The long and short of it concerns how Roger’s massive championship success early and often through-out the tennis calendar year-after-year created a new and improved champion image and celebrity that became the new character, the new tennis “nature” that may have ruined tennis. In other words, the standards of excellence went through the proverbial roof and now (to stay “proverbial”) the shit is hitting the fan.
11 or 12 majors? Dominate only one or two majors or surfaces? Roger’s tennis and his unyielding desire to compete obliterated this “old” open era sense of greatness. Roger, in his classy, ever-so-civil demeanor was destroying the old guard, relegating the past to a kind of dark ages. Remember, with Federer, he wasn’t only winning, he was winning with some of the greatest and classiest style anyone had ever seen, or thought could be seen. He was traditional on the one hand, classy in his Wimby whites, gliding feather-light around the lawn, but doing so with such advanced offensive tennis that made him such a deadly sight to behold. He was confident, even arrogant. The field did dip somewhat post-Safin and Hewitt, but this didn’t bother Roger. He just kept winning, taking village upon village as he took control of tennis’ middle earth.
Think about what Rafael Nadal came upon in 2004. Nadal was just getting his tour legs beneath him, at the age of 16 or so, under the imposing council and glare of his uncle Toni, and Roger was ruling tennis at age 22.
Nadal actually beat Federer in Miami 3R in 2004, 3 and 3. But Roger won 3 majors in 2004. So, even early-on in this “rivalry,” with Nadal getting the best of him seemingly from the gun, Roger was moving-on, nodding as he went, winning just about everything in sight.
In 2005 he won 2 more majors, now with 6 total, having won his first Wimbledon in 2003.
In 2006 he won 3 more majors.
In 2007 he won 3 more majors.
Folks, by the age of 25, Roger was cruising, losing the French and other, especially, clay court clashes to Nadal, but he had 12 majors and counting. 25 years-old and he equals Pete Sampras’ seemingly untouchable mark (untouchable in that it took over 20 years for Pete to establish that record, which had stood more or less for longer than that before him). Roger was absolutely devouring history.
And Nadal and his camp had to be in awe and perhaps a little motivated to figure-out how to compete with TMF (The Mighty Federer). Granted, they could handle him on clay, but the age of specialists was ending. If you read the news or watched the tele, Roger was reaching the ends of every draw, indiscriminate of surface. Rafa, winning the French (by 2007 he had 3) and even beating Roger on other surfaces, had to still look quite small in comparison. By 2007, again, Roger had 12 majors. Rafa had 3.
Think of the bar that Roger was setting for the men’s game. That’s the premise of this argument. In basketball, they sang I want to be like Mike, but in tennis perhaps we all, including other players, conceded to the fact that we couldn’t play like Federer. His was a sublime game, Godly, sang the scribes. Instead, the field had to just, somehow, figure-out how to dethrone Federer, and to do such a thing, one had to advance one’s game to excel on every surface, in every major.
Given Roger’s tennis and accompanying character, one had to be intimidated at least, and/or envious. With the Nike-enhanced celebrity, Roger was enveloping the sport. No one dare touch his majesty’s jewels. His domination, especially, at The Championships and in The Big Apple were terribly persuasive. He, like everyone before him, got a pass at the French.
Roger has a lot of nicknames. The Fed Express certainly gained traction since Roger, in this early to mid-decade run was becoming a run-away train. Who could stop him?
You may have developed a kind of image or persona of Toni Nadal from seeing him in the player’s box, on the practice court, or in an interview, etc. I have read interviews in which he’s asked about his approach to coaching Rafa, among other things. A recent one, after the 2016 AO, had him admitting that were it not for his blood relation to Rafa, he’d have been replaced by now. A little awkward, no?
But take a gander at Rafa’s autobiography, Rafa: My Story. I’ve read excerpts of it and this is just a little paraphrased taste. Overall, his message is a big-time double-edged sword and we have to appreciate the honesty. His uncle has always scared the crap out of him, but he attributes nearly all of his success on the tennis court (at least this is what he says in this book) to his uncle Toni.
When Rafa was a youngster, maybe 8-10 years-old, the family helped create Rafa’s belief that uncle Toni had magical powers. Such anecdotal evidence is added to the way their “professional” relationship developed, the way he treated Rafa on the practice court, for instance. According to Rafa, it was pretty brutal, at times quite uncomfortable, dictatorial. Toni is old school by default (age, country of origin, etc.) and what we may consider somewhat unfair or even “abusive” in this day and age, he and other old schoolers consider such tough training as what is necessary to build character and discipline.
This character is a big part of the training according to Toni. In a 2010 interview from a French source, Toni says character, endurance, perseverance and mental toughness are more important than technique. He stressed these attributes, which we know very well with respect to Rafa’s tennis. Nadal has been a very very difficult “out” between those lines. Of course, there was a side-effect to this style of “training,” we can assume. Rafa says so himself: “While Toni’s refusal to let me off the hook has its value, in that he pushes me always to improve and do better, it can also be bad because he creates insecurity.” I have written, half-jokingly, that Rafa is practically special needs given all of the on-court twitches and quirks and loss of “confidence,” etc. This quote speaks to the wear-and-tear perhaps of this almost military-like training imposed on Rafa as he attempted to become fit for TMFT – The Mighty Federer Tour, or the ATP.
I want to juxtapose this with the recent quote from Ivan Lendl regarding his and Andy’s mission to ruin Novak’s run at the GS.
I don’t have Toni saying this about Roger run ten years ago, but I can guarantee you that these were the kinds of discussions being had around the Nadal campfire. As competitive and old-school and, essentially, ruthless as Toni was with his nephew, I can assure you that this camp had one goal in mind (which is not extraordinary, granted). And the mission to overcome the clay-only game pushed Rafa and his approach to great lengths. For me, this is more than just “let’s go get this guy.” There was a sophisticated program designed to undermine the Swiss maestro.
I am not ignoring the fact that Rafa is talented (comes from a very elite athletic family), nor the fact that Toni was a tough coach (there are many many tough coaches who want to win). I am arguing that Roger’s justified tennis arrogance/dominance was creating an environment where all bets were off. This was going to be a war. Rafa had a mental edge, already. But this was not enough; now he needed to do even more. The stakes were so much higher now. Careers were being extended. The money becoming insane. And Roger, to the point, is getting all the love.
Again, the historical context here is huge. I bet Rafa remains a clay-court specialist if there is no Roger. Sure Rafa probably wins another major or two, but Roger created the next era of chasing Roger. These numbers Roger was putting were extraordinary. The dominance was staggering.
Toni and company worked on Rafa. Like a good student, Rafa made incremental progress beyond the clay court. In 2006 Roger beat him pretty easily in the WB final; he bagels the Spaniard in the first set and wins in four. In 2007, Roger wins in five in a much tighter WB final. A year later (2008) and the Spaniard’s breakthrough at Wimbledon. Roger, of course, wins the USO later that summer. But Rafa is getting there. He’s chasing Roger. He’s not to be deterred. He won Wimbledon!
2009, a year later, he breaks through at the AO. And a year later, he gets his first USO.
I have written about this before. I have always seen this as Toni pulling strings, clearly managing this campaign. The familial relationship is awkward, probably unhealthy. Some of the referenced readings here support this. Toni manufactured the Anti-Federer.
We haven’t even gotten into the style of Rafa’s tennis. Against the most dominant and lethal offensive tennis the game has ever seen, what does Toni do to complicate that game: he coaches a tennis based on endurance and defense. The racquet and string innovation only helps with this Federer foil. Toni adds a focus on character, an ability to persevere in the face of extreme pressure (this is where the practice and training, though probably bordering on abusive, makes perfect), amidst formidable disadvantage. Never give-up. These are Toni’s words according to him and Rafa. Rafa was terrified of Toni. Roger was likely becoming terrified of Rafa.
Who created the monster, then? Toni or Roger?
Lendl’s recent quote was so timely. That is exactly the kind of response I see from Toni and even Rafa in light of such imposing authority from another player.
Rafa’s tennis, unrelenting defense and commitment, doesn’t happen in another era. The charges of doping clearly relate to this point being made: that Toni and Rafa would do anything to catch or stop Federer.
The game was changing. We will come back to Rafa as we discuss Novak’s background and rise to the challenge in this Federera. Novak, though a bit later in the game, began this same kind of chase; we are in the midst of this chase still in 2016.
The 2012 AO final will help highlight the unhealthy chase and changes to the game.
All because of Federer. 😉
Love and hate Federer, folks. That’s what people do, yet they have no idea why. This is why.
Lastly, we will investigate the great irony of Federera. Roger ruining the sport by creating such an insanely competitive (and unrealistic) league of legacies, only to have Rafa actually save the sport, temporarily; then he too began to see blood and unchallenged dominance from a conquered field, only to have Novak save the sport again, as he managed to puncture the Spaniard’s runaway legacy balloon.
So much to recall and reassess and put back together. We still have work to do!
Until then, take care.