Guess which tennis players we are talking about
A sublime and graceful champion with a complete stranglehold on the game, worthy of being called the greatest ever. Was most dominant on the Wimbledon grass and most uncomfortable on the Parisian red clay. Ended the Wimbledon reign of the player with the maximum All-England titles. Blessed with an all-round game based on a splendid forehand and a practitioner of the single-handed backhand.
The player’s reign at the top was ended by a feisty baseliner with a double handed backhand -someone who had become a French Open champion while still a teenager. The two players had a storied rivalry giving tennis fans many memorable matches. The old champion held sway on grass whereas the new one was at their best on clay and getting better on grass. The younger player seemed to have his celebrated opponent’s number, enjoying a substantial edge in their rivalry. A lot of it had to do with the player’s supreme mental strength. The older champion, having conquered everything before running into the young conqueror, was almost driven to despair by his repeated failures.
Current tennis fans would identify the players as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But go back to the early nineties and the story will remind you of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Although it has never been mentioned or written about, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the two rivalries are remarkably similar in almost every aspect.
The players seem to have followed almost the same career paths. They share the same strengths and weaknesses and had comparable playing styles. And to add to that their rivalries followed identical paths. The first one started with Seles’ win over Grafat the 1990 French Open – Similar to the way Nadal and Federer kicked off at the 2005 French Open. Seles first established herself as the queen of clay before she conquered the hard courts. While Graf continued to dominate the former Yugoslavian on grass, Seleswas improving rapidly on her least favourite surface, making the finals in 1992.
The Fedex-Rafa rivalry has also played out similarly. Nadal has gone on from the 2005 triumph at Paris to become arguably the best player on clay, ever. He has also improved by leaps and bounds on other surfaces and holds grand slam titles on three surfaces at the time of writing. Roger dominated him on grass initially but Nadal improved enough to break through that bastion as well –winning Wimbledon in 2008.
Seles had a vice like grip over Graf, grinding her into submission time and time again. Rafa enjoys the same dominance over Federer. He plays memorable matches with the Swiss where he almost always comes out on top, thanks to his indomitable spirit. Both Steffi Graf and Roger Federer seemed totally powerless against an opponent who had fewer tennis gifts but far more in terms of desire. Both rivalries came down to a battle of the mind and each time the older player crumbled in the face of their relentless rival.
In addition to the mental warfare, there is another key common component to both rivalries. It is the fact that Seles and Nadal were both left handed and had double handed backhands. On the other hand, Graf and Federer were righties who employed a single handed backhand. To understand the full implication of this dynamic, please read Paul Fein’s brilliant analysis of the same in the Sportstar (the second week issue of February 2009).
Although Fein is referring just to Federer and Nadal, his arguments are universal and holds true for the Seles –Graf rivalry as well. In brief, Fein proves that a left hander enjoys an inherent advantage over a righty when serving and receiving serve. More importantly, he disproves the long held notion that the lack of power in the single handed backhanded is compensated for by its better reach. He also argues and proves through examples that the single handed backhand is less reliable and more prone to errors, especially when under pressure. That is primarily the reason why Federer’s game has often cracked in key situations whereas Nadal’s has held firm. In another time, the same paradigm would have explained why Seles made fewer errors to regularly beat Steffi Graf.
With so much in common it is difficult to understand why no one pointed out the obvious similarities?
One possible reason could be the fact that the first rivalry was cut short by Gunther Parche. The stabbing in Hamburg changed the trajectory of the Seles – Graf rivalry and it never played out in full. Monica was never the same player again and Steffi Graf re-established herself as the undisputed number one player in the world. Because of its short duration, Seles-Graf is not even mentioned as one of the great tennis rivalries. The lasting memory is the stabbing and the tennis that preceded it is generally a blur. Had it lasted for two more years, then things would have been very different. Comparing the Graf-Seles rivalry with Federer -Nadal would have been far more obvious.
This post was originally written in 2009.