We’re only a quarter of the way into 2017 but you might as well already end the sportsperson of the year debate. Roger Federer, the indefatigable Swiss magician, has had the most astounding start to the year making everyone feel like they’re in a time warp.
Having won three titles, including the Australian Open, Federer has dominated like it’s the mid-2000s and cemented his status as the greatest men’s tennis player. Of course, Federer has deserved the goodwill and gushing sentiments from all and sundry.
Forgotten amid the Federer reverence has been Rafael Nadal’s renaissance with the Spaniard overshadowed because he has lost three times to his great rival, most notably during their epic five-set final in the Australian Open and most recently in the final of the Miami Open.
Roger Federer 🙌
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) April 2, 2017
Nadal is considerably younger than Federer – by five years, actually – but it feels like the age gap is considerably closer. Nadal turns 31 in June, which is certainly not geriatric for tennis players in this scientifically advanced era where athletes are seemingly defying ageing.
Nadal is somewhat of an exception because he is beaten down after a decade of physically punishing his body. He’s like a car ticking past 200,000km on the odometer chugging along but likely to break down at any moment.
it’s been hard predicting Nadal’s future with any certainty after a barren couple of years marked by injuries. Nadal’s punishing game was for so long the fulcrum of his domination. His sheer relentlessness broke the will of opponents – even Federer – for many years but it appeared Nadal’s high-powered engine was running on empty.
I’ll never forget the jarring sight of watching an ashen-face Nadal stunned in the second round of Wimbledon in 2015 by German qualifier Dustin Brown. Nadal was so noticeably crestfallen that some long-time tennis analysts said they had never seen him look so visibly dejected.
Normally, Nadal walks around in a frenetic pace with his chiselled chest and powerful shoulders jutting out projecting a man very much self-assured in his ability and standing. After that loss, Nadal exited Wimbledon’s hallowed centre court in a slight daze. He meandered towards autograph hunters, half-heartedly signing autographs as his once unmistakable confidence was being battered like never before. His face looked beaten, brow furrowed and his shoulders slumped. His career was seemingly at the crossroads.
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) April 2, 2017
I remember feeling slightly shaken by Nadal’s loss. It felt very much like a defining moment for one of tennis’ all-timers, the moment where his career was headed for freefall. And that basically happened over a dire next 18 months, where Nadal was completely overshadowed by Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and even Federer.
However, Nadal finally started to regain his fitness and battered confidence towards the backend of 2016, where he finished the year ranked No.9. Coming into 2017, the prevailing belief was that Nadal – and Federer – were still a notch behind Djokovic and Murray, and in jeopardy of being overtaken by a new breed of players emerging such as Nick Kyrgios, the polarising Australian who is starting to get his screwed on.
Thus far, Nadal has surprised the naysayers to provide another feel good comeback story to complement Federer’s fairytale resurgence. He’s risen to No.5 in the rankings ahead of his favourite time of the year – the clay court season. Nadal is very much in pole position to win a coveted 10th French Open and 15th grand slam overall to break a tie with Pete Sampras and become second on the all-time list behind Federer’s 18.
Much like Federer, we probably should have expected this from Nadal and his predicted demise as a spent force in men’s tennis was entirely foolhardy. True, there has been somewhat of an inevitable slippage and Nadal’s unable to hit back every shot and conjure the consistent brute force he’s famed for.
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) April 5, 2017
So long as he’s healthy, Nadal will always be a strong contender because he has the heart of a champion. Even with slightly diminished power and foot speed, Nadal still possesses one of the most feared all-round games and, let’s not forget, he’s one of the mentally toughest competitors we’ve seen in sports.
There will be longer droughts between slams as age eventually wearies – remember Federer didn’t win a major from 2013-16 – but Nadal has already reminded us of his inimitable greatness during this throwback season.
Certainly in recent years, fans never thought they would be able to see Federer and Nadal – arguably the two greatest men’s players ever – tapping into their bag of tricks and spellbinding us once again. For giddy tennis fans, it feels almost like a dream so surreal have their feats been.
Hopefully, we aren’t snapped out of this most fantastical reverie any time soon.