Statistically speaking, the year 2016 has not been at all kind to the two of the greatest tennis singles players ever – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – with both of them currently placed at 8 and 6 in the ATP singles rankings. In this piece, let us analyze what has gone wrong for these two legends in the past season and most importantly how far they can go if they make a comeback in 2017.
Starting with the Swiss ace Federer, the 17-time Grand Slam champion had a decent season in 2015 when he won a total of 6 titles with an annual win-loss of 63-11. The 7-time Wimbledon champion also had a good spree towards the bottom half of the calendar when he won titles at Cincinnati and his native Basel defeating two of his superior rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal respectively – before losing three big finals at Wimbledon, US Open and World Tour Finale to the Serbian world no. 1 Djokovic.
Apart from a shocked loss to Andreas Seppi in the third round at the Australian, the former world no. 1 reached the last 8 at French Open before going down to the eventual champion and compatriot Stan Wawrinka. In the Masters, the 24-times winner lost twice in the finals at Indian Wells and Rome to Djokovic before prevailing over his nemesis at Cincinnati. However, in the other four ATP 1000 tournaments, the maestro failed to reach the quarters.
Federer – who was the world no. 2 for most of the last season – had a good start to the season when he reached the final at one of the tour-openers at Brisbane and followed it up with another loss at the hand of Djokovic in the semi-final at Melbourne Park. Post Australian Open, Federer took a 3-month hiatus from the tour owing to a knee surgery coupled with stomach flu that prevented him from the courts till April when he lost in the quarters to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Monte Carlo and a third-round shocker against youngster Dominic Thiem at Rome. Thiem once again disposed the 35-year old in a month at Stuttgart after Federer skipped the Roland Garros to focus on his favourite Slam – the Wimbledon. In the pre-Wimbledon tune up at Halle – where the grasscourt genius had won a record 8 times – another young gun and world no. 38 then, Alexander Zverev thwarted Federer for his 9th crown.
At Wimbledon next, Federer was in song and reached the last 8 without dropping a set. However, the seasoned campaigner was taken the distance in a five-setter at the quarter-final by Marin Cilic before the Swiss could not hold long in another marathon in the semis to the eventual runner-up Milos Raonic. Soon after that, Federer briefed the world of his decision to end the season early – which means that he will not be a part of the Rio Olympics and the US Open – in order to save himself for a better season next year. Federer ended the year with a 21-7 in all competitions and with no title for the first time since 2000. The other time when he went through such a patch was in 2013 season when he ended with just a title and dropping to 7th in the rankings.
In the other world, Federer’s arch-rival in their heydays, Spain’s Rafael Nadal too had a free fall since 2015. The 9-time Roland Garros champion had such a poor season last year that he could only win 3 titles – none of them featuring the best in the business – and ended the year with a 61-20 record. Nadal could just reach one ATP 1000 final – losing to Andy Murray at Madrid. Apart from reaching the quarters at Australian and French Open, the former world no. 1 was miserable in the others – bowing out of Wimbledon and US Open at 2nd and 3rd round respectively. The poor season which once made the 14-time Grand Slam winner to as low as 10 in the rankings, made amends to an extent to qualify for the Tour Finale where he was knocked out by Djokovic.
The Spaniard, who ended 2015 as world no. 5, was eliminated from the Australian Open in the opening round by compatriot Fernando Verdasco. After a series of failures in the first quarter of the season, Nadal revived his declining graph with his first Masters win in 2 years at Monte Carlo – overcoming the challenges from Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Gael Monfils. In the next week, the 30-year old got the better of Kei Nishikori to win at Barcelona.
After not so worthwhile performance in the clay Masters, the biggest setback to the Paris king came at the French when he withdrew from the 3rd round citing wrist injury. He skipped Wimbledon to make a comeback at Rio where he came fourth in the singles before winning a gold in the doubles for Spain with Mark Lopez. A fortnight later, Nadal’s 4th round defeat to Lucas Pouille at the Flushing Meadows meant that the left-hander failed to reach a Slam quarter-final for the first time since 2004. Following a second-round loss to Viktor Troicki at Shanghai Masters early this month, Nadal, too on the lines of Federer, ends his season early citing a wrist that still needs time to heal up completely – thus ending his season at 39-14.
Nadal has had a long history of taking time off the court owing to injuries. The Spaniard had many such lay-offs from time to time in 2007, 2009, 2012 and as recently as in 2014 and every time, barring the last one, the King of Clay has made stunning comebacks to ascend up the lower rungs in the ladder to its toppest echelon. With Nadal turning 30 last June, it remains to be seen if the Mallorcan can stun the world with his will-power once again in his career that had many a tales of not only defeating his superior rivals but of overcoming career-threatening physical pitfalls to make resurgence.
Federer, who has been lucky to have seldom missed a tournament due to injury, had to end his record streak of featuring in 65 consecutive majors after he skipped Roland Garros. The elegant racqueteer, who has till this season put to rest questions regarding his growing age and smashed winners to all questions on his retirement plans made two Slam finals last season and was in contention for another in his latest outing at the All-England club, still promises to come back strong next season along with the other half of their great rivalry called as “Fed-al”.
The best answer perhaps lies till the start of 2017 to whether these two gentlemen who have played some memorable tennis over the course of the last decade are eventually to return to the Tour next season with rumours going abuzz that the world has seen the last of the titans who might never come out of their sabbatical. But one answer is earmarked for sure that the era of bi-polar domination of Federer and Nadal – boasting a 23-11 advantage to the Spaniard in their rivalry – is long gone. The chances look slim if they were to go on and add to their numbers of majors. However, they certainly have it in them to win a few more titles on their much-awaited comeback next season.
Photo by JiteshJagadish