Nadal now in Federer's shoes
WIMBLEDON, England -- How can you be the best of all time when you aren't even the best of your era? Rafael Nadal once prompted that question to be asked of Roger Federer and is now confronting it himself.
After five straight defeats to Novak Djokovic, Nadal leaves Wimbledon as a decided No. 2 in the tennis pecking order, just two weeks after picking up his fourth Slam in fifth tries -- a pace that had him on track to very swiftly start zooming up toward the head of the all-time Grand Slam leaders list. Suddenly, after Djokovic's 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory in the Wimbledon final, the gap between Nadal's 10 majors and Federer's 16 looks a lot larger.
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Nadal can take comfort in the fact that he still leads the head-to-head 16-12, but things are trending in the wrong direction. It was 16-7 before March, and to make matters worse, Djokovic's wins have been across all surfaces: hard courts, grass and even Nadal's forte, clay. Four have been Masters series finals, and one a Grand Slam final. There is no corner left to defend, and now comes the hard-court summer -- usually one of Djokovic's strongest periods.
So up goes the cry: Is there any hope for Nadal? It is always like this, of course: The swerves of the perception pendulum that drive Federer and Nadal so crazy.
"I think the true understanders of the game, they know it doesn't go that quickly, you know," Federer has said. "At the moment where a young guy comes up, there's all the talk about him, and kind of forget about the rest. And then, you know, it goes very quickly. It doesn't matter if you've done it for one year, two years, 10 years. As long as you've been at the top, things change pretty quickly in tennis."
But things do change quickly, even if they can change back quickly, too. Sunday's match was an illustration of how finely balanced things stand. After being dominated for the first two sets, it was Nadal who imposed himself in the third and Djokovic who looked unsure and error-prone. But in the end, even with Nadal starting to play better and the gap in the match stats starting to close, Djokovic managed to come out ahead. The Spaniard did not attempt to receive any treatment for his foot injury he picked up in the fourth round.
"He played very, very high level for moments," Nadal said simply. "I played a little bit lower than the previous days."
It was just three years ago that Nadal had seemingly broken the Federer stranglehold by defeating him in five sets in a classic Wimbledon final. But now he finds himself standing on the other end. "When I won in 2008 for the first time it was very special time so I can imagine how Novak feels today," Nadal graciously told the crowd after being handed his first defeat at Wimbledon since that famous victory.
Even before Sunday's potentially landmark result, Nadal had already faced an ambiguously worded question he interpreted as being about his supposed decline.
"Maybe," he responded skeptically. "But I won Roland Garros two weeks ago. I don't forget. After winning Roland Garros, two weeks later is a little bit fast to say I am. You can say that maybe next year, but probably now is a little bit dangerous to say that."
There will be plenty of it after this final, however.
Like Federer with him, Nadal finds himself facing a player who happens to be both a bad matchup and one challenging for the title of best player in the world. It is a tough combination. Some point out that it speaks well of Federer and Nadal that their "nemeses" are such strong opponents. All the greats have had players they have struggled against -- the like of Wayne Ferreira or Richard Krajicek for Pete Sampras, Bill Scanlon for McEnroe and Marty Riessen for Rod Laver. But they did not usually have to face them again and again on the biggest stages, because those opponents rarely managed to set up such occasions.
Djokovic, who changes the direction of the ball like no one else on tour, is able to pin Nadal to one corner and send the ball up the line for a winner or near-winner. On Sunday, it was most often on the backhand, with Nadal running around to hit the inside-out forehand and then finding himself a court's length away from the reply. Djokovic is also one of the few -- perhaps the only -- who can match Nadal on defense, drawing unusual errors from the Spaniard. Nadal missed several costly forehands down the line during the final, going for the riskier placement with risky margins. The serve, Djokovic's Achilles' heel for most of last season, was more effective for the Serb as well.
But the explanations are not all technical. Djokovic has now established a clear mental edge over Nadal as well. A telling moment came when Nadal served to stay in the first set at 4-5. He had been serving a ridiculous 90 percent of first serves in until that point, but after going up 30-0, he did not to make a single first serve for the rest of the game. After getting broken to lose the first set, Nadal had it tied at 30-30 in the first game of the second but missed an overhead long.
"I played a little less aggressive," Nadal admitted afterward. "The most important thing is play well the important moments. There is a few points in the match that can change the match, and I didn't today. Probably the mental part is a little bit dangerous for me.
"I didn't play well in these moments. That's what happened in Indian Wells, that's what happened in Miami, and that's what happened [at Wimbledon]. I don't want to count in Madrid and Rome because he played much better than me.
"To change that is probably be a little bit less nervous than these times, play more aggressive, and all the time be confident in myself. If not, I'm going to be here explaining the sixth."
So what does it mean? In the end, players are measured not by head-to-head records but their achievements as a whole. Nadal will remain poised to win more majors, and has likely not beaten Djokovic for the last time. But history is no longer the only thing he has to chase.
Yet after always taking a modest, balanced view of his achievements, Nadal does not have to change his mindset much to deal with this new state of affairs.
"Find solutions, that's what I have to try and that's what I'm going to try," Nadal said. "Seriously, I lose because I am playing against the best player of the moment. My experience says this level is not forever. Even for me, when I was last year winning three Grand Slams, my level of last year was not forever. Probably the level of Novak of today is not forever. I'm going to be here fighting all the time, waiting my moment.
"I'm going to wait and try a sixth. And if the sixth doesn't happen, to the seventh. It's going to be like this. That's the spirit of the sport."
Just as Nadal did with Federer, Djokovic nominates Nadal as the greatest of all time.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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