger in variety of shots. Soderling, Roddick and Berdych all bring big weapons to the table, but no one brings the variety and versatility that the dynamic duo does to the game. It seems like every few months, Rafa adds some new shot to his arsenal. Last year, just what everyone needed to hear from Nadal was first, his ability to flatten out his forehand when needed, and then, like an anti-Christmas present, the players learned Rafa had a brand new 135 mph first serve - ain’t that special? He only won 8 majors without that weapon and now suddenly he’s bringing one of the biggest serves in men’s tennis to the game - fun stuff.
Of course Roger has always had versatility, even to the point that he was getting confused and was held back by the abundance of choices he had early in his career. Like Einstein flunking basic math, Roger couldn’t figure out simple shots. Well, they both straightened themselves out respectively.
So are there players who can beat Rafa and Roger? Sure, but rarely when the boys have five sets to rectify their mistakes. Few players think through their matches as well that Roger/Rafa. Most guys come into a match with a game plan. Hit to Roger’s back hand, keep the balls high. With Rafa, keep the balls low and away so he can’t get under them to create all that spin. But over the course of five sets, Roger/Rafa think their way into the match. They keep their mental strategy fluid adjusting to the competition. It is their mental games which is their greatest assets. Both these player are extremely tough mentally.
Roger and Rafa have games that are unique to them, but they share a number of qualities which make them almost unbeatable in majors. Endurance, speed, athleticism, versatility, mental toughness, self control, mental flexibility, self belief, conditioning and vast array of weapons.
So who’s going to beat Rafa and Roger? Maybe a car or a hit man, or kryptonite, but barring that, only each other, which is why we’ll have yet another Rafa/Roger Final.