“Soldiers, from the top of these pyramids, forty grand slams are watching you”. It is not a question of diverting the famous sentence of Napoleon Bonaparte, but of paying homage to the monument of history of sport co-written by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The rivalry between the Swiss and the Spaniard is certainly the most significant of all, in a discipline which has nevertheless been nourished by duels between Borg and McEnroe, McEnroe and Lendl, Becker and Edberg or Sampras and Agassi. This clash is simply the most epic of all and it almost makes sense, ultimately, that the two men share the biggest slice of the pie.
But we can also paraphrase another quote, a little less prestigious than that of Bonaparte, and say, as in the film Highlander, that“there can only be one”. Between two immortals, there must be no tie. The very history of sport could not be satisfied with a draw, even if it is difficult to decide between the two men.
Martina Navratilova had achieved this feat once by stating that “Roger Federer is the greatest player in history but Rafael Nadal is the better of the two”. A brilliant formula which had the merit of satisfying the fans of both clans. Tied 20 titles everywhere, the sentence still holds. The first who will win the 21st will now be alone in the world because it has always been said, rightly or wrongly, that the Grand Slams would serve as justice of the peace to decide between the contenders for the throne.
No offense to His Majesty Federer, it is quite indicated that she will soon have to return her scepter. Long inaccessible, the eight-time winner of Wimbledon has seen, over the past few years, the Mallorcan inexorably nibble his delay. Like a mouse who would have the audacity to attack his Swiss Emmental slyly. At 39, and in anticipation after his right knee operation, does King Roger still have the weapons to defend his citadel?
Time, Nadal’s ally
Five years younger, Nadal knows that time is on his side. A true physical phenomenon, capable of making his game evolve in harmony with his body, the Spaniard has long wrung the necks of those who believed that his extremely demanding tennis style would break it before his age. Of course, there are some alerts, and sometimes even serious ones, but the Manacor bull always kicks with the same ferocity and nothing in his attitude shows the slightest sign of weariness, the slightest decline.
Cataloged as a pure landman in his early days, Nadal has proven for more than a decade that he can win on all surfaces, on all Grand Slams (one victory in Australia, two at Wimbledon and four at the US Open) . If a success in London today seems rather hypothetical because of the character so specific, and binding for the “old” joints of Nadal, nothing prevents to think that the latter may still raise a few cuts in Melbourne or New York.
Roland-Garros, record hunting ground
And then there is obviously this almost intangible factor: Roland-Garros. Rafael Nadal won 100 matches there for 2 losses. What more can be said ? Except that never has a player dominated a tournament so much, all eras and all surfaces combined, but it is so obvious. “Rafa” is in total osmosis with the earth, his game and what he is viscerally seem to have been created for this surface. He has such mastery, such a science of playing on ocher that he can still claim to reign there for a few years. Of them ? Three? Maybe five? One will be enough to put Federer in the rearview mirror.
All this is of course only projection and, in this equation with two unknowns, there is a third, and not the least. Even if he lost in the final this Sunday, a certain Novak Djokovic remains more than ever in the race. The youngest of the three has for him to be also the best on hard. Knowing that Melbourne and New York take place on this surface, it could eventually come to settle the debate. A debate that seems endless as these three dominated their time, but which will end well one day. And that day, maybe Nadal will contemplate the world from the top of his pyramid.