Well, it appears they're not besties after all.
After a career-long congenial relationship between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the tension meter suddenly set off some alarms when Nadal took a swipe at his rival for failing to back his fellow players in the fight for schedule reform. Nadal insists that Federer's silence in helping make the tour a healthier environment isn't benefiting anyone -- except Mr. Federer himself.
But was this a selfish rant by a player fed up with his own ailments, or was Nadal looking out for the greater good of the game?
The tour's length always has been a hot-button issue, a source of contention for players who often succumb to the rigors of an 11-month mandatory-driven calendar. Of the top players, Nadal in particular has felt the brunt of the grind. His vast list of tournament withdrawals include the year-end championships, Australian Open and Wimbledon, just to name a few notables. His shoulder, knees, foot, hamstring and back injuries throughout his career have slowed his assault on Federer's Slam record. With the exception of chipping a tooth during his trademark habit of biting the winner's trophy (although that can't be good for his enamel), Nadal has nicked up nearly every facet of his robust anatomy.
What Nadal would give for a clean bill of health, to glide through a season unfazed by the physio and at a safe distance from the docs. What he would give to careen around the court as eloquently as Federer, or to procure a big bomb of a serve and earn a few free points. That's not in the cards, and that's a problem.
Nadal has a point, though: He never asked to be the lead spokesman in the case against the ambitious schedule. Sure, he's voiced his displeasure in the past, but that shouldn't designate him as the face of this issue. But if he is going to be that person, should he come across looking like the villain when so many others share the same sentiments, including Nikolay Davydenko? So Nadal's frustration with the silent Fed is understandable.
But this is a far more complex issue than even Nadal acknowledges. There are a lot of parties involved, each with their own agendas. Any revisions to the schedule could have a profound impact on the way rankings points are distributed and on how it could affect journeymen who depend on the long season to stay afloat. But the point is that there are a lot of concerned players, and they need not only an authoritative voice, but a unified one. And with Federer -- the most recognizable and accomplished player to ever step foot on court -- distancing himself, the challenge for change becomes that much more onerous.
Federer has done a remarkable job of maintaining his health (or staying fresh as a daisy, as Rafa said), especially for a player who hit the three-decade milestone in August. At this point in their careers, is it really that necessary for Federer or Nadal to heed the tour's mandatory obligations? Federer has played a judicious schedule, most notably his post-U.S. Open respite. How much has that hurt him? On the contrary, we've watched him win two consecutive World Tour Finals championships and the Paris Masters title (among others) after bailing on the Asian swing. Why couldn't Nadal follow in his footsteps? And what say you about Serena Williams' paucity of play? Her blueprint has kept her not only viable, but dominant, a lot longer than the frenzy of early retirements on the women's tour.
It's hard to say for sure whether Nadal's admonishing of Federer was fair. But this public grievance is just the beginning. Plus, the tour could use a little dissent, couldn't it? Quite frankly, I, for one, have never bought into the faux "You're the greatest," "No, no, you're the greatest" lauding of each other. Nadal and Federer are not ill-spirited by any stretch, but nonetheless, they're rivals who want to augment their trophy collections and add to their legacies. It just seems slightly astonishing that neither has expressed any animosity toward the other until now.
Nadal, perhaps, did not intend for his contentious comments to amass so much negative traction. But if you read between the lines, Nadal essentially called Federer's do-good demeanor a sham: "His [position] is easy: Do not say anything, all positive, I am a gentleman; others get burned."
Ouch. Silence, evidently, can speak volumes.
Hey, if schedule strife is the lynchpin in a little bad blood, then so be it. At some point, Federer's perceived haughtiness was bound to rub his mates the wrong way. This is a fraternity, albeit a disorganized one. And all accolades and accomplishments aside, the players do need to look out for each other. And right now, at least as far as Nadal is concerned, Federer is not living up to his role.
We'll see how the narrative escalates as we get deeper into the Australian Open. But in what is typically a quiet first few days at the majors for the upper echelon, we'll let the silent-Federer saga do all the talking.