Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had terrific 2017 seasons–from sharing all four Grand Slams equally to winning five Masters events. While we were once upon a time very used to such thing It was rather out of the blue in 2017, with the pair starting the year ranked ninth and seventeenth and in many people’s eyes very unlikely to add to their Grand Slam count.
When they dominated tennis in the past, it was because they were simply the best. In 2004-2007, for the most part Roger Federer was unbeatable except for against Nadal on clay. He was more often than not getting the better of everyone else in big events–hence his 11 Slams, 13 Masters titles, and three Tennis Masters Cups (Now called ATP Finals) throughout those four years. Admittedly, while to many these years were rather weak and some of the players he had to beat to win big events (e.g. Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez) aren’t greats, the sheer dominance of level from the Swiss man overshadows this.
With Rafael Nadal, it’s more or less the same. When the Spaniard won two Slams in 2008, it was because he was outright the best player in the world–beating Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic routinely at Roland Garros, winning the title not dropping a set. Then the very next month he went on to beat Federer again in arguably the greatest match of all time–stopping the defending champion from a sixth consecutive title–and following it up with an Olympic Gold medal in Beijing. Even in 2010 and 2013, years which he won three and two Slams, respectively, he outclassed the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Why 2017 was different
The difference in 2017 is that both haven’t been anywhere near the level of play we saw in those years. Both are a lot older now, at 36 and 31, so it’s to be expected–but the media make it out to be as if both are at their very best, which is simply untrue and just shows the love affair the media have with the pair.
The one key reason why this is even being brought up is because many are forgetting what a horrible year this has been for many top players in the world due to injuries. Of the top five who finished last season, not a single one of them finished inside the top eight this year, which includes the winners of the last eight Slams prior to 2017. Further, all took significant portions of this year off. One of these five is Novak Djokovic, who stopped Roger Federer from winning the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals, as well as the 2015 US Open final. He even stopped the Swiss from winning an Australian Open semifinal as well as two World Tour Finals, all of this since 2014. Evidently, he was Roger Federer’s biggest obstacle in adding to the 17 Grand Slams he started the year with.
Rafael Nadal had a shocking few years heading into 2017, without even a Grand Slam semifinal in two-and-a-half years. During this period, his head-to-head against Djokovic was 0-7, not even winning a single set. He also struggled against others who started 2017 in the top five: he was 1-2 against big serving Canadian Milos Raonic, and 2-2 each against Japan’s Kei Nishikori and Britain’s Andy Murray. While he did have a winning head-to-head during that period against Stan Wawrinka, against all the others he evidently struggled.
With all these players being shadows of themselves in 2017 and not even playing many events it was inevitable that lower ranked players would have the chance to take centre stage for themselves. In this case it turned out to be two all-time greats in Federer and Nadal. And while they’ve both been considerably better in 2017 than in recent years, it doesn’t take away the fact both were severely aided by the state of their fellow top competitors this year.
This isn’t to take away from their achievements; Federer winning a record breaking eight Wimbledon and Nadal an amazing tenth Roland Garros both without dropping a set is absolutely incredible. However, en route to Wimbledon, the Swiss maestro didn’t beat a top five player and if you think that is bad the Spaniard won the US Open without facing a top 25 player. Compare this to Djokovic who’s had to beat a fellow top FOUR player in all of his twelve Slams, which includes two in 2016.
Of course it’s not their fault, as they can only beat who’s in front of them–but had they played the likes of 2016 Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the Majors, would they have won two majors each? We’ll never know and maybe they would have, but one thing is for sure if those other guys were fit it wouldn’t have ended up being so easy.
To conclude, I’m taking nothing away from what both achieved this year. To see both play well and win Grand Slams again was great for the game and hopefully they can keep it up with others recovering and re-joining them at the very top of the game. It’s just when you have the media screaming that both are back to their best (some analysts/journalists saying they’re even better now), it’s a lie. For both to be as good as they have been this past year, several things had to go their way in and out of their control and it just so happened they did. Yet somehow the only side we hear of the story is how they’re playing amazingly again forgetting what’s happened to everyone else–which makes it even funnier in some respects when you consider just last year (when Murray and Djokovic were dominating) many claimed it was just because of tennis being in a poor state and Federer and Nadal being far from their best.