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Is It Curtains for Federer and Nadal?

After Roger Federer’s stunning and entirely unprecedented second-round dismissal from his beloved London lawns Wednesday afternoon, the pronouncements came quickly and predictably; “Federer is finished”, “the era of Federer and Nadal is now over”, etc. Is this accurate?

Yes … partly.

In actuality, the era of Nadal and Federer ended years ago, after Federer was blown off the court in the fifth set of the 2009 US Open final against Juan Martin Del Potro. More to the point, since Federer’s thrilling victory over Andy Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon final, Federer has won “just” two of the last 15 Slam titles (16 if you count this Wimbledon); in that same period Nadal has collected six Slam trophies and Novak Djokovic has amassed five major titles.

We have been clearly ensconced in the post-Nadal/Federer world for some time now, especially 2011 when Novak Djokovic finally delivered on his many talents and emerged as the best player in the world. The best way to accurately describe the current state of men’s tennis is that it is in a period of “limited parity,” where the major titles are still only doled out to a few players (some have stubbornely held on to the notion of the “Big Four” but that is incorrect as well, as Andy Murray only has one Slam championship to his name – when Murray adds another Slam or two to his resume, his membership in that club will be accepted).

Will Federer get another chance at Wimbledon or any other Slam? Impossible to say of course, but I doubt it. After Wednesday’s loss, a loss that left Federer looking disconsolate as he walked off his favorite patch of grass in the world, some tennis observers referred to the loss suffered by Pete Sampras to George Bastl in the second round of Wimbledon in 2002, weeks before he turned 31 (Federer turns 32 in August) – and the fact that Sampras followed up this awful loss with an incredible victory over Andre Agassi in the final of the US Open just two months later. Sampras proved all his naysayers wrong and walked off into retirement in arguably the greatest ending to a career, in any sport.

Many will argue that, just like Sampras, Federer will also get that one last Slam title before leaving the sport. And even if he doesn’t win another title his place in tennis history is more than secure as he’ll forever be named among a handful who will be regarded as the finest to have played the sport.

But the big difference between Sampras in 2002 and Federer in 2013 is one of competition. Sampras really only had Agassi in his way, and Sampras owned Agassi in the Slams. Whereas Federer has two extraordinary players – Djokovic and Murray – in their prime, in addition to Nadal, whom Federer hasn’t beaten in a Slam since 2007. The level of competition is far greater in the sport today than it was 10 years ago. For Federer to win another Slam he’ll have to likely beat two of the aforementioned in three-of-five set contests and that is likely too big of an ask at this stage of his career.

So then what of Nadal’s fate? His case is much different from Federer's. While Federer is facing the cruel ravages of time as well as being a genius all-court and finesse player in an age of raw baseline power tennis, Nadal is battling himself – or, should I say, his knees. Nadal didn’t give many excuses after his embarrassing first-round defeat, but it was obvious that he wasn’t moving half as well as he usually does, which means either his overly intense early-year scheduling caught up with him or his decision to not play in a Wimbledon warmup event left the southpaw at a disadvantage.

Whatever the case, Nadal is likely to continue to be a major threat at the Slams but with one major condition - when he’s healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nadal takes a couple of weeks off and then devotes himself to the American hard-court season and contends for the US Open title. And this will likely be the pattern with Nadal for the next couple of years, the last years he’ll likely be a threat to win a major. He’ll compete in prolonged spurts, punctuated by extended absences from the sport to heal his aching knees. If I were to wager on how many more Slams Nadal will take home, I’d guess two.

What bears reminding with both Federer and Nadal is that what they’ve done over the last decades is nothing short of remarkable and is simply unprecedented in the Open era. To have two players – in a span of 10 years – claim 29 Slam titles is, in a word, ridiculous. To put that into perspective that’s three more than Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe combined through the course of their entire careers.

What’s truly surprising is not that Federer and Nadal both lost early at this year’s Wimbledon – it’s that they were able to maintain their grip on the sport for so long. Think of the feats they’ve accomplished: Most Slam Titles, (17, Federer); most Slam titles at one event (8, Nadal at the French Open); most consecutive years of recording a Slam win (9, Nadal. 2005-2013); most consecutive quarterfinals reached at the Slams (36, Federer). I’d guess that none of these records will be broken for many decades. 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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