Since Rafa won the USO and the career slam, I couldn’t help but ask myself some serious questions as a Federer fan. By completing the career slam Rafa has taken a huge step towards establishing himself as one of the game’s all time greats and catching up with Roger in terms of all time greatness. The two most important considerations as far as all time greatness of a tennis player goes, is probably the amount of slams they won and how complete a player they are. In other words how they performed on all surfaces. By winning the career slams Rafa has ticked one of these boxes. The other thing that he must do if he is to pass Roger in all time greatness is win more slams than him, or at least the same amount. He is currently 7 slams short of doing that. Rafa has already stated that he won’t be satisfied until he catches up with Roger in slam count.
Knowing Rafa, this means that he has a very good chance of doing just that. When he sets his mind on doing something he is almost impossible to stop. He is only 24 and surely has enough time to win 7 more slams. So as a Federer fan I am faced with the very real possibility that Rafa could catch up with Roger as the GOAT. Forget Laver for a second, I am talking about the modern era. I always thought Roger would end up being the GOAT of the modern era, while Rafa was bound to play second fiddle. I thought he would become the clay GOAT, but never thought he would start to threaten Roger as the GOAT. Even if Roger adds 2-4 more slams to his resume it is still catchable by Rafa. One of the reasons I liked Roger is because he has this air of invincibility. Sure Rafa was always his nemesis, but it wasn’t going to keep him from becoming the GOAT.
But this Spaniard simply can’t be kept at bay and refuses to adhere to people’s expectations. He threatens to make everything Roger has achieved look less impressive. Or does he? Rafa embodies everything that Roger is not. He plays with force where Roger plays with effortless ease. Personally I don’t enjoy watching him play. I also don’t like his on court demeanor. He is all about confrontation and intimidation, and I just love seeing that kind of player lose. I can’t help it. Roger on the other hand plays a kind of tennis that is just beautiful to behold. He also minds his own business. He plays for the love of the game rather than for fear of failure. Rafa is driven by the fear of failure. For me this is the wrong reason to be playing tennis. So I don’t like his motivations and neither do I like his tennis. Roger has the best looking serve, forehand, and possibly backhand that I have ever seen.
It’s all just so peRFect. Maybe Richard Gasquet has a better looking backhand, but Roger’s slice backhand is still one of the best I have ever seen. His movement is another things that is just great to look at, and his volleys is pretty elegant as well. Rafa on the other hand has a serve that I don’t find attractive in the least, especially the way he sets up for it. I don’t like what his off forehand looks like either, and he hits his forehand with too much spin for my liking. It’s a very effective stroke, but not good to look at. His backhand has too much right hand in it too look attractive, while his slice is just awful. And although he has improved his volleys greatly, he is not a natural volleyer and only comes into the net after a very good approach to end the point. Rafa can make spectacular shots when he is drawn far out of the court.
While this is an impressive feat, I have always preferred impressive attacking tennis over impressive defensive tennis. I’d much rather see a guy hit a huge forehand winner than see a guy make an incredible get for a winner. Roger and Rafa both have very good attacking as well as defensive capabilities, but Roger will always be a naturally attacking player, while Rafa will always be a naturally defensive player. When it comes to raw tennis talent Roger is superior to Rafa, but when it comes to mental prowess, Rafa is superior. Roger is not a natural killer. He is actually quite a sensitive guy. If he was a true killer he would never have allowed Rafa to come out victorious in the 2009 Australian Open final. And his sensitivity was clear for everyone to see when he burst out in tears after that match.
The same can be said for Rafa as far as talent goes. If he was as talented as Roger he would not have suffered crushing losses like the ones against Del Potro at the US Open, and Gonzalez and Tsonga at the Australian Open. You never saw Roger have losses like that, aside from that one loss against Rafa in the French Open final when he had mono. We have to remember that tennis is a sport, and sport is about competition. Therefor winning will always be important. That is after all one of the reasons why we love Roger so much. But it’s not all about winning. Who a person is and how they carry themselves also matters. I think Rafa is the kind of player that will win at all costs, even if it means using gamesmanship. He has done several questionable things, his latest the fact that he was coached in the US Open final. You can read more about that here.
This is not the first time Rafa has broken the rules like this. Another example was at Wimbledon against Philip Petzschner where he took an injury time out for his knees, in which I think was the fourth set. Petzschner was distracted and lost his serve thereafter, while Rafa didn’t look to have any problems with his movement whatsoever. He also had no knee problems after that until now. Then there are many other things he does to try and upset his opponents rhythm, like the amount of time he takes before he serves, the way he always makes his opponents wait for him at the net before the match, and the way he grunts. Without fail when there is an important point being played, he changes his grunting to a more raw version, as if to intimidate his opponent. He does all these things in a very subtle way and it can be hard to pick up.
It is not illegal(aside from the coaching thing), but it is highly annoying, which is why I love seeing him lose. That match against Del Potro last year at the US Open is one of my favorite matches ever. Seeing someone for once not allow themselves to get distracted by Rafa’s mind games is great to see. The problem with the type of warlike attitude that Rafa has on court is that someone could come along and give him a war. Someone like Del Potro can do this for instance, and when Rafa loses it hurts that much more. If you play for the love of the game then you don’t really stand anything to lose. But if you are out there to make things personal then it will eventually backfire in your face. You can’t win forever and when players you used to beat up on starts beating you, it becomes a lot less bearable.
Ultimately we have no control over what Rafa achieves and whether he catches up with Roger as the GOAT, and that is why I thought about making this post. Even if Rafa catches up with Roger, it still doesn’t mean we have to like the way he plays or the way he carries himself on court. In the end they may end up being in a tie for GOAT status. They are just so close together in many ways. Roger has the edge in talent while Rafa has the edge in mental toughness. They both bring something to the table. If you had a player with Roger’s talent and Rafa’s mental toughness you would have a player that would be unbeatable. They say mental toughness is more important than talent, and I totally agree. But of course we know Roger is not exactly mentally weak. Who knows, in the end Rafa may even surpass Roger as he GOAT and mental toughness may win the day.
But that wouldn’t matter much to me. Rafa will always be Roger’s big rival to me and I would never shift my allegiance to him, even if he becomes better. The fact that Roger is sensitive and vulnerable make me like him even more. It makes him possible to identify with and shows that he is not just some machine. So in the end it comes down to liking Roger not only for how much he wins and his place in the game, but for who he is and the way he plays the game. He truly is one of a kind and we will never forget him as long as we live.