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Break Point: How Rafa and Roger Regained their Crown

And what it means for the future of tennis

21st century tennis is often defined by its most vital rivalry and arguably the two greatest male players of all time, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But up until 2017, which has proved thus far to be one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory, neither Federer or Nadal had won a Grand Slam since Nadal triumphed once more at Roland Garros in 2014. Federer’s last major came at the US Open in 2012 meaning it had been half a decade since Federer had succeeded at a major.

In some ways it was understandable; Rafael Nadal had struggled to regain his form after a lengthy layoff with wrist and knee problems and Federer, who is known for his on-court fluidity, finally seemed to be succumbing to old age as a persistent back injury continued to hamper his polished style of play. For tennis fans who had watched this titanic rivalry develop over the best part of a decade, the inevitable decline of the sport’s poster boys still came as a shock. From 2004 to 2010, their combined dominance was incredible, with Federer and Nadal winning 24 of the 28 Grand Slams contested. On top of old age, further competition came from the peak years of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, as well as the occasional disruption from Stanislas Wawrinka.

“It would be cynical to call it lucky, but Federer and Nadal have been helped by an ever-growing injury list as the season has wore on.”

And 2017 seemed to be going in a similar direction. 2016 saw Djokovic claim two majors, whilst Murray won Olympic gold, Wimbledon and soared to the year-ending no.1 ranking. Meanwhile, Federer made two Grand Slam semi-finals and missed the French and US Opens and Nadal failed to make it past the fourth round of a major in 2016. But even as the slide was in full motion with seemingly no chance of a comeback, hope was reignited by the individual misfortunes of Murray and Djokovic in the run-up to the 2017 season. Murray clearly felt the force of his five-tournament win streak at the end of 2016, as he struggled to shake off the shingles and an elbow injury with the Australian Open beckoning (he ended up being knocked out in the 4th round). Djokovic’s problems were altogether different; he admitted to having personal issues at home during the summer of 2016 and after losing his no.1 ranking to Murray following the ATP World Tour Finals, he immediately split with his coach, Boris Becker. His hangover would too carry on into the first major of 2017, crashing out in the 2nd round of the Australian Open to world no.117 Denis Istomin.

Even then, the chances of Federer and Nadal meeting each other in the final seemed slim. Australia is Nadal’s weakest major, having only won the title once in 2009. Federer’s eventual triumph in Melbourne seemed even more unlikely; he had not played since Wimbledon in July, as he recovered from a knee injury. But Federer’s return to form was put down to this enforced break between July 2016 and January 2017 as well as a careful navigation of the gruelling tennis schedule. Federer missed the clay season, wary of Nadal’s unprecedented supremacy on the surface, and withdrew from much of the summer hard court season as a precaution. Still, Federer currently ties with Nadal and Alexander Zverev for the most titles this season so far with five. It’s a move that’s worked before; after a 7-month layoff, Nadal returned in 2013 to win 10 titles, including two slams and before his supreme 2016 season, Murray took a break from the game to undergo back surgery, looking far more comfortable upon his return.

As good as Federer and Nadal have been, much of their success must be attributed to the persistent injuries of Murray and Djokovic, and the consequential mental frailty. Murray looked set to thrive in the second half of the season following a run to the semi-finals at Roland Garros but a hip injury that has troubled him throughout his career limited him to a quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon and eventually forced him to pull out of the US Open completely. Djokovic suffered a similar fate; an elbow injury forced him to retire at Wimbledon and miss the US Open too. As for the chasing pack, the bloated schedule has been a far more prevalent antagonist in 2017. The likes of Nick Kyrgios and 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic have struggled throughout the year with injury whilst Kei Nishikori and three-time Grand Slam winner Stanislas Wawrinka, like Djokovic, have decided to call time on their seasons long before its conclusion. It would be cynical to call it lucky, but Federer and Nadal have been helped by an ever-growing injury list as the season has wore on.

“Nadal may be back at his best, or close to, but he certainly looks weathered by the injury battles of the last few years.”

However, after looking at his statistics for 2017, an argument could be made for Federer that he’s still at the peak of his powers. His first serve points win percentage remains at 80% – the same as his previous two seasons and an actual increase on 2013 and 2014. His return games win percentage sits at an impressive 26% too – equal to 2013 and 2014 and an increase on 2016. In addition to his encouraging numbers, Federer has added a much improved backhand to his game, more akin to his Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka. Nadal’s resurgence is noticeable for quite different reasons; his flaws and his appearance. Despite conquering at Roland Garros for the 10th time this season, Nadal suffered a shock loss at the Rome Masters to Dominic Thiem, a title he has won a record 7 times, as well as dropping sets to relatively easy opponents in Kyle Edmund and Fabio Fognini in Madrid, a title he has won 5 times (another record). Beyond that, now aged 31, Nadal looks much older than his rival Federer, aged a startling 36. Nadal’s once lion-like mane has receded, as have his rippling biceps. Nadal may be back at his best, or close to, but he certainly looks weathered by the injury battles of the last few years.

But by the predicted trajectory of a player’s longevity in tennis, especially those in and around the top 10, is the unexpected durability of players well into their 30s a hindrance or a bonus? On one hand, being able to enjoy once-in-a-generation players like Roger and Rafa continue to ply their trade ably with such ease and grace is a pleasure for fans of the sport and yet you can’t help but wonder whether the next generation, the likes of Zverev, Kyrgios and Thiem, are having their supposed peak years scuppered by the Big Four, who are now all in their 30s. What will be interesting to see in the opening months of the 2018 season is how the currently absent players fare. The likes of Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka will be in a similar position to Federer at the start of 2017 when the new season rolls around. Whether they can exact a similar fate on Federer and Nadal in 2018 is another story.

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