Per USA Today:
“[A]ccording to an annual study commissioned by the Physical Activity Council (PAC) and shared with USA TODAY Sports, tennis has boomed during the pandemic with an estimated 21.64 million Americans picking up a racquet in 2020, up 22.4 percent after several years of stagnant participation.”
This is great news for the tennis community!
You can find the full article here.
RAW LOOK INTO PLAYERS’ LIVES
Ashley Marshall |
American tennis player Noah Rubin is giving fans a fresh, surprisingly raw, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of his peers in a new online project.
Rubin created the “Behind the Racquet” account on Instagram to give players an outlet to discuss their thoughts, insecurities and struggles, while simultaneously affording fans an opportunity to learn more about the person, not just the player.
The premise seems straightforward at its core:
Have the players pose in exactly the same way, holding their racquets out in front of them, left hand on top of the right, so that their faces are centered behind the racquets.
Then have the players discuss something meaningful to them and their journeys as tennis players.
“After coming back from Australia, I was watching an Instagram documentary on Netflix at around 3:30 in the morning, and ‘Humans of New York’ came across my Instagram. Then it clicked with me,” said Rubin, who was inspired by the photoblog-turned-docuseries, in which strangers are interviewed on the streets of New York City.
“How am I not using my reach for something bigger, for something better?
That’s when this idea came about. Just to really bring awareness to the people that surround the great sport of tennis and to bring the human-interest stories back and, most importantly, to bring spectators back into the world of tennis and get them involved in the players.”
As simple as the concept seems, the candid posts are much more complex, filled with authenticity, sincerity and passion. The reaction from both players and fans has been overwhelmingly supportive.
“People are way more open than I thought they would be,” said the 22-year-old from Long Island, N.Y. “My biggest fear was that I would offend them with the questions. But they understand that I’m not here to offend them. I’m just asking to get the best answers to allow them to use this as an outlet. I want to hear their story.”
Rubin (pictured above) launched the project with a snippet from his own tennis story, discussing his “most daunting fear” of letting down the people closest to him—his family and friends, who have sacrificed so much to help him get to the place he is today.
“The idea that it may not be worth it, or there might not be a way to repay them, haunts me at times,” Rubin says in the introductory post. Since then, he has shared first-person stories from seven other pros, with the promise of more to come as the season progresses.
Ernesto Escobedo spoke about a stutter he has had in his speech since childhood and how he has sometimes avoided speaking with people he didn’t know for fear of being the center of their jokes. Mitchell Krueger asked the hypothetical question of whether he’s doing the right thing in his career after seeing other people find success despite not apparently working as hard.
Chris Eubanks discussed the grind of traveling the world on his own, eating room service alone day after day, and Bjorn Fratangelo opened up about how winning the French Open boys’ title put him in an uncomfortable place in the limelight that he really wasn’t ready for. Earlier this week, Dustin Brown, who was born in Germany but spent his teenage years in Jamaica, shared his story about dealing with racism growing up and how he felt the need to change the person he was depending on whom he was interacting with.
“People don’t know what goes on behind the scenes,” said Rubin, who rose to a career-high No. 125 in the world last fall and is currently ranked at No. 150.
“To actually know the true tennis players and what we go through and to know what we think about and the mental struggles and just the struggles as a person individually, I think there’s so much to be learned and so much to be had from all these stories. People just need a platform, and I’m giving it to them.
“People don’t have an understanding what being No. 100 in the world means for a tennis player. They think we’re just private-jetting around and staying at the Ritz Carlton all the time and playing in front of 15,000 people. There are a select few of us [ranked] between 100 and 200 that have done that maybe once or twice, but for the most part, you’re playing at clubs that have few line judges and no ball boys. It’s the real deal.”
Two players, Jamie Loeb and Marcos Giron, shared deeply personal stories in their “Behind the Racquet” posts. Loeb spoke about the time she learned that her mother Susan had a stroke, while Giron opened up about finding out his parents were getting a divorce while he was in the hospital preparing to have an MRI on his hip.
“That changed my outlook on everything,” Loeb said of her mother’s illness. “Winning and losing a tennis match means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
It was tough. … It changed everything for me since I was always wondering if I was being selfish for being on the road and not at home helping. … This was something bigger than myself, bigger than tennis.”
Rubin said that as pleased as he has been with the response to his new series, he is even happier to hear the impact it has had on the players he’s interviewed.
“One of the best parts has been having Ernesto Escobedo come up to me and say he’s received so many messages of support,” said Rubin, who explained that most tennis interviews solely focus on on-court matters and never touch on what is meaningful to a person away from the sport.
“Having Jamie Loeb come up to me and say that all these people are so supportive, that’s what keeps me going.
“I want [fans] to have an understanding of what encompasses a tennis player. There are so many diverse groups, so much to love about the sport. Just giving these people a chance to speak their mind, there will always be a fan for that.
I hope people will start following these people now because they’ve heard their story and they know a little more about them and feel a part of them. That’s what I want people to take away from this.”
To see the full “Behind the Racquet” series on Instagram, click here.
If you’ve watched a tennis match you’ll notice that tennis is a sport that gets people moving – and moving does good things for the mind and the body. The great thing about tennis is that it’s a sport that can be played at nearly every age level and at any skill level. Old and young alike pick this sport up easily because it’s a low-impact sport that isn’t dependent on the strength of the player. Tennis has great benefits for the mind and body whether you play competitively, for your health, or just for fun. We’re going to be sharing with you five ways in which playing tennis has a positive impact on your health*.
1. Decrease Your Risk of Heart Disease
They keys to helping reduce the risk of heart disease are: lowering high blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, reducing stress, maintaining a healthy body weight, and being physically active. Playing tennis can help you accomplish all of those keys. [source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute].
In the 1980s, a study by Ralph Paffenbarger showed that men who burn at least 2,000 calories per week through exercise have lower death rates from heart disease (one-fourth to one-third lower) than those who do not, and they live, on average, one to two years longer [source: Stanford News]. Although heart disease is no joke, the good news here is that tennis can go a long way toward achieving that 2,000 burned calories goal.
A 150 lb. human burns around 476 calories playing just one hour of singles tennis (340 calories for doubles) [source: Calorie Lab]. This means that playing a few hours of weekly tennis can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease.
Heart Disease and Aerobic Exercise
A quick google search shows that heart disease is the number 1 leading cause of death in the United States. That being said, just three hours of moderate aerobic exercise a week can reduce your chances of developing heart disease by up to 50 percent, according to the Cleveland Clinic. [source: Cleveland Clinic]. Aerobic exercise focuses on the oxygen-using (aerobic) processes in your body. In other words, aerobic exercises get your heart pumping, increasing your blood flow, increasing oxygen flow throughout your body, strengthening the heart muscles, reducing blood pressure and improving circulation. Tennis happens to be a great form of aerobic exercise.
2. Enhance Your Balance, Flexibility, and Coordination.
As a sport, Tennis requires the cooperation of your whole body. Your feet help maneuver you into the right position, your hands and arms position the racquet to make contact with the ball, and your legs and torso provide the power to send the ball flying over the net. Each of these factors come together every time you hit the ball, requiring balance, flexibility, and coordination for each shot.
Regularly playing tennis can have benefits that carry over to all other areas of your life by improving your body’s ability to synchronize controlled movements. The benefits of improving your flexibility are great, as more flexibility gives you a wider range of motion, helps with injury prevention, and even reduces muscle strain. Balance and coordination reduce the risk of injury when playing sports, and even engaging in day-to-day activities. The more you play tennis, the better your balance, flexibility, and coordination will be.
3. Boost your Brain Network
Neurons are the specialized working units of the brain that transmit information between your brain and different parts of your body. To send these messages, connections develop between neurons to aid in communication, and the better the connection is between neurons, the easier and more quickly the message is received and executed.
Our environment and how we interact with it affect the neural connections in our brains, and between our brains and the rest of the body. Doing something over and over again strengthens and solidifies the neural connections associated with that action, making the action progressively easier. When you do something new or in a new way, you develop new neural connections, and even new neurons. Doing something less and less has the opposite affect; the connections become weak or even disappear over time.
Tennis can be considered a creative sport. It involves planning, tactical thinking, agility, and the coordination of various parts of the body. The more you play tennis, the better and stronger the neural connections related to those types of activities become, and the better you become at them.
In addition to improving neural connections and developing new neurons, studies show that exercises that require a lot of thinking – such as tennis – can actually improve brain function in ways that aid memory, learning, social skills, and behavior [source: Harvard Health Publications].
Elevate Your Mood
When you exercise, the body releases endorphins, which are chemicals that make you feel good. Endorphins improve your mood, reduce stress, increase optimism, and even ease the symptoms of depression. Aerobic exercises, like tennis, are especially good at improving your mood. Being mentally healthy can carry over to all areas of your life, including work and your interactions with friends and family. Using tennis as a way to relax and reduce stress can help you feel more mentally prepared to deal with whatever life throws at you.
4. Lose Weight
Swinging, reaching, pivoting, running – tennis can be an intense workout with the right partner. Tennis is a whole-body sport, and you can burn a lot of calories by constantly being on the move. For many people, in fact, playing tennis actually burns more calories than other popular types of physical activity, including, but not limited to, weight lifting, golfing, dancing, playing volleyball, or leisurely cycling [source: Mayo Clinic Staff]. As a result, playing tennis regularly has been shown to help reduce body fat [source: NCBI: Health Benefits of Tennis].
To lose a pound of fat, you need to burn approximately 3,500 calories. If playing singles tennis for one hour burns about 476 calories, playing about four hours of tennis each week could help you lose around half a pound a week. That’s pretty good for a recreational sport that’s both fun and can be played by just about anyone.
5. Improve Your Bone Health
In addition to your muscles and mind, playing tennis has a positive impact on your bones as well. You can increase your peak bone mass and can even slow the rate of bone mass loss over time by exercising regularly. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), bone mass peaks around age 30 and begins to decline after that. You can maximize your bone mass prior to that age through exercise, and continuing to exercise after 30 can slow the rate of bone loss [source: NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center].
The NIH also points out that exercise improves coordination, flexibility and muscle strength, which can help prevent falls and injuries that can damage fragile bones.
Exercises that involve weights are the best exercises for building bone strength and mass. But that doesn’t mean you have to be lifting something – your body, and the resistance of gravity against it, is often enough to give you the weight-bearing exercise needed to support bone health. The NIH names tennis as one of the weight-bearing activities well suited to building strong bones.
Bone mass is directly affected by what parts of the body you’re exercising. So, if you only exercise your arms, you’ll be building bone mass only in the arms. Studies of lifetime tennis players have found that the bones in the arm used to swing the racquet have a greater bone mass than those in the arm not used [source: Huddleston]. That doesn’t necessarily mean tennis won’t give you a full body workout and won’t improve bone health throughout your body – it just means your dominant arm gets a little more bone mass.
*This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
WIMBLEDON — It’s time for the fence-sitting Grand Slams to hop off and follow the US Open’s lead in adopting a 25-second shot clock to keep the game moving.
The US Open is committed to implementing an on-court clock intended to enforce the rule specifying players have 25 seconds to initiate play after a point ends. But the other majors have been dragging their feet in the clay, on the grass and over the hard courts in Melbourne.
Here at Wimbledon, the most traditional of events, chief executive Richard Lewis recently told the The Times of London, “‘It probably will happen. But we are not charging in because we do not think it is necessary.”
Mr. Lewis, perhaps it’s time to charge in.
This issue has been festering way too long. Poor enforcement of the time rules has had some damaging consequences, adding to the tedium of overlong matches and sometimes makes a mockery of the rule that the game proceeds at the pace of the server. Returners who make servers wait break the rules. You can’t sugarcoat that as “traditional.”
The reminder that the US Open, the first major to use Hawkeye in the main draw, will be the first to adopt the on-court shot clock was greeted here with the familiar range of reactions from players. Some major attractions, like Maria Sharapova and Juan Martin del Potro, basically said: No problem, we’ll work with it for the good of the game.”
Others, led by Rafael Nadal, fired broadsides at the lords of tennis. No surprise there: Nadal is the player most responsible for the growing preoccupation with players’ time between points, as well as millennials and younger fans who seem less willing to sit through four-hour tennis matches or lengthy towelings or baseline wanderings between points.
“Seems like sometimes [tennis] is only about the business, so I can’t support this, no,” Nadal said. “I don’t feel the matches that [made history in] our sport went that quick [Nadal snapped his fingers as he spoke]. I don’t remember emotional matches that the total time of those matches have been two hours. All the matches that have been important in the history of our sport have been four hours, five hours, 3:45.”
Reality check: The lords of tennis, and television, would jump for joy if a shot clock could make that big a difference, given that 120 minutes is much closer to the ideal length of a sports broadcast. The truth is, enforcing the already existing rule is more of a tweak, and its most important long-term benefit may be the added opportunity it offers for fan engagement.
Even Novak Djokovic took a swipe at the establishment here Tuesday, when he was asked about the shot clock. His beef was that players on the ATP council were not consulted on the matter. “I know that they’ve tried it out last year in [US Open qualifiers],” Djokovic said. “It was not too many negative comments about it, but it’s quite different if you introduce that to the show courts and main draw, playing best-of-five.”
Fair enough. Lobbing in a call to the council members would have been a nice courtesy; it might have produced some valuable input, as well. On the other hand, the players are not necessarily the best choice to run the asylum. And history has shown that, in general, players are inherently resistant to change. Heck, if you even mention eliminating the “let” serve, players go apoplectic.
The history of electronic line-calling is instructive. When viable technology first became available, there was great concern that it would make a quiet, relatively “cool” game downright cold. Tennis would become too “Big Brother,” lacking in the “human touch” provided by linespeople, no matter the unjustifiably large number of erroneous, outcome-affecting calls all those linesfolks made.
We saw the result: Hawkeye not only drastically cut down on the number of matches ruined by linecall controversies, but it has also added considerable value to the fan experience. The shot-clock protocols, if properly conceived and implemented, could similarly engage fans, even if no one is thrilled by the prospect of a stadium full of voices counting — “Four … three … two … one” — as Nadal is in the middle of his service motion.
The constituents in tennis all agree the game needs to evolve and adapt to changing times.
Four … three … two … one …
photo credit: beast120815 rafael-nadal-beats-guido-pella-in-2nd-round-of-2018-french-open-12 via photopin (license)
Partners in Prime
By S.L. Price (From Sports Illustrated 2017/12/05)
DEC. 11, 2017
Mostly written off because of their injuries and age, RAFAEL NADAL and ROGER FEDERER came back to divide the four major titles and demonstrate that even supreme rivals can still respect, support—even like—each other
PITY YOUR FAVORITE editorial cartoonist. Usually ’tis the season when that weary wretch can, for a day, get away with a dashed-off Father Time: geezer, sickle, four numerals to note the passing year. But how to capture 2017? Bald and bearded hardly sums up its dispiritingly nasty tone. And it’s probably best to avoid using a berobed male to symbolize anything, much less the culture at large, unless you can depict predation, cluelessness and the appalling abuse of position and power.
Indeed, with the revelatory parade of odious men from the media, film, sports and political realms marking this annus as particularly horribilis, it’s easy to forget the exceptions. Yet Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, simultaneously crafting the most astonishing comebacks of their careers, together conducted a global tutorial in how to compete, win, project strength and earn millions without embarrassing themselves, bullying subordinates or belittling opponents. Few athletes, this year, proved more dominant. Fewer males, anywhere, handled being “alpha” with such class.
For the first example of this, you had to travel in January to the bottom of the planet, Melbourne—a place about as far as possible from our culture’s current left/right, black/white, I’m-right/you’re-crazy divide. Sure, it seems odd that a pro sports championship, with its stark delineation of winners and losers, could provide a lesson in how not to approach every argument or game as zero-sum. Yet that was the feeling at the 2017 Australian Open men’s final.
Consider: Federer, 35, had every reason to exult after stampeding the 30-year-old Nadal 6–3 in the fifth set, overcoming not just a 1–3 deficit but also a decade of gibes about his lack of guts (or “balls,” as seven-time major champ Mats Wilander once put it) when facing his implacable foe. Standing in the same spot where, eight years before, yet another collapse against Nadal had left him weeping, Federer spoke of how, just three months earlier, the two had been nursing injuries that suggested nearly any future but this.
“And here we stand in the finals,” Federer said to Nadal. “I’m happy for you. I would’ve been happy to lose to you, to be honest. Tennis is a tough sport; there’s no draws. But if there was going to be one, I would be very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa.”
The crowd gasped so loudly—Happy to lose?—that Federer added “Really.” We’ve long been taught to expect personal animus at the top of tennis, ever since Jimmy Connors approached each match as a street fight and vowed to chase “that son of a bitch,” Bjorn Borg, “to the ends of the earth.” And Connors respected Borg. Connors and John McEnroe viscerally despised each other, with a loathing of Ivan Lendl their sole common bond.
“Everyone seemed like an adversary,” McEnroe says. “That was sort of the way I grew up; I watched Connors and some of these other guys, and you had to watch out for everyone.”
It metastasized from there: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were doubles partners until their rivalry heated up and Navratilova’s coach, as Evert told the New York Post in 2002, “taught Martina to hate me.” Steffi Graf and Monica Seles maintained a stony silence until a deranged Graf fan stabbed Seles in 1993. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi? In 2010, eight years after their final match, the two faced each other in a charity doubles exhibition: Agassi taunted Sampras for being a tightwad; Sampras blasted a serve at Agassi’s head.
Their partners that evening—Federer and Nadal—were visibly unnerved. “This rivalry is intense, man!” Federer hollered crosscourt. “I mean, Rafa … start! Do something.”
But the Rafa-Fed rivalry—which for quality already surpassed anything produced by Sampras-Agassi—had nowhere near that kind of sizzle. They had been playing each other for six years, and Nadal was on a roll, winning five of their previous six (highly civil) meetings, including the French Open, Wimbledon and that tear-stained Aussie Open. Anyone suspecting hidden enmity all but gave up a few months later, when Federer and Nadal turned a promotional video for a charity match into a 14-minute gigglefest. The clip went viral, and some 11 million YouTube views later, it remains one of the more delightful byplays in sports history. “I’ve seen it 50 times,” says Paul Annacone, who coached Federer from 2010 to ’13.
This year, though, Federer and Nadal’s mutual regard stood out like never before. Perhaps that’s because, though long paired in the public mind, their careers had never before tracked so closely. Entering 2017 both were experiencing their longest Grand Slam droughts, five years for Federer and three for Nadal; both had finished just two majors in ’16 because of injury; both were considered essentially done as title contenders. Yet each roared back to win two majors apiece and, stunningly, answered the lone niggling doubt about his greatness in the process.
In short, the tennis year belonged to both men—but also to this third entity, invisible but always present, that they’ve created together. Call it civility or respect or the understanding that genius is only truly understood by genius: It may well end up being the “Fedal” rivalry’s most lasting legacy.
“As a parent, I look at them and think, That’s kind of what I’d like my children to be,” Annacone says. “Not in terms of accomplishment. In terms of sense of one’s self, their sense of appreciation for what they get to do. They just get it. It’s so rare in sports to see two rivals who are able to approach their careers in that fashion—purely—that it catches all of us off guard. Because we’re like, Don’t they really hate each other, deep down?”
IN TRUTH, it was easy to wonder that early on. Neither Federer nor Nadal sports the flamboyant neuroses that made the early Open era such a circus, but ego and competitiveness did produce some friction. When they met in the 2006 Italian Open final, Federer, then 24, trailed 1–4 in their series and seemed utterly confounded by the 19-year-old’s relentlessness and high, spinning southpaw forehands. His frustration boiled over during the ensuing five-set epic, when he snapped at Nadal’s Uncle Toni—”You all right, Toni?”—for coaching from the stands.
“Yeah, I caught him in the act,” Federer said after. “Not the first time.”
Not the first time, either, that he had seized a seemingly commanding lead in the fifth (4–1) and wilted. Nadal ignored Federer’s friendly pat on the gut at net and, still smarting from the implication of cheating, the next day said, “He has to learn to be a gentleman even when he loses.”
Despite their language barrier and age gap, the two shared some core traits: A grounded family, a drive based more on achievement than conquest, a dislike of media-fueled sniping. With temperatures rising and fans slavering for a heated rivalry, ground-level ATP officials urged them to meet and talk. A few weeks later, at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Barcelona, Federer and Nadal sat at a table separated only by Princess Elena of Spain, broke bread and cheered each other’s triumphs. The following year Federer flew to Nadal’s home island of Majorca to play a goofy half-grass/half-clay exhibition, and the two had a warm dinner, seemingly at peace with divvying up, like spheres of influence, the tennis world.
Still, Federer was the sport’s undisputed king then, winner of 10 majors, supreme on hard court and grass, while Nadal’s only two Grand Slams had come at Roland Garros. The Spaniard had all the marks of a clay-court specialist—except in his own ambitious mind. Armed with great wheels and wondrous hands, aided by a slowing of court surfaces and by string technology that lent his shots astounding torque, Nadal pounded away at Federer’s shaky high backhand, lost to him in back-to-back Wimbledon finals, and suddenly, says Boris Becker, “you’re going, Holy s—! This guy is the full packet!”
Nadal completed his coup in 2008, beating Federer in a five-set epic at the All England Club—9–7 in the fifth, as darkness fell—that was instantly hailed as the greatest match ever. “The guy proved everybody wrong,” Becker says. “His sheer determination to overcome obstacles must be second to none.”
Federer’s efforts against Nadal on clay, meanwhile, kept falling short. He seemed uncharacteristically cowed in their matches but, against other challengers, began to snap: a “Shut up!” to the crowd here, a “Be quiet” to the player’s box there. Critics declared that Rafa had burrowed inside Fed’s head. In January 2009, Nadal’s record against Federer stood at 12–6 … and he just kept coming.
Federer opened that year’s Australian Open final hoping to tie his idol, Pete Sampras, with his 14th Grand Slam title; instead, Nadal seized his first hard-court major by rolling him in the fifth set, 6–2. The Federer Paradox took hold: How can a player be termed the greatest if he’s so dominated by his archrival? “God,” Federer said, crying as he tried to give his runner-up speech, “it’s killing me.”
Much has been made of that moment. No No. 1 has ever had more poise; Federer always carried himself like a jock dreamed up by Ian Fleming. But in Australia, all suavity vanished. Nadal, the first to expose Fed’s weakness, now made him reveal how much losing hurt. Far less has been made of what happened next.
After raising the trophy high, Nadal didn’t ignore Federer’s tears or stare at the ground, but walked back, threw an arm around his opponent’s shoulders and leaned in with the gentlest of head butts. Then he took the mike and said, “First of all, Roger, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now is really tough, but remember, you are a great champion. You are one of the best of history. You are going to improve on the 14 of Sampras, for sure.”
The spontaneity of his response undercut any suspicion of gamesmanship—though it’s true Nadal had arranged some cozy psychological cushioning by insisting for years that he was Federer’s inferior, even as he was kicking his ass. With that mind-set each loss is justifiable, every win gravy.
Then again, it could be the ease in Federer’s game that Nadal so admires, and slightly resents. For by then his own disturbing pattern had begun to emerge. Though Nadal finished 2008 at No. 1 for the first time, the toll exacted by his furious style was becoming clear; his record, riddled with withdrawals because of foot and knee injuries, would nearly always dip after June, and few expected his body to hold up long. Early in ’12, with Federer the president of the ATP Player Council and Nadal the vice president, the two clashed over a number of issues, including Nadal’s vocal support of a two-year ranking system to protect injured players.
“Maybe he has got a super body and he’ll finish his career like a rose,” Nadal said of Federer. Neither myself, nor [Andy] Murray, nor [Novak] Djokovic are going to finish our careers like a rose…. We’re not like him, where it’s effortless to play. All of us, it’s a battle.”
AT THAT point the Nadal-Federer divide consumed fans, with numbers (Federer, 17–11 in the Grand Slam count; Nadal, 18–10 head-to-head) deployed in what felt, at core, like a matter of persona. And how do you compare warrior to artist? Sun Tzu to Michelangelo? By the time he won his seventh Wimbledon, in 2012, Federer seemed resigned to ambiguity; yes, he’d finally won his French Open, in ’09 (without facing Nadal), but the greatest-of-all-time debate figured to rage on, forever.
“We have two such separate lives and worlds and things we do and the way we do them,” he said that night at the All England Club. “If he does beat my record, it almost doesn’t matter. Because I did things he can never do. He did things that I can never do.”
By October 2016, Nadal had won three more majors to cut Federer’s lead to three, but both men seemed on the edge of valedictory. Nadal pulled out of the ’16 French Open in tears with a left wrist injury, missed Wimbledon, failed to reach a Slam quarterfinal for the first time since ’04 and finished the year ranked ninth. Back trouble and left-knee surgery knocked Federer out of the season’s final four months and out of the Top 10 for the first time in 14 years. He attended the October opening of Nadal’s tennis academy on Majorca, called him “the great man”—and made an unprecedented admission.
“I’ve seen a lot of hard workers and inspiring players,” Federer said, “but you’ve been the one who has been the most inspiring and most influential and made me the player I am today. Because you’re lefthanded, because of your spin, because of the intensity you bring to the court, I had to reinvent and rework my game entirely.”
Neither, surely, suspected that the reinventing was far from over. Indeed, Federer’s decision in 2014 to switch to a bigger racket—from 90 inches to 97—had paid minimal dividends until last winter, when he paired it with a tactical shift. Urged on by coaches Severin Luthi and Ivan Ljubicic, who as a player wielded a punishing one-handed backhand, the 16th-ranked Federer returned in January bent on sustained assault. It was hardly a new idea, but previous bids had always, after a set or two, dissolved in the face of Nadal’s tenacity.
In Australia, Federer decided it wouldn’t matter if he had a lead or if errors began to mount. Hugging the baseline, taking the ball early, flattening out his backhand—especially on returns—he survived three Top 10 opponents to make the final. Waiting was Nadal, uninjured but hardly pain-free. Of course it went five sets. Federer found himself down a break at 3–1 but, this time, “kept his foot on the pedal,” says former world No. 1 Jim Courier, “no matter what.”
Five games later, Federer had beaten Nadal in a major for the first time in a decade. “First time I’ve ever seen Roger play the right way against Rafa for five sets,” Annacone says.
Then something strange happened. Federer kept it up. He beat Nadal again at Indian Wells, then at Miami—both in straight sets—won his eighth Wimbledon without losing a set and, in October, now 36, crushed Nadal again in Shanghai. He would finish the year No. 2, with seven titles and a 52–5 record: without doubt, the sport’s greatest late-career run. “I’ve watched tennis for 40, 50 years,” McEnroe said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Perhaps even more important, Federer has beaten Nadal a career-high five straight to reclaim, at last, his hard-court dominion. Nadal’s head-to-head lead is now a less overwhelming 23–15, with 13 wins on clay—an imbalance notable enough to allow Fed fans to claim victory. “Roger’s the greatest person ever to play the game,” says Rod Laver, the only winner of two calendar-year Grand Slams. “In my mind he’s head and shoulders above anybody on the tour.”
Yet the vexing truth about this rivalry is that it can never be quite that cut-and-dried. Grand Slam count has only recently become the sport’s gold standard, after all, and it matters that Federer has just one major win in Nadal’s territory, Roland Garros, while Nadal has won six, including two over Federer, on Federer’s home surfaces. This year? Federer’s decision to skip the clay-court season was brilliant for many reasons, not least because it allowed him to face Nadal only on his own terms. “Clearly avoiding him—not playing him on clay,” Federer said after Shanghai, “has helped.”
Such cherry-picking, of course, makes it easier—even with Federer’s 4–0 record against him in 2017—to claim that Nadal had the “better” year. He won a historic 10th French Open and his third U.S. Open—arguably the two most punishing majors. He went 67–10, claimed six titles, and at 31 became the oldest man ever to finish the year No. 1. Most important, Nadal managed body and schedule well enough to post the kind of second half long thought past him, all the way until his knees gave out in November.
“Is so important, winning on hard court again,” Nadal said after the U.S. Open. “That’s a lot of positive energy for me. Being healthy, you see everything more possible, no?”
INCLUDING THE gift given tennis fans throughout 2017. Call it Kismet: Everything conspired to make Federer and Nadal’s return this year a storybook. The tour’s injury plague cleared the draw of their most worrying threats: Federer won Wimbledon and Nadal the U.S. Open without facing Djokovic, Murray—or each other. Their warm relationship, meanwhile, made everyone a bit giddy. No press conference could pass without a question about their mutual admiration.
“I don’t want to look like I gonna be his boyfriend, no?” Nadal said after his Open quarterfinal, before—again—enumerating Federer’s charity, image, completeness and passion.
That was just a few weeks before both men jetted to Prague for the Laver Cup, a Federer-created exhibition pitting Europe versus the World, with Borg and McEnroe coaching. The newfangled format placed cameras in the locker room and on the sidelines, allowing a riveting glimpse of Federer and Nadal talking strategy together, and the contrast between rivals then and now. There was McEnroe, urging Jack Sock of the U.S. during his singles match with Nadal to “finish this son of a bitch off!” There was Borg, being asked if he could imagine playing doubles with Connors or McEnroe, and saying, “Uh … no.”
And there, at last, were Federer and Nadal together for the first time, playing doubles against Sock and countryman Sam Querrey, lined up with their Hall of Fame forehands covering the alleys. And it went off as you’d expect, Fedal winning 6–4, 1–6, 10–5 with just one tiny hiccup: a high ball that Federer called for but Nadal intercepted, nearly taking Federer’s head off in the process. (“We were wondering, Who’s the alpha?” said the play-by-play man. “Maybe it’s Rafa.”) But both players laughed and sat close and jabbered during breaks, and hugged when it was done.
“To have Roger next to me is a huge privilege,” Nadal said after.
“For me personally was a great moment too,” Federer said. “After this we will be rivals again, thank God—or unfortunately, however you want to see it. But this was something very special.”
It was. We live in an era when rivalry, like so much else in the culture, too often becomes poisonous. The way Federer and Nadal have learned to interact poses a compelling question.
“Why can’t it always be like that?” Annacone says. “You look at these guys and see that you can be a helluva competitor, work your ass off, spill your guts and then praise the person on the other side. It’s kind of how life should be. They do what you’re supposed to do.”
And the best part? It’s not over. Federer holds a 19–16 lead in majors, but this year’s string of wins has, for the first time in 13 years, fundamentally changed their dynamic. Roger has climbed inside Rafa’s head. The eternal challenger has been pushed back on his heels, and it’s now down to him to muster a response. Keep altering serve patterns? Double down on attacking the backhand? Does Nadal have enough left to push this glorious scrap to yet another level?
“We’re about to find out,” Courier says. “I hope.”
“Neither Federer nor Nadal sports the flamboyant neuroses that made the early Open era such a circus, but EGO AND COMPETITIVENESS did produce some minor friction.