Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and the Race for the Real Number One

Federer Nadal

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Rafa Nadal’s Beijing win and run to the Shanghai final looks, on paper, like it might have helped seal him the year end No.1 ranking- the Spaniard has 10,465 points to second ranked Roger Federer’s 8,505- but, those numbers might not add up, to some, to equal who was the best player in 2017, the real No.1.  Not if Roger Federer has anything to do with it, anyway.

Should, in the next few weeks, the Swiss put together a couple more title runs like the one he made in Shanghai, a run which saw Federer avenge his US Open loss to del Potro and increase his 2017 head to head lead over Rafa Nadal to 4-0, (and cut the deficit to 15-23), then, as was the tradition before rankings began on August 23 1973 when journalists, pundits and player’s associations ranked the pros, and, as has been the case many seasons since, including last year when the WTF championship match decided the year end No.1, Murray winning the numbers contest, but Djokovic’s two slams versus the Scot’s one elevating him to, for many, player of the year, this season will also provide fans with another Who Was the Best Player of the Season debate to keep us busy in the off season

The Computer No.1 versus the Real No.1 debate is always contentious, but what will likely make this one so hard to pick a side in is that Federer and Nadal have split the four slams, and if that contest is decided on a tiebreak, Federer has the slight edge with his Australian Open run  arguably the toughest road to one of the slam trophies this season, the Swiss, after six months away from the pro tour, beating Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, and Rafa Nadal, those last three matches all going the distance, and the final one a match in which he came down from 0-3 in the final set versus a player who had a 9-2 slam record over him.

Slams are not the only department in which both men share the same numbers. Both men have four other titles, but Federer has the edge here, too, his title haul the more impressive, comprising of three ATP 1000s ((Indian Wells, Miami, Shanghai) and one ATP 500 (Halle) while Nadal has two ATP 1000s (Monte Carlo, Madrid). and two ATP 500s (Barcelona, Beijing)

If Nadal ends the year ranked No.1, there will be no debate, in some fan’s eyes, eyes which stick to the computer ranking to tell them who was the season’s best player. They will argue that season-long consistency  trumps smartly scheduled flashes of brilliance, and Nadal has certainly been the more consistent, reaching ten finals to Federer’s seven, and has played more events (16 to Federer’s ten) ratcheting up a win loss record of 65-10 to Federer’s 44-4, the Spaniard’s only dip in form occurring between winning the French Open at the beginning of June to winning the US Open in early September (in that eleven week period, Nadal went 6-3; Federer went 11-1).

That Nadal dip and Federer rise, in the European and U.S Summer, was down to scheduling, and both men have had very different approaches to that integral factor of a best player of the year’s season. Nadal, after a surprisingly fruitful start to the season, really went prize picking in the Clay run, while Federer, who won the first big three titles of the season, skipped the entire clay season. That decision paid off for Federer in handsome style, the Swiss showcasing his panache for Grass in dominating style, getting his hands on the Wimbledon trophy for the first time since 2012, and also strengthening another grasp, his recent hold of Nadal in the Fedal head to head, one which has now seen him win five consecutive times against the Spaniard for the first time in the head to head, a hold which may have been a prime asset in the very decisive Shanghai final outcome.

While Scheduling and knowing when to rest has mostly paid off for Federer- witness his Australian Open run after six months of the tour to rest his knee and his Wimbledon run after missing the Clay season- Federer is not all scheduling genius. The Swiss’ decision to play Montreal rather than rest another week and play his much loved Cincinnati played a villainous part in an early US Open loss, and if  he had gone for the Cincy option instead, a healthy Federer would likely have won the title and gone deeper in New York, and the 2017 Best player of the season debate would have been settled once and for all.

As if- In the Federer Nadal Rivalry Tale there is no once and for all. This debate runs deeper than who was the better player in 2017, deeper than both men’s draws through the four slams this year, running all the way back to a balmy evening in Miami in Spring 2004, spanning 13 years and 38 matches, and potentially flowing all the way to the Tokyo Olympics and beyond. This one is about Fedal. The Federer- Nadal rivalry has been the story of the ATP tour for the last 13 years and when both men have produced the kind of tennis elevating them above the rest of the tour over the course of an entire season. as they did from 2005-2008 and have done in 2017, a tennis different in styles, but alike in passion, a tennis of diversity and parallels which makes Fedal not just the headline in men’s tennis, but one of the headlines in world Sport.

Those headlines will have to wait at least a couple of weeks though with scheduling and rest once again rearing its oh so sensible head now that the status of computer No.1 and the real No.1 is coming down to the wire and both men are trying to make sure they do not lose their footing on the tightrope walk to grabbing one accolade if not both.

Nadal’s withdrawal from Basel means we will not get to see that sporting highlight in the Swiss’ home city where Federer’s Nadal head to head deficit cutting began, the Swiss defeating Nadal in three sets in the 2015 final. But, if fans are fortunate, the Fedal rivalry could be played out twice more in 2017, in Paris-Bercy and the WTF. If that is the case, then Federer will have the chance of a tennis legend’s ever increasing lifetime to not only cut down the head to head deficit even further, and weaken an often used argument in the G.O.A.T debate, that a G.O.A.T could not have a lopsided head to head record against another G.O.A.T rival, but to also stake his claim to that status even further on the back of a multi slam, multi Masters, WTF winning season a decade on from the last time he achieved that feat.

Fans should not count on Federer getting too far in Paris, though, and making it four ATP 1000s for the year. The tournament has not been especially successful for either player- Federer winning once (2011), his sole appearance in the final in ten visits, and Nadal reaching the final in 2007, the Spaniard having only competed there five times, the end of the season often the stage at which his season is done and dusted, the clay from the Spring caked too generously to his feet and legs. This year, though, Nadal’s health, as it did in 2010 and 2013, stood up to the grueling grind demanded of a Roland Garros-US Open season double, and if the Asian Swing has not finished him off, then a decade on, he could have another shot at the trophy.

Meanwhile, at the WTF, Federer has the clear upper-hand in the Fedal story, leading 4-1 at that event, the lower bounce and indoor conditions suiting him better. The importance that potential WTF match plays in the  real No.1 debate is not lost on Federer, scheduling once again proving decisive in his decision making at the age of 36, the Swiss saying he is still undecided whether or not he will compete in Basel and Bercy or save himself for his priority, the WTF.

Federer’s scheduling decisions may end up being largely influenced by Nadal’s own scheduling choices- if the Spaniard pulls out of Basel and Paris, and Federer wins both, the rankings deficit would be just 460 points, and if Federer then beat Nadal in the WTF championship match to clinch No.1, or if Nadal won the WTF for the very first time, filling in the final hole in his career resume, and beat Federer in the process, then the debate would no longer be just about who the real No.1 is, but would also be about where this season ranks as either player’s, and Fedal’s, very best.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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