Ageless warriors

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

The 2008 Wimbledon men’s final remains mint fresh in the memories of tennis lovers. A decade has passed since the epic contest, arguably regarded as the best match in the sport’s history, and yet little has changed on the men’s circuit. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal continue to rule the pecking order and remain the favourites going into the latest edition beginning Monday.

While the tennis world has witnessed a spate of talent during these years, the facts continue to bow to the greatness and insatiable hunger of Federer and Nadal. The two have shattered conventions to win the last six Grand Slams, and continue to hold the top two positions much like the way it was in 2008.

Tennis legends Chris Evert and John McEnroe, who are the commentators at ESPN, were simply in awe of the two as they assessed their chances heading into this year’s championships.

McEnroe, who was commentating on the 2008 contest, recalled: “I believe there was a rain delay before the match started. I believe there were a couple of rain delays during the match. There were all types of things that went on in addition to the quality of the tennis. Then the way it ended where it looked like they couldn’t play another point. You could go on and on.

“It was the best match that I’d ever witnessed in terms of the overall quality, the excitement, the unpredictability of it, the way it ended.”

While few had expected Federer and Nadal, both battling injuries and form at various points in time, to whip up the passions with their age-defying acts even in 2018, McEnroe said they shouldn’t be surprised. “I think it was pretty evident they were spectacular players. Having said that, 36, approaching 37, what Roger has done is like out of this world. The fact that Novak (Djokovic) and Andy (Murray), I believe were higher in the rankings, looked to be taking over. Thank God for the game, that they’re still there, have that hunger, love it so much, that we get to enjoy this another couple of years,” he said.

Federer, the eight-time Wimbledon champion, faced criticism for skipping the clay court season for the second year in a row but McEnroe and Evert didn’t view it as an issue.

“Roger’s goal right now should not be to support the tour week in and week out. Anybody who is 36 years old and still playing at this high level, winning 20 Grand Slams, he can afford to be selfish, think about himself, think about what’s best for his career and body,” Evert said.

The two refused to look much into Federer’s final defeat to Borna Coric at the Gerry Webber Open at Halle. “When you don’t play for three months, and then he played nine matches in less than two weeks. So to me, I’m guessing he was a little bit mentally and physically, like, vulnerable, a little bit more than normal. Then he has a week off. I think that was a great preparation,” McEnroe said.

Evert added: “I think it was almost better that he lost to Coric. He can feel a little bit more desire when a top player loses. Top players aren’t going to lose to the same player twice in a row.”

Analysing the draw of two-time Wimbledon champion Nadal, who is expected to face several clay courters, McEnroe felt he has good opportunity to go deep this year. “Rafa, you never know here. But I’m looking right now, and the only guy I’m looking at that potentially is Mischa Zverev. He’s a serve-volleyer. That would be a third-round match. Other than that, all the way to the quarters, he’s got as beautiful a draw as you could ask for on this surface,” he said.

“When he gets to the second week and things slow down a little bit on the grass, you would have to say, okay, the chances are getting better. If there was an opportunity for him to go deep, it’s definitely this year, there’s no question.”

McEnroe also believed Djokovic, the three-time champion at Wimbledon, is headed in the right direction following an indifferent run of form. “He said his elbow is not bothering him. We hope he can win more majors. He seems to have had a level of fitness that we’ve seen over the course of the last five or six years. That’s been a work in progress.”

The uncompromising domination of Federer and Nadal, followed by Djokovic and Andy Murray, often points fingers at the inability of the next generation to step up. McEnroe spoke about it in his inimitable style. “That’s a tremendous question that we don’t really know the answer to,” he said.

”We keep waiting for the people to step up. Dimitrov hasn’t seemed to have done it. Milos (Raonic) has been deep. Is Zverev going to step up? Coric? Who is it going to be? (Nick) Kyrgios had the opportunity. He doesn’t seem to have taken advantage of it. Jack Sock broke into the top 10, but he’s had a poor year. You don’t see anyone just grabbing it. Credit to the guys, the greats, the all-time greats. In a way, they’re just taking it to these guys, just notching up one after the other.”

Great rivalries

The women’s tennis has had its own challenges. Barring Serena Williams, the current set has not shown the consistency which has been the hallmark of past champions. Evert, who enjoyed an incredible rivalry with Martina Navratilova, said getting that kind of depth is becoming so tough now. “We had, like, seven or eight different Grand Slam winners, but nobody could consistently be the champion, like the past champions people mentioned, John, Jimmy, Martina, Steffi. They win eight, nine tournaments a year. You see that on the men’s, on the women’s. Might be that the depth is so tough now. I think we’re waiting for a woman as well as a man to step up,” she said.

Asked if it is good for the game to have a pecking order, Evert said: “People are going to enjoy tennis no matter what’s going on. If there’s a dominant No 1 player like Serena, people are going to be interested in seeing if she can keep it up. If there’s just an abundance of talent, but it’s very unpredictable at the top, there are 10 women that can win a Grand Slam, people are going to still watch it because they’re going to wonder who is going to pull out winning a Grand Slam. It’s still wonderful to watch.”

McEnroe, however, was more direct.

“In a one-on-one sport, it’s critical to have great rivalries. I think that helps quite a bit. Obviously, when Roger and Rafa are winning all these majors, that sparks more interest. You need that, I think.”

Speaking about Serena’s chances at Wimbledon, Evert said: “It’s going to be easier for her on the grass than it was on the clay, where she had to really grind it out. I would say with Serena, thinking about this, what chance do I give her to win the tournament, I give her as much chance as anybody else because the field is completely open. I don’t even know who the favourite is. I don’t know if the favourite is Halep, Muguruza or Kvitova or Serena? I give all those women the exact same chance to win this tournament.”

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