I watched Nadal escape Gulbis earlier this spring, while sitting in the stadium of Indian Wells this Spring – and then saw him grind past Brands a few days ago, on Tennis Channel’s coverage of the French Open.
The Spaniard, tennis’s own Geronimo, is lethal when he sees an opening. No doubt about it, Nadal moving in to put away a ball is an exciting, savage spectacle. But that’s not why he won these two matches. Watch the replays and you’ll see that, on the critical points, Nadal’s shots cleared the net and landed between the lines with a greater margin of safety than his opponents. Even when his court position was dire, his shot selection and technique allowed him to stay in the point until the other guy made a mistake, or provided Nadal with an opportunity to draw blood.
And then there is his serve. Time and again Nadal saves break points with service winners, on both the first and second serve. Rarely are they heroic gambles. They are just penetrating, well placed deliveries. I’m sure that there have been big matches in which Nadal has double faulted on break point. I just don’t recall seeing them.
Like Nadal, Djokovic and Murray combine this margin of safety with first strike and closing ability. The ATP tour is full of great athletes. Only these three know that in the key moments, they can trust their shots to clear the net and land in the court, no matter how hard the ball is hit to them, no matter where they are on the court. It gives them a confidence that is often mistaken for bravery, for guts under pressure.
Borg played the game the same way, so did Vilas. Many others did to, but they have faded in my memory.
Only three players that I have seen, Laver, Sampras and Federer had the game to tear through these kinds of defenses.
Sampras played tennis with very little margin for error. He accepted double faults, knowing that his second serve aces would outnumber them. Nadal and Djokovic would have eventually disheartened Sampras by torturing his backhand, except on the fastest courts.
Federer also relies on outright winners. For a few years he was the complete player – lethal also on the backhand side, and he could volley like the greats of the past- people forget this because now what’s left, against quality players anyway, is his great serve and his forehand. He is fading because of his age, clearly. But also because the lack of a margin of safety on his backhand wing has been exposed. He realizes this and his confidence has eroded.
Then there’s Laver. I saw him live only once. He attacked like Sampras and Federer. But he also had the margin of safety in his game that Nadal and Djokovic have, and that Borg used to have. I remember Laver serving and volleying as well McEnroe, Edberg, Becker, Sampras and Rafter. But he also had the powerful topspin on both flanks that could pull you off the court – or drive you crazy by changing defense to offense in an instant- like Nadal and Djokovic do today.
This combination of abilities has never been matched in men’s tennis. That’s why I believe that Rod Laver is the all time great. The best of the best.