First of all I want to congratulate Rafa for completing the career slam by defeating Djokovic in the final 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2. This is the one slam I thought he may never win, yet he proved me wrong once more. Even if you don’t like him, you must respect his relentless will and ability to keep evolving as a tennis player. He is mentally and physically the best I have ever seen. Maybe in the mental department Sampras and Borg could rival him, but physically he is unlike any other. He never gets tired and he gets to EVERYTHING. I was reminded of that yesterday in the final moments of the match when Djokovic simply couldn’t get the ball past him. Finally the only way he could hit the winner was by getting a lucky net cord as the ball just dropped over the net. Given that he NEVER chokes, this makes him an extremely difficult opponent on any surface.
It really boggles my mind the mental and physical feats this guy is capable of. It’s no secret that I didn’t really want him to win the US Open. Not because I’m a hater, but because I didn’t like the idea that someone with a basically defensive game style wins a grand slam on a fast surface. But that doesn’t matter because he did win it and that is all there is to it. And Rafa has also improved his game so much that he now has a big serve, a backhand which he can attack with, and he has pretty good volleys as well. So in the end he deserves it and I would never try to downplay his achievement. The one thing I will say however is that no one can ever put an asterisk next to Roger’s French Open win unless they do the same to Rafa at the US Open. No one put up any resistance until the final when Djokovic at least took one set.
But more importantly Del Potro was not around who crushed Rafa last year in the semis. As far as I’m concerned he is the only guy who could have stopped Rafa here, and I also think he would have. I watched the final yesterday and it became obvious to me why Del Potro would have beaten Rafa. The times that Djokovic went for his shots and changed up the pace of the game, he made life very difficult for Rafa. But he didn’t do it nearly enough. He did it only when he was a set down, and even then he handed the break back to Rafa. Then there came a rain break, and when they came back it seemed to me that he talked to his coach or something because he started playing a much more aggressive match. He took the second set and I think he broke Rafa to love to do so. It looked like it was match on, but then Djokovic seemed to crawl back into his shell.
He only really came up with attacking tennis when he was down in his service games. This points to something that I have always known, that Djokovic is not exactly a mental giant. Even though he had won the previous three matches on hard courts against Rafa in straight sets, he couldn’t defeat Rafa on the surface when it really mattered. He just lacks belief and mental stability. This is where Del Potro is so good. He is truly the only guy on tour who has no fear of Rafa whatsoever. Even though he trails Rafa 3-4 in head-to-head meetings, he has won the last three encounters, including the 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 drubbing at the US Open last year. Del Potro only really started coming into his own at last year’s French Open, and he has been 3-0 against Rafa since then. All these victories came on hard court, so no doubt Rafa was helped by the fact that Del Potro didn’t defend his title.
But that is the kind of good fortune you need to complete a career slam, just like Roger needed it to win the French Open. After this win there has been the usual overreactions from the ‘experts’, media and Rafa fans alike. Here is a short conversation I had with Brad Gilbert on Twittter after the match:
@bgtennisnation: There’s Your GOAT – the best year I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.
This conversation speaks for itself. Brad Gilbert thinks Rafa is the GOAT because he has absolutely owned me. OK! First of all I have no idea how Rafa owned me, since I was actually truly happy for him. Second, how does it make you the GOAT if you owned some guy who never even had an ATP ranking? I thought to be the GOAT you had to at least be close to winning the most slams, not to mention have an ATP ranking. Gilbert says these kind of things because he wants to make Roger’s achievements irrelevant. Why? After Gilbert displayed his infinite wisdom, someone tweeted that in the 2004 Wimbledon final Roger out-coached Gilbert when he was coaching Roddick. I never picked up on this incident, but it is true because several people have reminded me of this fact since Gilbert attacked me.
So it becomes obvious why Gilbert have been making these absurd statements since the beginning of the US Open. First of all he said that if Rafa beats Roger in the final here, then Rafa would be the GOAT. That is already absurd enough. But then when Roger did not make the final as he expected, he quickly changed his story and just called Rafa the GOAT anyway. I don’t hate Gilbert for attacking me because I don’t feel like that is in the spirit of Roger. In fact I feel sorry for him. It obviously deeply hurt that Roger out coached him in that Wimbledon final. I don’t remember the exact incident, but someone just told me it was when Roddick won the first set and then it started raining. At that point Roger did of course not have a coach. Then when they came back on court Roger changed his tactics and came back to win the next three sets.
This obviously deeply hurt Gilbert’s pride. There are of course other reasons for his resentment of Roger, like Roger’s 19-2 head-to-head record against Roddick, the fact that he stopped Roddick from winning at least 4 slams, and the fact that he passed Sampras as the GOAT. Over the last decade Roger has single-handedly broken American tennis, and obviously this has contributed to Gilbert’s resentment. Roger also beat Agassi, a former pupil of Gilbert and an American, in the 2004 US Open final. He also beat Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, ending the American’s reign at Wimbledon. So Roger has cost American tennis at least 5 slams in this last century, but probably more. The fact that he passed Sampras as the GOAT in almost no time also had to weigh heavily on guys like Gilbert. I know for a fact it weighed heavily on Peter Bodo, who harbors the same kind of resentment towards Roger.
Bodo came out with a book in praise of Sampras around the time when Roger was stuck on 13 slams, which is why Bodo’s articles often have an undercurrent of deep resentment towards Roger. And of course Bodo is American as well. When Sampras won 14 slams America must have though that they would have the GOAT for a long time to come, yet Roger toppled Sampras in less than a decade while at the same time making American tennis almost irrelevant. So you can see why there is often this deep seated resentment and criticism from American ‘experts’ and media. For Gilbert to go to the lengths that he has and to make the statments that he does shows a deep pain and anguish which Roger has caused him over the years. And the ironic thing is that it was never Roger’s intention to do this to people.
He is simply not the type that enjoys causing people misery. Instead he plays purely for the love of the game. He never harbors revenge and ill feelings towards his opponents or anyone else. And in the spirit of Roger we should not resent these people in return. I don’t resent Gilbert. Instead I feel sorry for him, because he cannot see past his hate and resentment, which in turn makes him miserable. We Federer fans simply enjoy the beauty that Roger brings to the game. Winning is just a nice by product of this. When Roger’s nemesis achieves the career slams we don’t resent it. We are glad for him and we celebrate it. I do anyway, and if you don’t then I suggest that you do too. What Rafa is achieving doesn’t detract in the least from what Roger has achieved. If anything it makes it even more impressive because he played in an era of another GOAT.
No one can ever say now that he played in a weak era. Life is a perception, and how you you perceive life will either make you happy or miserable. It’s your choice. To come back to the whole GOAT discussion, everyone with a healthy brain knows that this win does not make Rafa the GOAT. You are not the GOAT when someone have won 7 more slam than you, let alone 1. This doesn’t mean Rafa can’t become the GOAT, but he has a very long way to go. Roger’s achievements have been nothing short of mind-blowing. With this win Rafa has now win 3 slams over the span of a year for the first time. He has to do that two more times to equal Roger. A telling stat is that Roger has made 23 consecutive slam semi’s, where Rafa’s longest streak is 5. Then Roger has won 5 or more slams at 2 different slams. Rafa needs at least 1 more French Open and 3 more Wimbledons to achieve that.
Rafa has only made half the amount of slam finals Roger has (11/22). Of those slams final Roger made 18/19 at one point. Roger also holds the record for most consecutive weeks at number 1, which Rafa almost certainly will never break. Even though Rafa has closed the gap in slam count to 7, he is clearly still an awfully long way off from rivaling Roger’s impressive records. Many of them he will never break. So rest assured, Roger records are mostly safe. Because Roger was so dominant in his prime and set up so many impressive records, Rafa needs to at least equal him in slam count for the head-to-head to become relevant. You don’t look at head-to-head with one player for who is the better player in terms of career. By that rationale Davydenko is better than Rafa. So you look at achievements.
So only when Rafa has caught up with Roger in achievements will the head-to-head come into the picture. It will be the tie break to decide the GOAT. But like I said, Rafa has an awful lot to do for that to happen. His best bet is probably to catch up with Roger in slam wins and possibly surpass him. This will be hard enough in itself. There are two reasons for this. One, because Roger isn’t quite done yet. If he lost to Rafa in the US Open final he might well have been done. When I watched the final yesterday I was eternally grateful that Roger was not in that final. If he had suffered a loss in the only slam left it would have deeply hurt him, and me for that matter. I think it would have been too much to handle and Roger may even have thought about retirement. It gets to a point when it becomes too painful and there is no more enjoyment left.
But the fact that he was spared another soul crushing loss to his nemesis, makes it possible for him to win more slams now. It won’t be easy, but I believe he still has the game to win a few. He looked very good from Toronto until the semi-finals of the US Open, where I already explained why he performed pretty poorly. If Rafa was not there waiting in the final I believe we may have seen him winning the US Open in the same fashion he has in the past. At the same time the battles from the past with Rafa has left a scar on him I think, and I am not sure if he will now ever be able to exorcise that demon. If he wins slams in the future I think he will need a bit of luck to avoid Rafa. Or who knows, he may even get the chance to exorcise that demon again. Anyway I’m just glad he avoided Rafa yesterday and I think he still has a chance to add to his slam telly and make it even harder for Raf to catch him.
The second reason why Rafa will find it hard to catch him is because of Rafa’s taxing game style. He has already burned out once during 2009. This is a concern for him because Roger never burned out while he was in his prime. I’m already a bit dumb founded at how Rafa is able to keep up his current form. Surely that game style will mentally and physically take its toll at some point. Rafa was also an early bloomer, which is something people who call him the next GOAT conveniently overlook. They make the point that Rafa achieved the career slam much earlier than Roger, as if they reached their peaks at the same time. Roger’s peak was pretty much over when he hit 26. Rafa is now 24, and I find it extremely hard to believe than his peak would last longer than Roger’s. In fact I thought he was burned out already last year when he hit that low.
I think Rafa hit his peak about 2 years before Roger, which means if it ends 2 years before Roger that would be round about now at age 24. Yet with his taxing game style and all he is still going full steam ahead. This boggles my mind somewhat. That said, its not impossible that he will have two more years at the very top of the game. That should get him pretty close to Roger in slam count, and I think that is exactly what he has on his mind. And we know when Rafa has something on his mind it is very hard to stop him. So by no means I’m counting him out to catch up with Roger. It should be interesting to see how things develop in the future anyway. Can Roger add a few more slams and put that slam tally out of reach of Rafa? Or will Rafa’s unwavering will and determination win the day? The future remains unwritten…