Posted on: July 27, 2008 1:48 pm
Quest for Another Gold: The World's Most Dominant Athlete
Behind all the talk about Roger Federer's recent slump and Rafael Nadal's and Jelena Jankovic's climbs towards number one is a story that few people care enough to know.
In tennis, there is dominance. Federer was almost the picture of it for nearly four years from 2004 to 2007, winning 11 of the 16 grand slam tournaments over that time period, making the finals of the latter 14. But in reality, he was second-best.
Federer's accomplishments on paper are shadowed by those of Esther Vergeer, a disabled 27-year old from the Netherlands. Since the end of January, 2003, Vergeer has won 340 consecutive wheelchair women's singles matches.
In fact, at one point she went 26 months without even dropping a set, a string of 120 matches and 240 sets.
But you probably have not heard of Vergeer. Unless you have gone to the tournaments where she competes, you definitely have not seen her play. You think ESPN is going to broadcast wheelchair tennis?
But there Vergeer has been, dominating her sport unlike anyone before her. Unlike almost anyone in any sport before her.
Vergeer still has a ways to go to catch Jahangir Khan, who won 555 consecutive squash matches from 1981 until 1986, but there's no reason to think she's going to slip any time soon.
On Sunday, Vergeer dismantled compatriot Korie Homan, the world's second-ranked player and the only person to take a set off of Vergeer this year, 6-2, 6-2, winning the British Open for the eighth consecutive year.
Homan had a point for a 3-1 lead in the first set, but Vergeer fought it off and won the next seven games, cruising to victory.
Vergeer now leads the series against second-ranked Homan 33-0, dropping only three sets out of 69.
While the 22-year old Homan has been improving, she still is not even close to the same league as Vergeer.
Additionally, age is not a pressing concern for Vergeer. Wheelchair tennis players frequently compete at the top level into their forties, allowing for a staying power that just doesn't exist in most other sports.
Wheelchair tennis is almost identical to regular, mainstream tennis, but there is one significant difference: the ball is allowed to bounce twice before it is returned.
Only the first bounce must land in the prescribed area of the court. If the first bounce is ruled in and the second bounce is out, the ball is still in play unless it bounces a third time.
But none of that diminishes what Vergeer has done.
What does attempt to diminish it is how little prize money she receives for all her success.
Vergeer, who has won 130 career titles in singles and 116 in doubles, receives about $1500 for each championship, not nearly enough to survive let alone prosper.
And she wins almost every tournament she enters, occasionally suffering a defeat in doubles.
"Prize money alone is not enough," Vergeer told talkabouttennis.com in 2007. "Winning a tournament earns me between $1000 and $1500, so I really need sponsorship money. I still live with my parents at the moment, so I manage to make ends meet. Next year, however, I'm moving out to live on my own and I'm not sure how much money that will leave me with"
Seven years of being the unquestionable top professional in her field and she was still living with her parents just to get by.
That's a shame.
Vergeer plans to keep going at least through the 2008 Paralympic games, practicing four times a week and conditioning semi-weekly, and probably continue beyond that. And although it is somewhat cliché, Vergeer aspires to be like Lance Armstrong.
"There are people I admire, like Lance Armstrong," she said in the same interview. "People who, in spite of whatever setbacks they're faced with, don't let things get them down. They fight for what they want to achieve, which I find a wonderful thing to see. I really don't like people who give up without even trying."
Vergeer and the other men and women on tour are playing tennis, the same tennis Roger Federer and Ana Ivanovic are playing, and nobody gives them even a glance.
And that too is a shame.
In April, Vergeer was asked by United States wheelchair tennis coach Dan James what kept her motivated to keep getting better.
“Every time I train, and I train with Maikel Scheffers right now, he's a guy so he's faster, he's stronger, he's better than me so he beats me. For me the motivation to practice harder so I can beat him maybe once or twice is big.
“I don't see the ceiling yet. I still see things I can better.”
That's a scary thought. How much better can things get than 340 wins in a row?
Yet Vergeer goes out on the court and wins, she goes out and gets the job done, because it really is a job to her.
Vergeer doesn't have the multi-million dollar mansion, the six or seven-figure salary, the name recognition. She most likely never will.
And that's the biggest shame of all.
You would think if someone was that good, she would at least get a nod every now and then. At the very least, you would think she should get that nod.
Sure, in January she won the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, the first time since 2002 that she earned the honor. But how many of the previous champions get any attention?
Have you heard of Ernst van Dyk, the seven-time wheelchair winner of the Boston Marathon, setting a world record time in 2004?
Or 2004 winner Earle Connor, who despite setting world records for amputee sprinters in the 100-meters, 200-meters, and 400-meters runs on the same day in 2003, doesn't even have a wikipedia page? It may be a better thing that Connor is unknown, as only a few months after he won the award he was suspended for two years for doping.
But nobody gives Vergeer the attention she deserves, because if she got even an inkling of attention this is the type of story that could take off.
In a little more than a month, Vergeer will head to Beijing for the Paralympics. She will attempt to win her fifth and sixth gold medals, her third in each singles and doubles.
Borrow an unthinkable upset, she'll accomplish it.
Borrow an even more unthinkable upset, almost nobody will ever know.
Esther Vergeer might just be the most dominating athlete in the world. At the very least, she is clearly the most dominating in her sport.
Statistically, it's impossible to refute that.
Posted on: July 24, 2008 4:58 pm
Sometimes I keep my mouth shut even when I want to say something. In journalism, you have to. In this case, however, I should have spoken.
Watching the Wimbledon Gentlemen's singles final, which I wrote was the greatest sporting event I ever had the pleasure to see, I refrained from mentioning my observation that Roger Federer did not want to win the match before the middle of the third set. Yes, I saw it, as painful as it was. Federer clearly did not care for half the match if he won or lost.
There was no emotion, no adrenalin rush on the big break points, leading to a one out of 12 start on break point opportunities for Federer while Nadal was converting two-thirds of his. Every time there was a critical point, Nadal stepped it up while Federer was lackadaisical. Heck, he did not even seem disappointed when he dropped those first two sets.
At that point, I realized that Federer did not care anymore and I said it in private conversations, but I dared not publish it. How blasphemous! Claiming that the greatest male player of his generation did not care anymore if he won or lost? Who did I think Federer was, Justine Henin?
But after Roger Federer was unceremoniously defeated in his opening match of the Rogers Masters in Toronto, I need to put into writing my opinion: Roger Federer does not want it anymore.
Federer does not want to be out there playing; he does not want to win tournaments; he does not want to be the best player in the world. If he wanted it, he would not have succumbed to Gilles Simon. No, Federer does not care anymore.
I will take that one step further: Roger Federer is going to retire, if not immediately after the Olympic Games, then by the end of the year.
Federer wants Olympic Gold; there's no doubt about that. But besides that, what is left for him to achieve?
He knows he will never win Roland Garros unless Rafael Nadal is injured, and Federer is too classy of an individual to stick around solely with the hope that Nadal gets hurt. Federer would consider such a victory as shallow.
He knows that Nadal is younger, more energetic, and has a desire for greatness that Federer cannot match. Sure, he tried to for two and a half sets at Wimbledon, but in the end he failed, even playing at peak heart.
Roger Federer cried when he lost Wimbledon, not because he had given it his all and he was deflated because he lost, but because he knew that for half the match he hadn't given it his all and that he lacked the passion to ever give two and a half sets again. Federer saw that the end was coming.
Sure, he has the excuse that he had mononucleosis and the after-effects of it for the first four months of the year, but ever since it he has not been the same. He has lost to players that he should beat. He has been embarrassed by players who are expected to be his equals.
I made this prediction at Wimbledon, but I was too scared to put it into print. I was too afraid to be so dramatically incorrect.
That was my problem.
After seeing how Federer just did not show up for a match against Gilles Simon, I cannot withhold my opinion any long and claim journalistic integrity.
Roger Federer once wanted to be the greatest, not just of the day but of all time. He once wanted to take down Pete Sampras's mark of 14 grand slam titles and seven Wimbledon triumphs.
Somewhere along the line, between getting mono and losing to Gilles Simon in the second round of the Rogers Masters, Federer lost that desire, just as Justine Henin once did.
Sure, he said that he wants to play another five, maybe ten years, but he only said that because he was trying to convince himself that he wanted to keep going. In his heart he knew it was a lie.
For two and a half sets against Nadal, Federer wanted it not to be. But once he saw that even when he wanted to win he couldn't, he became convinced that this was the end. He showed his true mindset Wednesday.
I think he wants an Olympic Gold, but that's all that is left for Roger Federer. Anything else that he once wanted is no longer realistically obtainable.
Maybe he'll try to stick it out, try to win one more U.S. Open and remain number one for as long as he can, but I don't sense that. I sense that he is ready to call it a career.
Even if he tries to stick it out, I do not see him having the heart to gut out another major title.
Maybe I'm a fool; maybe I'm an idiot, but I don't want anyone to confuse me with a coward. That's why I'm writing this article. I have too much integrity to be one.
I was once a coward, just as Federer was once a great athlete; I should have written this article two weeks ago. I did not.
But now I cannot keep my mouth shut, even if I wanted to. I had to write this article.
Roger Federer is done, not because his talent is no longer there, but because he no longer wants to be the best player in the world. Especially after he saw that even for the fleeting moments in which he wanted it, he still might not be it.
You might disagree; you might see this as a slump, and maybe that's all it is. Maybe Federer will regroup and next year dominate the ATP circuit like he once did. Maybe Federer will win Wimbledon for the sixth time in seven years and regain the top ranking that he is on the verge of surrendering.
Such a scenario seems so much more far-fetched than what I'm arguing. It seems almost unfathomable right now.
I have enjoyed the ride, I have enjoyed the dominance that has so rarely been matched in any sport, even briefly, but it's coming to an end – sooner than most people, quite possibly even than Roger Federer, have the courage to admit.
Posted on: July 6, 2008 5:29 pm
There were some clichés I never thought I would say. Near the top of that list was “both men deserved to win.”
Maybe I didn't fully understand the implications of such a statement; maybe I thought it couldn't capture reality; maybe I avoided it because it was a cliché. None of that matters now. After watching the gentlemen's singles finals at Wimbledon Sunday, there is no saying that has more truth that I have ever come across.
Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in quickening darkness late Sunday evening in Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in a five-set epic that will go down as the greatest tennis match ever played, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. The victory ended Federer's five year reign at Wimbledon and allowed Nadal to turn the tides after losing to Federer in the finals in England in consecutive years.
But both men deserved to win.
From the very first point of the match, the quality of the tennis was almost as electric as the crowd. Yes, there were some mishits and errors that you wouldn't expect out of either player, the two best players of the generation, but the quality of tennis was unexplainable.
Both players gave everything.
Nadal managed to return some shots that just didn't make sense. In the fourth set tiebreaker, he got to a Federer cross-court forehand and hit a winner down the line. No one else in the world would have even touched it.
Federer came through in the clutch. I lost count at how many aces he had when facing break point or down 0-30 to stay in the match. Then there was his backhand passing shot later in that fourth set tiebreaker at Championship Point for Nadal that placed itself gently in the back corner of the court.
I usually don't applaud often when I'm watching at home, but I did after almost every other point. The quality was unreal.
I thought it was over when Nadal took the second set 6-4, giving himself a two set lead. Then to boot, Federer fell behind 0-40 on his serve in the middle of the third set.
Before you knew it, Federer had held and we were in a rain delay. Federer then won the set in a tiebreaker.
Federer had his chances to win. He faced 13 Nadal break points, but he only converted one of them. Probably the most crucial came in the fifth set at 4-3. Had Federer broken, he would have had an opportunity to serve out for the title.
Nadal got ahead of Federer 15-40 in the 15th game of the set, but Federer came through with another clutch ace and fought off the second break point. Nadal earned another opportunity, which Federer again saved. Finally, on the fourth break point, Federer hit the ball long and Nadal tried to serve it out.
On his second Championship Point of the game and fourth of the match, Rafael Nadal closed out Roger Federer in near-darkness. It was the longest finals match in Wimbledon history at four hours and 48 minutes. The previous record? A paltry four hours and 16 minutes in 1982 when Jimmy Connors defeated John McEnroe.
McEnroe was the NBC announcer for Sunday's match and even he couldn't think of a greater match.
“I think this would have to be the greatest match I've ever seen,” he said. It wasn't that long before he added an epitaph.
“I'd like to think there were no losers.”
I never thought I would agree with such sentiments, but I have to. Both men gave everything.
Roger Federer was crying at the end of the match. You could see the tears in his eyes. I've never seen him cry when he lost at Roland Garros.
Rafael Nadal, right after Roger Federer hit the fourth Championship Point into the net, flopped to the ground, nothing left, and he too began to cry. I don't remember seeing him shed tears after any of his four Roland Garros conquests.
Probably no one, not even Federer, could be disappointed with this match. Both hit nearly twice as many winners as errors. Neither could have been faulted if he lost for giving the match to the opponent.
Rafael Nadal went out and won the match. Federer almost did the same. And if Federer had won, I'd still be writing this article.
For nearly seven hours, five of which were spent playing tennis and the other two waiting for the rain to cease, the two best tennis players in the world played the best tennis of their lives. And what they left us was the greatest sporting contest of all time.
It didn't take long for ESPN to offer up a poll asking which was more thrilling: the Tiger Woods vs. Rocco Mediate playoff at the U.S. Open in June or Sunday's Wimbledon final, and the tennis match held a slim 54 percent to 46 percent lead. I'm willing to bet the entire 46 percent that voted for the golf didn't watch Sunday's match.
Federer and Nadal gave everything. Every point was unreal; it really was. The shots that these two men hit lack verbiage.
I cannot fully digest what I watched.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both deserved to win. They both deserved to lift the Gentlemen's Singles Trophy. They both deserved to read the trophy and see the inscription, “The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World."
The trophy was first awarded in 1887, one year after William Renshaw became the only man to win six consecutive titles. And with Nadal's victory, nobody has matched him.
But if losing can ever approach winning, Federer has come the closest. No runner-up that I've ever seen has deserved the title more than Federer did this year.
Not Patrick Rafter in 2001. Not John McEnroe in 1980. Not Rafael Nadal in 2007. All three played brilliant matches in defeat.
But Sunday was something different. Sunday was something unreal.
Nadal and Federer both deserve to win the title and the tears in their eyes sum it up perfectly.
It hurt Roger Federer to lose. It hurt Rafael Nadal to win. They both could see how much the other one wanted it.
Neither wanted it more; neither less. Neither played better; neither worse. Neither gave more; neither less.
For one Sunday in suburban London, two utter equals, at least in terms of talent and heart, gave everything. To say one of them lost is an insult the other.
Rafael Nadal won the title fair and square, but Roger Federer did not under any circumstance lose it. That's an important distinction.
I'd rather avoid clichés, but this one just cannot be circumvented.
Posted on: June 27, 2008 2:03 am
Edited on: June 27, 2008 1:47 pm
Every now and then we are surprised by greatness. Usually it comes from redundant people and we expect it: from Tiger Woods and Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and Albert Pujols.
Sure, these people don't always succeed, but when we see their greatness, we can only admire it.But Wednesday, we were surprised and we shouldn't have been. Less than eight years ago, Marat Safin was number one in the world and expected to challenge Pete Sampras's mark of 14 grand slam titles. And really, we would have been more surprised if he did not. He had everything: a solid serve, a nasty backhand that could put the ball anywhere on the court, and one of the two best return games since Jimmy Connors, right next to Andre Agassi.
At the 2000 U.S. Open, Sampras had 18 aces in a straight set win over Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals. He could muster only eight against Safin in the finals. Additionally, Safin earned nine break chances, converting four of them. In his first six matches of the tournament, Sampras had only been broken four times total.
When Safin won that final to claim his first grand slam title, many people thought we were seeing a changing of the guards. Safin rose to the top position in the world after that victory and he seemed to have the complete package. Within a year, he began plummeting.
It wasn't that he was a flash in the pan. No, definitely not. Safin was clearly the most talented young player in the world. When he was on, and he could be on, there was no one who could touch him. But he beat himself, arguing with the umpires left and right and just mentally blowing up on the court. It was almost painful.
Still, based on pure talent alone, he made the finals of the Australian Open in 2002 and 2004.
The 2004 one was the most shocking, as he entered ranked 86th in the world. He beat top-ranked Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals in five sets, somehow serving one more ace than Roddick in the match. Roddick, of course, holds the record for the fastest serve ever recorded. And in the semifinals he took care of Agassi, somehow getting 33 serves by the American return wizard. He was defeated by Roger Federer in the finals, but this was not the last we'd hear of Safin.
No doubt the 2005 Australian Open was Safin's greatest triumph. He entered ranked fourth, but an early exit could see him drop clear out of the top 15.
In the semifinals, Roger Federer took a two set to one lead, but Safin fought back and defeated him 9-7 in the fifth set. It still is the last time a healthy Roger Federer lost to anyone but Rafael Nadal in a grand slam.
That bears repeating: Roger Federer has not lost in the last 12 slams in which he was healthy to anyone but Rafael Nadal since losing to Marat Safin in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open. It also should be mentioned that nobody was that shocked when Safin won that match. Only with the tailspin that's occurred for Safin since then does this match raise eyebrows.
Then in the finals, Marat Safin won his first grand slam in more than four years, defeating home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in a convincing four sets.
Safin has not won an ATP-level tournament of any calibre since then. No grand slams, no Masters Series shields, no regular tournaments in more than three years.
In case you were wondering, Federer has won 32 titles since then.
Entering Wimbledon this year, Safin's ranking had plummeted to 75 and with a second round meeting with Novak Djokovic, nobody expected him to be able to improve it. A third-ranked Djokovic who with a title would move to number two in the world against a moribund Safin on Safin's admitted worst surface?
But it's amazing how quickly we forget the talent that Safin possesses. He has more talent than anyone in the world: more than Roger Federer could ever dream of happening. On the rare occasion that Safin is able to overcome himself, he shows it.
And on Wednesday, we saw that greatness.
We saw what we all expected to see since he won the 2000 U.S. Open over Pete Sampras, nearly a full year before Roger Federer defeated Sampras at Wimbledon in his five set epic.
That Federer-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing of the guard at Wimbledon; the Safin-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing for the other 11 months of the tennis year.
As it turned out, Federer was the player who was more mentally capable to win, but never has he shown that he is the most talented player in the world. That honor has always belonged to Marat Safin.
And Wednesday on Centre Court at Wimbledon we saw a glimpse of what might have been. Yes, Djokovic did not play his best match, but he didn't play awful. He won barely a third of his second serves because Safin always found a way to hit a winner. Safin showed he could return any serve wherever he wanted to on the court.
The tennis we saw from Safin was brilliant. It just was. It wasn't perfect, but it didn't need to be.
Usually when the number three player in the world loses to a guy ranked outside the top 50, it's because he played poorly and his opponent played a near-flawless match. Safin definitely made his mistakes, scoffing up 21 unforced errors in the match.
But Safin showed greatness.
There he was on the most important court in tennis; there he was on his least preferred surface; there he was going against one of the best players in the world and Marat Safin thoroughly dominated every facet of the match. The scoreboard, if anything, makes his straight set win seem closer than it really was.
On Wednesday we saw greatness, and we were shocked. And after all the greatness we've come to expect, it's a relief.
Finally, after eight years of waiting, we could be poised to see Marat Safin live up to his potential. So long as he stays sane, he can win this tournament. His talent is just so unending.
If he does win this tournament, most likely by knocking off Roger Federer in the semifinals and Rafael Nadal in the finals, he may finally show that he has not wasted his talent. But I wouldn't count on it.
If they both played a perfect match, Safin would beat Federer on any surface, even on Safin's loathed and Federer's beloved grass. And nothing would be better than the chance to see it.
Unfortunately, nobody knows when Safin's greatness will show up. He could bomb out Friday and nobody would raise an eye. It's what we've become accustomed to expect.
For someone with such ability, it's a shame. It's just a crying shame. There's simply no other word with the power to describe it.