HRFRT: Roger Created a Monster (or Two)

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.

15 comments

  1. I haven’t any time to add to the in depth posts so I’ll simply say…….Really enjoying these posts and breakdown of the ATP Tour.

  2. A very good read here Matt. I would argue that Rafa version 2008, is the most mentally/physically complete player the ATP had ever seen. This was Prime Nadal taking on Prime Federer, I remember watching some early matches of the 08 season, sure Rafa was still struggling on hardcourt, tiring himself out due to lacking the right tactical approach against creative opponents (something he would almost completely fix later that year), but I knew it was too late, he was getting there, a couple of more adjustments and he would obliterate anything in his path as long as his health condition was tip top.

    Enter the clay season 08, the Djoker tastes blood for the first time after his win at AO, plays some of his best tennis on clay, but Rafa cannot be stopped, he can and will hunt every single ball, return it with interest and then pull off one of those insane defensive backhand cross court winners or top spin forehands from hell landing on the outer rim of the baseline, it was out of this world. To dismantle a Prime Federer at the FO finals like that is something out of this world, he was not only playing insanely well, but displayed tactical proves too. Wimbledon 2008 was the icing on the cake, but he wanted more, Beijing hardcourt Olympics? No problem, and again winning against a Djokovic who was hitting winners out of this world.

    People say Djokovic 2011 was Prime Djokovic, I disagree, Prime Djokovic started happening in 2008, it’s just that Nadal/Federer were still kings at the time, so he wasn’t allowed to shine very much.

    Imagine if Rafa’s physical regression hadn’t kicked in at around late 2009 and onwards and onwards, it would have been a monster for the ages. I agree that Federer must have been a direct inspiration for Rafa, and uncle Toni knew what his nephew could achieve to start hurting the Swiss Maestro. Ultimately Federer is untouched when it comes to longevity and pure skill. The moment an injury gets in the Djoker’s way it’s game over.

    If were playing tennis trading card games, and someone pulled out a Rafa (2008) card would there even be a counter for that? XD

    Anyway, it was a pleasure to

    1. I would only say the 08 Rafa (Rafa at whatever peak, ’10, ’13 as well) isn’t sustainable, so it loses some of its strength. And that defensive brand just seemed less interesting/sustainable/versatile. When reading about Toni’s coaching philosophy, you can see it play-out in Rafa (enduro/mental strength first). But it sounds almost unhealthy, almost built just to beat the offensive genius of Federer.

      In the end, Rafa’s inconsistency is a red flag to go along with the style that really reflects a clay court game. That’s ultimately what he will be remembered for because that’s what he was. Djoker and Stan (AO ’14) kept him from so much more.

      Based on looking at these career archs, we’ll see that Federer had a bit of tennis in a “previous” era, then Fedal and then Novak showed up. Just as Federer was 12-3 in majors in 07 with Nadal, think about 2008 comparisons. Federer had 13 by the end or 2008 and Novak had 1.

      What does that mean? It means Roger was in practically a different era from Djoker. Nadal probably had the toughest road of all three, sandwiched between Fed and Djokovic.

      1. Oh I completely agree here Matt. The level of physical insanity that Rafa possessed (arguably peaking in 08) was completely unsustainable. But while it lasted it produced some of the most impressive defensive tennis in history, arguably both men Rafa and Djoker were at their physical prime around that time, Novak hitting some of his best shots ever, yet Nadal defending out of this World and coming on top in some very close matches on all surfaces. And that also brings us to the second point, Federer around 2008 was beginning to feel the pain from these two who were more physically dominant than the Swiss Maestro, yet was still able to fend them off, Djokovic was almost a zero factor for Federer up until 2011, which indicates how the years were beginning to catch up with Federer, Nadal was truly the only kryptonite the Swiss Maestro ever had in his prime.

      2. I agree. Interesting that you are pinning the Serb’s peak back then. He was peaking you think at 21-22 years-old? That is how the sport used to work for sure.
        Pretty solid longevity from that guy, having to sustain for all of those years and overcome Nadal, ultimately. This would suggest a drop-off from the Djoker sooner than later, btw.

        I will dig into this today/tomorrow for that next article on the Djoker (the other monster). Good stuff, Caligula.

    1. Either way, it’s an L.

      And Rafa’s success v Roger hurts whatever rationalizations might be out there for Fed’s loss in ’08. Rafa was making progress. Look at the WB results from ’06 to ’08. Steady pursuit. Federer was starting to breakdown vs Nadal’s steady aggression.

  3. Hi Matt, yes I believe both players hit their physical peak at around the 21-23-year mark, and declined ever so slowly, with Nadal burning out the most. I think 3 matches in 08 give us a tell-tale sign of just how incredibly Savage these two were physically:

    In Hamburg, Djokovic showed he could rock on clay and hit incredible Winners, to his misfortune the was up against prime Nadal aka. unbeatable on clay monstrosity.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dp52R9CPxvU

    Later on grass at Queens, we see an extremely close match, with the Serb taking point and being the better serve and volley player, putting immense pressure on Nadal, yet Nadal’s iron will and World class defence balanced it out, and some luck here and there and he prevails. It would have been really interesting to see just how Djokovic would have played against Nadal in the Wimbledon SF had he not withdrawn with that infected blister ordeal.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoX4gkfSxWU

    And finally the SF match at the Olympics, we see again a very close match, Nadal winning thanks to his insane defensive capabilities, the Serb simply couldn’t finish him off before he lost his own concentration.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBCfWGxMWeU

    I think these three matches are true classics when looking at just how good these two Guys were and how physically advanced they were. No doubt the Serb was the one laughing in the end, with no injuries in sight, a laughable field except for Murray, he can cruise knowing there aren’t any real threats in sight. But I suspect we will see a drop-off sooner than later, perhaps this is the Serbs last big run before he starts feeling the wear and tear.

    1. This is an interesting angle and could diminish the case for Djokovic a bit, which I think has been your p.o.v. all along. At this point in history 2008-10, Djokovic was pretty much no where to be found on the bigger courts (majors). I’ve seen people on discussion boards laugh at the talk of Djokovic GOAT because they say he wasn’t even on Federer’s radar back then and if that was his peak, there you have it. The 2011 FO SF rings pretty big here.

      When I think of these earlier days of Djokovic, I remember the volatility, the health issues. Other than these masters tournaments, he wasn’t much of a threat at the majors until 2011. Seemed better suited to the best of three perhaps.

      If Djokovic ends-up with 15-16 majors, you will know he had his opportunities. I have heard Djokovic fans actually say this.
      But we don’t see much in his way at this point.

      You have Djokovic fans argue (Federer said it himself) that Fed was better in 2015 than at any point in his career. Of course, he’s going to say that, but it’s a can of bullshit, we know.

      Back to reality, Djokovic has simply outlasted Nadal. That argument has legs. Federer is from a different era, practically. Nadal bridges the Swiss and Serb eras and gets the short-end.

      But having said all of that, you with this great video evidence of “peak” Djokovic (though his major tennis was soft back then), he can’t have that much more in the tank. . .

      Great clips, thanks!

      1. Matt, I am glad we are having this discussion. It’s not every day we can dissect these eras and find some coherence backed up by objective evidence on the internet, sadly too many fans out there are too thickheaded. As you say, Federer was in GOD mode in the bigger part of two distinctly different eras, Nadal’s insane physical/mental fortitude finally broke through the Federer monster, albeit the Swiss Maestro was getting older while Nadal was getting into Prime condition 🙂

        Looking back, I can see why it can be hard to imagine a Djokovic being physically and perhpas even technically in his prime in his 21-23 years of age (his ground strokes, and overall racket power delivery haven’t magically improved over the years as many Djokovic fans would have us believe, in fact we can clearly see that they have digressed, as they should! He is but a human being after all), but take out the opponent on the other side of the court (Nadal in this case in those 3 matches I brought up) and who could beat that younger version of Djoker in todays ATP tour or in the last couple of years? I think no one, but as you point out, he was incredibly inconsistent at Majors in those years, his temper tantrums and perhaps the domination of FEDAL was a big wall for him to climb. If the Djoker of 2008 had the same mental stability of Djoker post 2011, it would have been a devastating combo. Only when Federer was truly losing his killer edge at around 2010 did Djokovic see an opening for him to target Nadal who was in physical decline, compare 85+ KG muscular Nadal 2005-2009 to a skinnier version with severe knee problems Nadal 2010-2014 and the door was wide open. Of course Murray’s rise in 2012-13 is a mystery to this day, is Lendl that good of a mental couch? Either way having Lendl back with Murray could give the Scot the mental edge he sorely lacked in the last 3 years.

  4. Its Not everyday, you read on comments and learn bit…Actually chances are close to none, but this proved otherwise….Good ones…Thumbs Up!

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