Friends, beer and sports: unlocking life’s great mysteries

16 Jun

There are two things you can count on when friends get together to talk sports over beer: strong opinions and lots of yelling.

Last night, I joined five good, tennis-loving amigos for a deep dive into some of the most pertinent questions facing today’s professional game: given his remarkable comeback from injury, and his thrilling victory at the French Open last week, could Spanish champion Rafael Nadal make a serious run at Swiss great Roger Federer’s all-time mark for most major titles; and, second, given her utter dominance of the women’s field over the last twelve months and her current, 31-match win streak (the longest of her career), which culminated last Sunday in a second title on the red clay at Roland Garros, can we now talk about Serena Williams as the greatest women’s player of all-time, ahead of Martina Navratilova, whom, along with U.S. star Chris Evert, dominated women’s tennis from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, and who even continued her success as a 40-something-year-old doubles specialist, in the 2000s, as well as ahead of German legend Steffi Graf, whose 22 titles set her atop the women’s all-time list for major championships?

As the beer flowed, and the volume of our voices rose, no agreements were forged, but I think we did make headway in uncovering some of the nuance that fans of the game need to consider when addressing these two questions.

In terms of whether Rafa has a realistic shot at catching Fed for major title victories, it’s useful to start with the facts, before getting into conjecture (even if the latter is much more fun!). Right now, Fed has 17 major titles, and Rafa has twelve. Federer is just shy of 32-years-old, while Rafa is 27. The Swiss has won seven Wimbledon titles, five U.S. Opens, four Aussia Opens, and one title at the French. Rafa, for his part, has a remarkable – and record-setting – eight French Open crowns, two titles at the All England Club, and a win apiece at the U.S. and Aussie Opens. Finally, Fed’s last major title came at Wimbledon last year, while Rafa’s last major title anywhere other than at the French came in 2010, at the U.S. Open.

A few things leap to mind in reviewing these facts. First, both Fed and Rafa have depended to a considerable degree on repeated victories at a single tournament for much of their success at the majors: Wimbledon for Fed and the French for Rafa. However, Fed’s portfolio of major titles is more diversified than Nadal’s. For example, his five U.S. Open victories are only two shy of his seven triumphs at Wimbledon, where he’s enjoyed the most success. For Rafa, however, his two titles at Wimbledon – the major at which he has won his second-highest number of titles – is fully six fewer than his eight wins at Roland Garros.

The take-away? (Enter conjecture) If Rafa is to have any chance of catching Federer’s major titles haul, he’ll likely need to depend heavily on winning a few more times at the French.

What are the prospects of this?

That’s a difficult question.

Viscerally, it’d appear that Rafa can keep winning in Paris well into the future. After all, his career mark at Roland Garros is an eye-popping 59-1, his only loss having come in the fourth-round in 2009, against Swedish bomber Robin Soderling, who put up one of the best performances your correspondent has ever seen on a tennis court, and still only won in four, tight sets (incidentally, 2009 is the year when Fed captured his one and only French Open title, Soderling’s victory having cleared the obstacle that prevented Fed from winning titles in 2006, 2007 and 2008, when he lost to Rafa in the final (as he did, again, in 2011)). Given his record of dominance at Roland Garros, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to bet that he could win three, four or even five more times in Paris, which, in and of itself, would take him most of the way toward, or all the way to, tying Federer’s career major titles mark.

However, there’s a big problem here. In fact, there are a couple. Both problems have names. The first is: Novak Djokovic. At the outset of this year, your correspondent predicted that Rafa would fall at the French, at the hands of the Serbian world number one, who had Rafa on a rope in last year’s French Open final, before a rain delay intervened, allowing Rafa to regroup and surge to victory when play resumed the following day. This year, Djokovic and Nadal found themselves squaring off once again at Roland Garros, this time in a semi-final match that most considered the de facto final. The Serb pushed Rafa to the brink, and was actually up a break late in the fifth and decisive set, serving at 4-3 and needing only two more holds to conquer the seemingly impossible feat of slaying King Rafa on the clay. However, displaying the heart of a champion that has allowed him to rapidly return to the top of the men’s game this year after a knee injury sidelined him for the better part of nine months from July 2012 to early this year, Rafa broke back and eventually captured the match at 9-7 in the fifth, before dismantling Spanish compatriot David Ferrer in a predictably anti-climatic three-set final.

So, while my prediction that Rafa would falter at this year’s French ultimately proved incorrect, the basic point remains: Djokovic is close to matching Nadal at the French now. He is a powerful serve and handful of well-placed ground-strokes away from getting the job done, and his hunger to do the deed will only grow after this year’s hugely disappointing near-miss. And that is to say nothing of others in the field, who could come out of nowhere, as Soderling did in 2009, to stun the Spanish lefty with an ungodly performance in one of the earlier rounds in the coming years.

The second major obstacle standing between Rafa and a slew of additional French Open titles also has a name: Rafael Nadal – more specifically, his body. Although he seems to have fully bounced back from last year’s knee injury, the wear and tear on Rafa’s body of one of professional tennis’ most physical styles of play leaves many convinced that it is only a matter of time before he is no longer able to generate the speed and endurance that allows him to so consistently get the job done against the game’s best. In some sense, it’s a race against the clock for Rafa, as he needs to win as many major titles as quickly as possible before his body checks out. And, although he is without question the greatest clay court player in history, the punishing nature of play on tennis’ other surfaces will make it difficult for Rafa to win a major title anywhere other than Paris, placing even more pressure on him to keep producing titles there and, perhaps more importantly, extending the time-line that would be required to match Federer (to wit, tying Fed’s mark by way of victories at the French alone would require Rafa to keep winning titles there until he is 32, in 2018).

On balance, I think it is a safe argument – and here is where the conjecture comes in with a vengeance – that Nadal needs to win at least three more French Open titles to have any chance of captching Fed’s mark. Three titles at Roland Garros would take the Spaniard to 15 major championships, two shy of Federer’s record, meaning he’d need to win twice elsewhere, at majors whose surfaces are not his forte. Given that he hasn’t won outside of the French since 2010, that his body is getting increasingly run-down with each match he plays and that Djokovic is absolutely locked-in on capturing the career grand slam – which would require victory at the French, the only major that has eluded him to date -, reeling off major title after major title and staking his claim to be considered one of the game’s all-time greats, tying Fed will prove a super tall order for Nadal, even under the best of circumstances. And, all that assumes that Federer doesn’t, somehow, sneak out another major victory, which I don’t think he will but which remains a non-trivial possibility.

So, if you ask me whether Nadal will catch Federer’s record of 17 major titles, I would say that the chances are well below 50 percent. Although, as one of my amigos stressed, in a fit of passion, it would be an incredible gift to tennis fans across the world watching Rafa make a serious run at it.

On the women’s side, and in terms of the “Is Serena the best player of all-time?” question, I think the debate has more fluidity. Although Serena is currently six slams shy of Graf’s record mark of 22, she is arguably playing the best tennis of her career, and has won three of the last four major titles. It’s easy to imagine her running the table at this year’s remaining majors, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open which are on surfaces that suit her game better than the red clay of Roland Garros. Additional wins will fundamentally shift the dynamics of the argument over whether Serena is the greatest ever. But here are the facets of the conversation, as I see them today.

On one hand, Serena seems to punish the field more decisively than any of her predecessors. When at her best, she is virtually unbeatable. Her aggressive ground strokes and, especially, her powerful serve (which reached speeds during the recent French Open that were faster than those of men’s finalist David Ferrer’s, a fact that Maria Sharapove, who Serena decimated in the final, lamented during her post-match press conference) place her several levels above her competitors. And, although she experiences hiccups here and there, as she did in the Australian Open quarter-finals this year against fellow American, Sloane Stephens, when locked-in and completely focused, Serena wins. Full stop.

But even if you accept that Serena dominates more than any woman before her, one must also consider that field she has dominated is particularly weak by historical standards. The level of the women’s game has fallen off considerably over the last decade. Players have cycled in and out of the top-ranking without ever winning a major title (Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki, I’m looking at you). The only non-Serena players considered to be on-par with leading champions from other eras were Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne (and, perhaps, Serena’s big sister, Venus, but that’s a stretch). Yet, at the peak of her career, when she posed a threat to Serena at each major, Clijsters took two years off to have a kid, and then retired a couple years after her return, during which she, again, reached the top of the game and became a consistent obstacle to Serena’s ability to reel off major titles. Henin-Hardenne, for her part, also retired relatively young, close to the peak of her game, and at a time when she was enjoying at least occasional success against Serena on tennis’ grandest stages. A brief return to the game saw her struggle to reach her former level, however, eliminating another threat to Serena’s dominance.

So, one can make a solid argument that Serena’s ownership of the women’s field is made less impressive by the patently unimpressive nature of the field she dominated.

But there is another twist. Throughout her career, Serena has taken sizable periods off from the game, to pursue other passions. She has not locked-in and focused on winning as much as possible the way other, former champions like Graf, Navritalova and Evert did week after week, month after month, year after year. Had she fully committed herself to tennis over her entire career, it’s no stretch to imagine Serena winning 30 major titles, in which case we wouldn’t be having this conversation about whether she’s the greatest ever. But Serena made the choice not to focus in that way, a decision that has coloured her impressive, but not record-holding (at least, not yet) major haul.

Still more nuance deserves attention, however. Graf, the German great, won 22 major titles, more than any other women’s player in history. But – and this led to the most heated period of last nite’s cerveza-fueled discussion, due in no small part to the fact that one of the conversants is German! – she received a major “break”, if one can call it that, when, in 1993, her major rival, Monica Seles, then the world’s number one woman, who was threatening and about half of the time beating Graf at majors and other important tournaments, was tragically stabbed in the back during a match, which, incidentally, took place in Germany. The stabbing sidelined Seles for nearly two years, and, although she enjoyed moderate success after returning, including winning the 1996 Australian Open, Seles was never the same player. Had Seles remained healthy and continued the momentum that had been building before the stabbing, it’s not unrealistic that she would have captured a few of the titles that Graf ended-up winning in her absence. By extension, it’s not unreasonable to argue that a healthy Seles would have directly tapped into Graf’s major title count. Conservatively, let’s imagine that, without the stabbing, Seles would have won three of the majors that Graf did. That would take Graf’s major title count to 19, well within reach of Serena’s 16-and-counting.

On balance, then, I think it remains a stretch, today, to call Serena the greatest player in women’s history. But, I think the American legend is well on her way to staking this claim. In fact, the way she is playing, and if she remains healthy, focused and fully committed to her tennis, Serena may storm past Graf’s mark of 22 majors, and end all discussion around who is the best in women’s history. Although I love and respect Steffi – and, with due respect to my dear German beer-drinking buddy – I hope Serena gets it done.

So, there you have it, the conversational product of booze, brews and hearty, high-volume dudes. What can be learned from all of this aimless debauchery? Honestly, not much. Still, I do think something important was accomplished. We may not have solved the riddle of tennis’ greatest mysteries, but we did have a great time. And, the sheer passion with which each of us approached the topic at-hand illustrates the broader beauty of the excitement that sport – or any topic of shared interest – can generate among friends.

At the beginning of this post, I said that we didn’t arrive at any sweeping agreements. I lied. Toward the end of our aimless banter, a chap at the next table, perhaps appalled at our utter lack of awareness of, let alone concern for, others in the bar around us, leaned over and made a claim so wild and so patently uncompelling in its substance that it achieved the remarkable feat of uniting the un-unitable amigos. This fellow argued that, for all our talk of Rafa, Fed and Djokovic, we had left out the one men’s player who is undeniably the game’s best: Scottish star Andy Murray. On this one, the amigos could not have been more aligned: we were all convinced that the fellow was off his rocker.

Maybe, he needed another beer.

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One Response to “Friends, beer and sports: unlocking life’s great mysteries”

  1. Tim Hand June 17, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    “And, all that assumes that Federer doesn’t, somehow, sneak out another major victory, which I don’t think he will but which remains a non-trivial possibility.”

    I’d wager that the shaky footing of this assumption is what keeps Rafa from catching Fed. I can maybe see Rafa winning three more Frenches and at least two elsewhere. What I fail to embrace is the greatest player in the history of tennis not catching fire at least twice more before he fades away to fatherhood and endorsement abundance. I’d wager a beer – or two – on the final outcome leaving Fed ahead 19-17. I hope to feel even better about this prediction after a fortnight of brilliance across the pond.

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