The Endangered Rivalry: Jon Wertheim Talks Fedal by Megan Fernandez

Photos ©Enrique Fernandez for Global Village Tennis News

The Endangered Rivalry: Jon Wertheim Talks Fedal

By Megan Fernandez

The friendliest rivalry in sports sure seems like a stranger these days. Eighteen months ago, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had played three of the last four Grand Slam finals, two of them epic five-setters. They had a standing date for the final Sunday at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, which they contested in 2006, 2007, and 2008. They had shared a cover of Sports Illustrated. Their careers and legacies were irreversibly entangled and defined largely by each other. With the status quo a thing of the past and the Fed-Nadal empire encroaching on hard-court territory, the plot was never thicker when the two parted ways after Nadal beat Federer (to tears) in at the 2009 Australian Open. During the season’s springtime intermission, tennis fans stocked up on popcorn.

But the next act never came–Federer and Nadal met again only in the Madrid final in 2009 and 2010—and when Nadal lost to Marcos Baghdatis Friday at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters with Federer waiting in the next round, fans lost hope for a renewal of the rivalry any time soon. If Federer beats Baghdatis today, he’ll remain number-two in the ATP World Tour rankings and the US Open seedings.  He and number-one Nadal couldn’t meet before the final, which the Spaniard has never reached.

Faced with the likelihood that the Roger/Rafa Show will remain dark until 2011, we asked Jon Wertheim, senior editor of Sports Illustrated and author of the Fedal-focused Strokes of Genius, to review the state of tennis’s greatest rivalry:

GVTN: A lot has changed since you wrote Strokes of Genius. How is the rivalry different from what you expected it would become?

JW: Two years ago, look at where we were. People thought Federer had been damaged. He lost at the Olympics, and there were a lot of questions. Nadal was rolling, and people thought it was Nadal Time. Then Nadal was basically a nonfactor. Then Fed wins in Australia. It has been a total reversal. There have been two unexpected turns. Two years ago if you’d said Nadal would be number one and winning Wimbledon, you’d think, sure. But I don’t think we would have believed Federer would have 16 slams.

GVTN: But they have only played 3 times in 09 and 10.

JW: That’s the disappointment. In some ways they have been like satellites passing. It would be nice if we had a few more head-to-head matches.

GVTN: Has the rivalry cooled off?

JW: Yeah, but a lot of it is a function of how the draws have gone. It’s too bad that they haven’t played at the clip that they were two years ago. They’re both still in the conversation, still winning Slams. Since Wimbledon ‘08, only one other player has won a major. But not having these head-to-head matches has cooled the rivalry.  Now, it’s almost theoretical: Nadal has as many majors as Fed at his age; if he wins the US Open, he’ll have won the career Slam earlier than Fed did. But one good final and it’s back on.

GVTN: Has the tenor of their assessment of the rivalry changed?

JW: Not so much. Just a few months ago, Nadal said something like, “Anyone who thinks I’m better than Roger doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” C’mon, dude.  His attitude is that it does him no good to fan the flames. Even with what Nadal is achieving, and on a trajectory where he could really challenge Federer historically, I haven’t seen any retreat from his position that Roger is the greatest. It’s reached a stage where whatever happens when they play each other, it’s significant. The good thing about the rivalry is that each match adds to the narrative.

GVTN: Your book revealed that they are quite friendly off the court. They once shared a jet to a tournament, and Federer dropped by Nadal’s hotel to say hello in Basel [Federer’s hometown]. Now that the dynamic has shifted, are they still as friendly?

JW: It’s still pretty much the same rivalry and relationship. Lately, they have been kind of two ships passing. I hear, don’t be surprised if they play doubles together. But they run in their own circles. Fed hasn’t cooled since Nadal overtook him in the rankings.

GVTN: Has their rivalry shaped the tour?

JW: It definitely has, for better or for worse. When the two top guys comport themselves the way Federer and Nadal do… well, everyone [on tour] has snapped to attention. It’s not just the autograph stuff, it’s like not shooting off their mouths on court.  The rivalry would benefit from a Serena-Henin thing, where there’s clearly no love lost. But it’s also pretty cool to see the kind of relationship these guys can have even in the middle of the rivalry.

GVTN: Is it the friendlies rivalry in sports?

JW: I think it is. It’s almost antithetical to a rivalry to be friendly. But I can’t think of another rivalry like that, where it’s not just mutual respect. They’re at different points in their lives–they are not having dinner together every night–but there’s genuine fondness and warmth.  They get the bigger picture here. Now they just have to go out there and play each other.

Megan Fernandez conducted this interview for Global Village Tennis News during the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters tournament.

Related Article: L. Jon Wertheim Interview on “Strokes of Genius”