So what’s the prevailing wisdom this week? Now he’s back to being the best ever? At least back on that track at any rate. It’s funny, he seems like the same player he was two weeks ago. The same player that dropped consecutive straight-set defeats to Djokovic on clay. The surface he never loses on. Rafa had become mortal again. A big piece of Serbian Kryptonite hung around his neck. His grinding style a long-term liability, his confidence a shadow of itself. Then came Roland Garros and a sixth title. Surprise, surprise. Now the magic is back. Nadal is once again mighty. He looks…unburdened? Even sportswriters who rarely traffic in the sport feel the urge to exalt Rafa’s virtues. He’s part Houdini, part King Kong. He’s humble, joyous, thoughtful, and patriotic. The man for our daughters.
For this week. Check back with those same scribes if Rafa flames out in London. Then something will be wrong with him again. His knees will be questionable. His athleticism too violent. Yesterday’s hero.
What about Djokovic? He’s still the Australian Open champ. Still off to the best start of anybody this year. Nadal didn’t settle any scores with him. Federer did the heavy lifting there. Then Nadal got healthy on his old punching bag. Fed fought the good fight. Should have had the first set. Then who knows how the final plays out. Probably would have just delayed the inevitable. How can Fed be the best of all time if he can’t beat his chief rival? That’s the barroom question. 17-8 in Nadal’s favor, 6-2 in Slam finals. Fact is Nadal is better. No way around it. Rafa can compliment Fed’s brilliance all he wants. It’s still from a loftier perch. Numbers can be manipulated, but they don’t confuse this issue. They also say that Fed still has had the better career. 16-to-10 in Slams. That’s the measuring stick of this era. Rafa has won more than half his haul in Paris, too. Roger has a much more equitable breakdown. Shows greater versatility. Plus all those weeks at No. 1. Rafa has some catching-up to do there. He still has the opportunity.
For this week. Check back after Djokovic has had his say this summer. When he won’t have the pressure of an undefeated streak heading into Wimbledon. When he gets back on his preferred hard courts in the States. It could be his turn in this game of thrones.
Then there’s Roger. The old man. That’s what some have taken to calling him. Stupid, really. What’s old about him? Old-school, maybe, in his love for the sport, the competition. Fed’s out of his prime, but still in the discussion. Summertime has traditionally been very good to him. Would more of the same seal the debate? Or did he need a second Slam on clay to cement his greatest ever status? Those with the memories will never abandon Laver. The Rocket is second-to-none they insist. He missed five years of Slam competition to play professionally. A victim of his times. On both sides of his hiatus Laver captured two calendar Slams. Never been duplicated. Not even close. Even when he could play Slams again he wasn’t dedicated. Over a three-year stretch he entered only five. Skipping Slams was customary back then. Connors played Australia just twice. Missed the French five times in his prime. Borg made it Down Under only once. Comparing eras is foolish anyway. The game evolves. The players improve. Laver would get dusted by Phil Petzschner. Nadal himself wants no part of the discussion. He recognizes he’s now on the short list. That’s good enough for him. He rightfully insists there’s an achievement gap between himself and the select few at the top. He appears game enough to close it. Others are ready to say that he can. That he will.
For this week.