Nadal and Federer, Borg and McEnroe

In June 2009, I wrote a post about Rafael Nadal as a role model for young athletes.  It began

I’ve just come back from visiting my mother a 90 year old tennis fanantic.  I picked up last week’s New York Times Magazine and there, on the cover, is Rafael Nadal, the curremt number one in men’s tennis and as well as the current heartthrob for women.  I look at Nadal and Federer as Borg and McEnroe:  Borg was the pin-up but they could both play tennis.

Yesterday I watched the semifinal of the Australian Open between Nadal and Federer and was reminded again of all those great Borg/McEnroe matches.   Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe last played each other in 2011 at a charity event.  The New York Times reported

They were like oil and water during their heyday three decades ago, but John McEnroe, the brassy New Yorker, and Bjorn Borg, the cool Swede, are the best of friends now. Such good friends that Borg agreed to fly to New York to play McEnroe on Thursday in a charity match on Randalls Island.

Bjorn Borg, at left, and John McEnroe at a charity match on Randall's Island in New York.  July 2011

Bjorn Borg, at left, and John McEnroe at a charity match on Randall’s Island in New York. July 2011

True to form, McEnroe won many of his points at the net, while Borg favored backhand slices and a strong serve. McEnroe, who had played a doubles match before taking on Borg, was in character, slamming his racket against a baseboard and holding his hands on his hips after losing several points.

But when their match ended in front a crowd that included the former Mayor David N. Dinkins, they hugged at center court. The result, they said, was less important than their friendship and their efforts to promote tennis.

Borg and McEnroe, of course, are best known for their epic 18-16 tie-breaker in the fourth set of the final match at Wimbledon in 1980, which Borg eventually won. McEnroe won the next year, ending Borg’s five-year championship run at the event. By 1983, Borg retired; McEnroe followed him a few years later.

But for those few years, they played great tennis and provided a contrast in styles that came to characterize their generation. Borg, the quiet gentleman, was a link to the game’s more patrician roots, which were fading. McEnroe, an argumentative finger-pointer, typified a new era when athletes were more openly blunt and out for money.

According to the ATP, Borg and McEnroe played 14 times and 7-7.

This is where Nadal and Federer are a bit different.  After yesterday, they had played 33 times; Nadal had won 23.  The Guardian reported

Rafael Nadal will have to beat Swiss players back to back to win his second Australian Open on Sunday, and may have a slightly tougher time of it against Stanislas Wawrinka than he did in a curiously uneven semi-final against Roger Federer on Friday.

The world No1 took two hours and 23 minutes to win 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 – his 23rd victory over the Swiss, in 33 matches, moving him to within a win of drawing alongside Pete Sampras on 14 slam titles – and three behind Federer. Sampras was in the audience at the Rod Laver Arena, the first time he saw them play each other live.

“I never thought about 13 grand slams, or 14 either,” Nadal said. “I need to keep playing great to win this title. Stan’s serve is huge, and he is hitting the ball very hard. I will try to play the same as I did tonight. When I play with Roger, it’s a very special feeling. We play a lot of times for important things in our career. He’s a really great champion, and it’s an honour to play him. We played some tough rallies in the first set, he was playing some very aggressive tennis. I think tonight I played my best tennis of the tournament. After missing last year, it is very emotional for me to be back on this court.”

Rafael Nadal, left, shaking Roger Federer's hand after their match. The Nadal-Federer rivalry ranks among the most compelling and the most lopsided in tennis history.

Rafael Nadal, left, shaking Roger Federer’s hand after their match. The Nadal-Federer rivalry ranks among the most compelling and the most lopsided in tennis history.

The first set, won by Nadal in a tie breaker, was classic.  Both men were asked why Nadal wins so often.  The New York Times summarizes

Nadal would be content with never answering another question about his ability to turn any version of Federer — the invincible Federer, the injured, the best, the greatest — into just another guy. But he took one Friday anyway. His answer was a roundabout route to “it is what it is.”

“The real thing is I played a lot of times against him,” Nadal said. “And a lot of times I played great against him.”

And Federer

It was more difficult for Federer to explain why he struggled so with Nadal. He tried. To play Nadal, he said, was different from playing Djokovic or Murray. To beat Nadal, Federer could not play the way he wanted. He needed to be more aggressive, to hit at sharper angles, to take more risks.

His explanation was more fact than excuse. Nadal makes Federer play like someone else.

“I enjoy playing against him,” Federer said, a comment that all but begged for a lie-detector test.

Pete Sampras watched them live for the first time.

…Earlier in the day, Sampras gave a long, thoughtful, conflicted answer about the greatest-of-all-time debate.

Some decades, he said, seemed to have one player who stood above the rest. There was Rod Laver. There was Sampras, although of himself he said only, “I certainly had my moments.” Now, there is Federer and Nadal, greatness squared, and while Federer is 32 and Nadal is 27, their respective careers have overlapped for years — and much of their primes have, too.

“Let’s just appreciate what we’re watching,” Sampras said. “These are two of the greatest players of all time, playing in the same decade. It’s one for the ages.”

That it is, an era-defining rivalry, must-watch TV, every time the two of them take to the court. Even if one of them, the left-handed baseline bully, the Spaniard who answers to Rafa, now seems to win most every match that matters.

And my mother would have enjoyed every minute of yesterday’s match.

Photograph of Borg and McEnroe:  Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Photograph of Nadal and Federer:  Andrew Brownbill/Associated Press

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