MOST PUNDITS believe it’s only a matter of time before Roger Federer equals, then passes, Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam tennis titles.
They’re probably right. But whereas it looked a certainty not so long ago, now there’s an element of doubt.
Federer had everything going for him in Melbourne. Rafael Nadal not only had to come through the longest match in Australian Open history in the semi-finals (5 hrs and 14 mins) but he also had one day less to prepare for the final.
That he still had the energy to beat Federer in five sets speaks volumes for his physical condition and mental strength. And the bad news for Federer is that it’s only going to get harder.
The Swiss is still only 27 but compare that to his main rivals in the world tennis rankings. Nadal is 22. Then there are two, hungry 21-year-olds: Brit Andy Murray and Serbian Novak Djokovic.
Federer is not just going to have work harder to reach Grand Slam finals but now there’s now more than one player who actually believes they can beat him.
There is no greater rivalry in sports than Federer v Nadal. Between them, they have won 15 of the last 16 Grand Slams. Federer has claimed nine, Nadal six.
But in head-to-head meetings, Nadal leads 13-6 and, perhaps more significantly, he’s won their last five matches.
Frustration mounts for Swiss in pursuit of record
We already know he has Federer’s measure on clay. Now, it seems, he can beat him on any surface – even grass.
Nadal will be heavily favored to win the next Grand Slam – the French Open at Roland Garros – so Federer will probably have to wait until Wimbledon for his next crack at Sampras’s record.
Nadal is convinced he will do it one day. But first, Federer will have to go away and analyze what went wrong in the fifth set, when his game fell apart. Could the iceman have cracked under the pressure?
“I definitely played a terrible fifth set,” he admitted. “I kind of handed it over to him.
“This is one of the matches in my career where I feel like I could have or should have won. But you can’t go through your whole life as a tennis player taking every victory that’s out there.
“You’ve got to live with those you don’t. But they hurt, even more so if you’re that close, like at Wimbledon or here at the Australian Open.”
But for Nadal, Federer would have long since broken the record and proved beyond any doubt that he is the greatest player to ever pick up a tennis racket.
However, the fact remains that Nadal has now beaten him in five Grand Slam finals. Federer has lost his aura of invincibility and, possibly, his best chance of joining Sampras in the record news.