The tennis world was stunned yesterday when Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland grabbed the Grand Slam from Rafael Nadal in yesterday’s Austrailian Open. Not only was it Wawrinka’s first Grand Slam win ever, but he beat out a 13-time Grand Slam winner and Olympic gold medalist for the title. Wawrinka instantly ascended five hard-won slots on the ATP rankings to number 3, leapfrogging Roger Federer along the way. But Federer’s reaction may not be what someone who is solely focused on the ATP rankings might think.
Federer may actually stand to benefit from Wawrinka’s stunning upset. While it has given tennis fans great viewing pleasure to watch the pitched battle that has been playing out between Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and Federer for tennis’ top slot—a battle some have compared to the McEnroe, Connors, and Borg rivalry—the competition for the larger battle in the grand scheme of things may have just eased up a bit. This larger battle, actually the biggest battle, is for the title of all-time greatest tennis player, and there are only two people in that conversation: Nadal and Federer.
Each camp has their own argument and supporting evidence. Nadal supporters have a point when they say he has been victorious in over two-thirds of the matches in which he has played head-to-head with Federer. Devotees of Federer counter that 17 career Grand Slam is four more than Nadal has. Indeed, many tennis commentators have predicted that the ultimate title of all-time greatest player may be reduced—for simplicity’s sake if nothing else—to whichever player has the most slams overall. The final answer to this battle royale no doubt will continue to be argued nuance by nuance long after the fact in Wikipedia, where the edits can go on ad infinitum.
It is this quick, easy, and some would say reductive, answer that may make Nadal’s loss at the Australian Open a boon for Federer. But could 27-year-old Nadal’s ability to catch up, over the course of the rest of his career, to those four Grand Slams that Federer holds over his head even be questioned? Some experts say it can indeed be questioned. Pro tennis, much like pro ice skating and lots of (or even all) other professional sports, is a young person’s game. But a person—young or old or somewhere in between—is not defined only by chronological age.
Federer at 32 is actually five years older than Nadal. But Federer, the “Iron Man of Tennis,” has never pulled out with injury. By the time this rivalry for the ages slides into its final set, it may come down whose body has been placed under fewer limitations by injuries.
It is somewhat dispiriting, but when it comes to thinning out the ranks of the crème de la crème in professional sports, having fewer injuries may be the prime advantage. Nadal’s famous grit and ability to come through in the clutch means just as much as an injury-free body until it does not, until the last man left standing on the greatest tennis player of all time dais may be just that, the last man standing.
By Donna Westlund