Thursday, February 5, 2009

Who is the real Tennis champion?

For the last two weeks despite my hectic work schedule I was glued to the television everyday evening from 7 - 11/12pm watching Australian Open 2009. It was a good tournament with lots of ups and downs both in men's and women's section. Eventually the No.1 men's player stood up to his ranking. In the women's section it was as usual a topsy-turvy run with the No.2 player regaining the No.1 spot.

I had always felt that it is the men's tennis that stands out as compared to women's tennis. In men's tennis there is always a fierce battle for moving up the rankings and the battle in the court is far more interesting than women's tennis. In women’s tennis ever since Steffi Graf retirement there has not been a consistent player who could hold on to the No. 1 slot long enough to be called a "Great" player. Unfortunately, the quality of women's tennis has slipped and the rankings table change too often that there is hardly a "Great" player in this category to be called as a champion. The reason being, to be called as a champion you need to be consistent and I do not see that in women’s tennis.

Let's talk more about men’s tennis. Though I have not taken the tennis racket even once in my hand and played this game, I have been following the game right from my childhood. I remember the days when I used to watch tennis matches involving Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and other great player of yesteryear's on TV with my dad and him explaining the rules. Somehow the sport fascinated me just enough to watch it but not even attempt to play it.

There have been so many tennis players who have played the sport to their best ability and proved their mettle in the court. Each player has left a name for himself, may be as the best player of just one type of court or for possessing a good serve or excellent baseline game. But until Roger Federer (FedEx) came, I believe every player was playing the same genre of tennis in terms of what their predecessors were playing. I strongly feel, may be not everybody feels that way, that it was Fed who raised the standards of playing tennis to whole new level both mentally and physically.

When Pete Sampras was around, Pete did play a better game than his predecessors but I personally feel that it was Fed who took the game to greater heights. What Fed has done to the game in terms of setting such high standards has reflected in him being able to retain the No. 1 spot for 4 and 1/2 years straight and how hard Rafael Nadal (Rafa) had to work to dethrone him. Though Rafa has won, I believe, 6 grand slam titles at the young age of 22 he has been made to push himself too hard so as to be able to cross Fed. How long can he retain his No.1 ranking, let's wait and see.

There is a debate as to whether Fed is the greatest player to have ever played this sport. The reason for every one to ask that question is again because of the high standards that Fed has set for himself to be worthy enough for this question. As an ardent tennis fan to me if you are the greatest tennis player in the world then you should have proved your mettle in all types of courts which unfortunately Fed could not do as he is yet to win his first clay court (French Open) grand slam title. Fed has been consistently beaten by Rafa in clay court. As a matter of fact, before this year's Australian open finals, in head-to-head matches between Rafa and Fed, Rafa led 12-6 and out of those 12 matches that Rafa had won against Fed, 9 were in clay court. This clearly exposes Fed's weakness in clay court.

The rivalry, on-court, between Fed and Rafa has grown immensely that nowadays it has become easy to predict that the finals of any major grand slam tournament will be between these two. But still every match between the two gets more interesting. I cannot remember a fierce rivalry between two opponents in an individual sport. Team sport is different. Off late Rafa has improved his game a lot and has been more consistent in his service and baseline games. All the more importantly he has been able to make Fed run around the court to earn his money and Rafa has also shown his desire to be the No. 1 more aggressively. Rafa is still young and he definitely has at least another 5 - 6 years of tennis left in him before he hangs his boots.

Now that Rafa has been able to defeat Fed in Fed's favorite Grass court tournament (Wimbledon 2008) and also in hard court (Australian 2009) combined with the fact that Fed is 27 and getting older by the day succumbing to the hits that his muscles have taken over the years, can Rafa expect to win in all types of courts easily. I think so as I do not see Novak Djokovic (No. 3) or Andy Murray (No.4) or anybody else in today's men’s tennis being able to overcome Rafa the way they are playing today as compared to the way Rafa is playing. At the most I can see only Fed rising one last time in this year's Wimbledon or US open before he decides to hang his boots. Else I do not see Rafa's dominance of the sport being questioned by any other player.

So this raises the question "Can Rafa become the best tennis player ever". I guess we will to have to wait for another couple of years to see how Rafa performs. But can Fed be the greatest player ever to have played the sport. My answer is yes and no. Yes, because he took the benchmark to be a No.1 player to such heights that he needs to be appreciated for raising the standard of the game for generations to follow. No, because he is yet to prove his strength in clay court.

For me, the real tennis champion is Andre Agassi, for he is the only player of my generation, to have won grand slams in all types of tennis court surfaces. So my real tennis champion is Andre Agassi. But definitely Fed has a special mention in my tennis books. I will wait and see if I can add Rafa to that list.

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