If Paulo Coelho is to be believed, the single thing that excites men more than women is sport. Anybody who has not felt this debatable truth even slightly at any point of their lives can conveniently stop reading right here. For the other more adventurous folks, welcome aboard, this might just provide some food for thought.
The question had been there at the back of my mind for quite some time recently-is this the greatest sporting rivalry ever?yesterday,one comment from Alan Wilkins during his commentary stint on star sports during the epic Wimbledon final between nadal and federer,did it for me. Wilkins mentioned the likeness of yesterday’s match with the “rumble in the jungle” featuring George foreman and Muhammad Ali. Let’s delve into the depths a bit. To try and put some perspective to this introspection-are we the luckiest persons alive to witness the greatest individual sporting rivalry ever, that between Raphael Nadal and Roger Federer?
Let’s get one small thing sorted out first-the question of individual rivalries in team games like football and cricket simply don’t count. For most such occasions such rivalries are media generated and they hardly matter in the final result of the game. Take for example the comparisons between Lara and Sachin in cricket. Even if we agree to the fact that they were the best in our generations, how does it matter in the final result, for it is an undeniable fact that West Indies passed through their worst phase in their cricketing history during Lara’s career, and Sachin hasn’t even won for India the biggest trophy in world cricket-the quadrennial cup. same holds true for other so called Warne vs. Murli or Kapil vs. Imran ‘rivalries’ they just don’t count, for none of their contributions can be judged neglecting the efforts of the other 10 on the field with them.
In soccer, the same media generated formula applies-the effort to build up hoopla before a game or a tournament in this sport is almost second to none-but there is hardly any straight forward yardstick to judge the feats of one great footballer against another. There is just no question of witnessing a ‘duel’ in the biggest sport on earth. If really stressed, the most frequent comparison in football remains that between Pele and Maradona but that hardly counts as their careers were well separated by nearly a decade.
Basketball comes into mind where individuals are more at dagger heads with each other while still vying for their team’s victory, with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell’s legendary rivalry. Unfortunately there were only 9 teams in the NBA back in the 1960s and also the defenses back then were hardly as sophisticated as these days. Thus the question mark remains. Cut to the present, Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan is merely in its infancy.
Talking of individual sports, the ones which throw up the most chances of brewing up a rivalry are formula 1 motor racing, golf, boxing and tennis.
Formula one is too team dependant to be considered as an out and out rivalry. Although it has thrown up mouth watering contests right from Andretti vs. Foyt to Michael Schumacher vs. Mika Hakkinen to the recent Alonso vs. M.Schumacher, and now the rather nasty one with his own team mate the rookie Hamilton-these just go on. However the over-looking team mechanic factor is too much to ignore.
Golf has been riddled with dazzling rivalries. the most notable being that between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.while Palmer was the overriding crowd favorite, the new kid on the block,Nicklaus knocked him off his porch as the overriding champion-and went on to become one of the games greatest. Their respectful rivalry coincided with the advent of TV broadcast and was one of the major contributors to golf’s popularization. in the present crop, Tiger Woods who quite clearly towers above the rest can be at most compared with Sergio Garcia as his nearest rival, but it is too feeble in comparison to our choice.
Boxing probably poses the most potent threat to our choice with the intimidating 3 match rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier; it was scintillating stuff as everyone knows. They were too evenly poised with the final 14 round “thrilla in manila” fight being arguably one of the greatest boxing matches ever. But the very star like presence of Ali just overshadows the rivalry a bit-and in my opinion it was more of a challenge to Ali rather than a rivalry between the two.
So down to the last sport-tennis.Evert and Navratilova-intense-no doubt-43-37 in Navratilova’s favor, close enough to be exciting, no doubt, but can one compare women’s tennis with the men’s event ? Wimbledon’s equal prize money be damned-I give it thumbs down.
That brings us to the last comparison that we will handle-the one that is most refreshed in memory-Borg vs. McEnroe. This is by far the most discussed tennis rivalry till date. With hardly any thing to tell from the head to head stat between the two-the pinnacle being the victory for Borg in the epic 1980 final at Wimbledon and McEnroe bidding him goodbye the next year by thrashing him at the same venue. this was real crowd puller stuff, with Borg’s ice cool demeanor and McEnroe’s racket abuse and thrilling outbursts thrown in for good measure. This in my opinion is the close third after Ali and Frazier.
Now about our choice-the two names on every dazed person’s lips after last Sunday’s match. Rafael Nadal Parera, 21, is a unique player whose style of play I dare say has never been seen before on a tennis court. As for a certain Roger Federer I won’t bore folks with a dragging commentary on his career which gives us every reason to believe that he is the greatest tennis player ever born on this planet. I will focus on one point which is central to the topic under discussion, how the careers of the two are closely intertwined giving us every reason to ogle at their rivalry.
Lets consider a few interesting facts, some known and some not so much after all. one might have thought that Federer has had a far better overall career record than nadal-the career win percentage for Federer after last Sunday is 79.97,and that of mr.Nadal,is ,hold your breath,79.72!well,that’s just the beginning.
This is just more than a coincidence that both players have performed out of their skins to be the Achilles heel for each other.Nadal on his part has the better head to head record against Federer with the now famous figure of 8-5.a closer look will reveal that 6 of his victories have come on clay, and thus I cant resist the mouth watering line-only time will tell how the two match up on all kinds of surfaces.
For 3 consecutive years Nadal has thwarted Federer’s progress to win the French open, once in the semis, and in two agonizing finals. The Wimbledon finals of the past 2 years have been federer’s way of retorting to the losses on clay. When he notched up 4 consecutive wimbledons ala Sampras people discussed the likeness of the two with their common failures on clay, federer has gone a notch up on Pete with his two consecutive final appearances. On the other hand nadal, being branded a clay court specialist (with a record 81 consecutive clay wins thwarted by, no points for guessing who) went on to feature in successive finals of Wimbledon. The surface debate rages on, as nadal is yet to win any trophy on grass. While federer has bagged 6 of his career trophies on clay.ATP even arranged a battle of the surfaces to try and live up to the craze and the Spaniard won it too.
Both nadal and federer required a bit of time to build their career graph.nadal turned pro in 2001 and not until his breakthrough year of 2005 did he actually register in the radar of the tennis watching public.federer’s breakthrough moment came in 2001 when he beat pistol Pete thwarting his quest for a fifth consecutive one at the all England greens. This after he turned pro exactly 3 years earlier in 1998! Similarities and more similarities! So much for the facts and figures about them, how about their nature-and that is where the similarities end.
Nadal for his part is a natural crowd favorite wherever he goes, his Capri trousers and his “vamos rafa” shoes are a surefire hit with his legions of fans. add to that the bulging biceps with his unique sleeveless shirt, which I’m convinced was so much an oddity on the tennis court before we got used to him, and his long flowing mane-and there you have it. The ultimate package of the angst ridden youth icon! his style of play as was mentioned initially is uniquely outrageous-his breathtaking ground strokes played from near impossible angles while running at break neck speed all through and the trademark clenched fist after each such point is a joy to watch. His exaggerated asking for the towel after nearly each point and the ritual that he undergoes before each match of his meticulous energy enhancing diet is just top of the draw stuff to draw in the crowds. he is almost single handedly responsible for bringing in a football stadium like atmosphere to the elitist grand slam tennis courts.inspite of all this, the guy is a gentleman through and through. Just watch him fiddle shyly with his newly learnt English and you will get what I mean. And this after the fiasco in French open 2006, when he was praising federer after beating him in the final and the translator wrongly interpreted his speech and the crowd booed him all through thinking that he was praising himself.
Contrast this with federer-serene, composed, ice cool. almost never is he non plussed,he is simply elegance personified, for the majority of his career he has played tennis like he is playing with lesser mortals, although the best part is that, that’s just what appears on court and not off it. He is just too gentle a champion. His interviews are a joy to watch-as to how he discusses the nitty gritty of his matches, how he openly declares as to what his goals are, and then how he goes about achieving them. Well, almost always, albeit with a few hiccups against…
The sheer differing nature of the two makes this even more of a salivating dish for us. It is just so much more exciting to imagine that federer knows fully well that how badly he wants the French open and that the nearly unbeatable nadal-on-clay will do all that he can to stop him from doing that. On the other hand, if the final yesterday is anything to go by, it is not wrong to assert that nadal wants the other slams at federer’s own backyard a lot more than his clay honeymoon in Paris.
Question marks remain as to whether nadal can maintain his lightening reflexes as he grows older and other players pick up chinks in his armor and the rigors of the tour
take its toll. And one can’t help but wonder as to whether federer will ever be able to dismantle this nemesis of his, in the same manner that he so often does with the other players of the world.
To put things in perspective the two are immensely respectful for each other, and that makes us love the rivalry even more-and it is anything but boring, for the two just never seem to cease surprising us at all. To top it all, they are both young, nadal is merely 21 and federer at 25 can hardly be called a veteran (think of Agassi, and Borg was a rare, rare exception) although his astounding feats make him appear so much older at the circuit! Add to that the overwhelming feeling of the challenger taking on the champion that is just the best thing in any sport, and that is omnipresent in each one of this two’s matches.
As for us, let’s join in and raise a toast to the two: “just do it!”
Yup, you guessed it; they both endorse Nike too….