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To Be Best Ever, Federer Needs to Beat Nadal

In 1980 Bjorn Borg defeated his infamous rival John McEnroe in the Wimbledon final in what became known as the greatest match ever played. The duo followed up their all-time classic encounter with another five set final at the US Open in New York two months later. Though not played at as high a level as their meeting in London, it was nonetheless a tight and compelling match with McEnroe eking out a 6-4 victory in the deciding set denying Borg yet again on the hard courts in Flushing.

The two would meet again in both the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 1981 with McEnroe emerging victorious in both contests. Following the US Open that year, Borg vanished from the sport, never to return. The twisting, spinning serves of McEnroe that forced Borg off the court had become unsolvable to the stoic Swede -- in addition, the 11-time Grand Slam champion was suffering from burnout.

I couldn't help but think of that rivalry and the thin but undeniable parallels it draws to this age of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that we now inhabit. The tandem have appeared in the finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon the last three years, surpassing the feat of Borg and McEnroe at Wimbledon and the US Open. And after all, Roger and Rafa played in the "newest" version of the greatest match ever played at Wimbledon seven months ago and followed that up with yesterday's thrilling five set battle which Nadal claimed with his physical imposition and shot-making genius. It was the third consecutive victory over Federer in a Grand Slam final, with each on a different surface.

One has to wonder whether Federer, like Borg before him, is now beset with nightmares of his archrival's best shots. Roger must have visions of seeing Nadal's thunderous, topspin ground strokes jumping up to eye level on his backhand side. Could this be the stroke that will deny Federer immortality, preventing him from tying or breaking Californian Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles?

Borg and McEnroe met 14 times in their careers with each claiming seven victories. But the all-important stat is Grand Slam results and this is where McEnroe had the edge, taking three of the four meetings in Slams (in fairness, Borg dominated his rivalry with his first main rival, Jimmy Connors). Something not dissimilar -- though far more prolific and extended -- is occurring with Federer and Nadal. Nadal dominates both the career head-to-head matchups as well as their Slam encounters. Rafa has emerged the victor in 13 of the 19 matches between these two future Hall of Famers, including a five to two edge in Slam finals.

The question which begs and is being openly discussed in tennis circles is thus -- can Federer be declared the greatest of all time if his main rival owns a dominating record against him? I'd say no. If one examines the record of the other three considered candidates for "greatest of all time" status since the onset of the Open Era in 1968 -- Borg, Rod Laver and Pete Sampras -- one finds that they all handled their rivals easily or at the least didn't have a losing record against their chief foes. Laver's ledger gives him a 13-7 edge over Ken Rosewall, 9-3 over John Newcombe and 14-1 against Roy Emerson. Borg was less dominating over McEnroe but thoroughly owned Connors in their rivalry. Sampras, Federer's idol, also fared quite well against his great foil Andre Agassi in what was, until recently, the best rivalry of the past 40 years. The pair met in five Slam finals with Sampras the victor in all but one. Pete also had a 20-14 edge in their 13 year share history -- with only three years elapsed with them meeting in Slam finals, just think if we're treated to even a few more years of Nadal and Federer battles.

There's no doubt that Federer's run of domination from 2004 through 2007 is unlike anything that men's tennis has ever witnessed. He appeared in a ridiculous total of 13 Slam finals, winning 11 of them. Just on that run alone, Federer must be considered in the conversation of greatest ever.

But in my mind he needs a third act -- it would only be fair and just. It is essential for him to prove he can beat Nadal again in a major. I don't think age is yet an issue as some may presume. It would be wise to recall Sampras' last few years on tour. People were writing Sampras off for nearly two years, many calling on him to retire before he came back and produced the most spectacular exit any athlete has mustered by defeating Agassi in the finals of the 2002 US Open at the age of 31.

Perhaps Federer needs a coach, as ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe suggested. Oftentimes stubbornness is a companion of brilliance and Federer hasn't changed his strategy much against Nadal so maybe it's time. It'd be hard to imagine Roger not getting another shot at Rafa in another Slam final this year. And let's hope Gotham is finally treated to this pair meeting in the finals of the US Open in September, the only major venue where the two haven't faced off. If only we could be so fortunate.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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