It was interesting yesterday to read some of the responses to Rafael Nadal’s ninth French Open triumph.
Whilst there was obviously a large amount of admiration for a man who continues to achieve things that have never before been done in his sport, I also read some comments about how boring it was for a the same player to win an event so many times.
As has always been the case, sporting legends can provoke very different responses, depending on which angle you take.
For example, Michael Schumacher’s utter dominance of Formula 1 was enjoyed by some, but also contributed to others switching off (a situation that the FIA attempted to address through a number of regulation changes that were intended in part to make the sport more exciting).
When such dominance occurs, it’s usually a combination of a tremendously gifted competitor performing in an era where there are no opponents capable of reaching the same level. And it’s easy to understand how it can be boring – particularly for casual fans who may not follow a sport with too deep an interest.
In the case of men’s tennis, it was deemed by some to be boring when Pete Sampras was untouchable at the top, although fewer people voiced complaints about Roger Federer’s position of superiority during the last decade, whether because of his style of play, or because of the fact that he wasn’t in a league of his own for quite as long.
For the latter, Nadal must take enormous credit. Until his emergence in the game, which inevitably started with major successes on clay at a young age, there was no one else on the tour capable of rising to Federer, or going on to achieve close to the same level of success.
Nadal twice denied Federer from holding all four Grand Slams at the same time, by overcoming him in the final of the French Open. But he also took the fight to Federer at Wimbledon and – after two successive defeats in the final – claimed the one title that no other player had threatened to take away from the Swiss.
Rising to the challenge of toppling Federer at an event he had made his own was almost the ultimate success for Nadal, during an era in the sport that frequently saw the two men battling each other for honours on every surface.
The rise of Djokovic and, to a lesser extent, Andy Murray, expanded the group of potential major winners further, and added even more intrigue.
Djokovic’s domination of 2011 forced a response not only from Federer, but also from Nadal, and the way in which each player responded to the challenge laid down by Djokovic only further strengthened their reputations as two of the all time greats.
A glance at the winners’ list at Roland Garros would give an impression of predictability for any outsider to the sport of tennis. It would look as if the tournament ending with Nadal’s name being etched once more onto the famous list was little more than an inevitability.
Any such view would fail to tell the whole story, particularly when taking into account Djokovic’s efforts to get his hands on the only grand slam that has eluded him. The Serb’s absolute determination to win at Roland Garros has been ended only by a fiercely resolute Nadal during each of the last three years – and each of those encounters could quite easily have had a different outcome, such was the part played by Djokovic.
That Nadal continues to come out on top when it really matters only reinforces his status as the finest clay court player in history.
But as long as there are players like Djokovic performing at the same, near-superhuman level, and forcing the very best out of one of the greatest of champions, there’ll be no danger of a Nadal win in Paris ever becoming boring.