It seemed just like old times again in Rome on Sunday: Roger versus Rafa in a big final -- in fact, it was their first clash in a Grand Slam or Masters 1000 final since the championship match of the French Open way back in 2011.
This is your basic good news-bad news story. Good, in the sense that these two superb, amazingly prolific and consistent competitors (28 Grand Slam titles between them, and a mind-boggling 45 Masters) are still on each other’s dance cards at some of the peak moments on the calendar. You have to admire their diligence and relish for the game.
In fact, if they’re not careful they may find themselves sharing a bagel before some yet-to-come final, much the way Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova did at the US Open in one of the last clashes of what is the greatest rivalry tennis ever produced.
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will never catch up with Evert and Navratilova when it comes to the sheer volume of matches -- perhaps nobody ever will. The ladies played a grand total of 80 matches, with Navratilova emerging on top 43-37. Roger and Rafa have played less than half that many matches (30), with Nadal now ahead 20-10.
And that brings us to the bad news:
Evert, who was two years older than Navratilova, dominated the early years of the rivalry. But once Navratilova hit her stride she reversed the tide. Navratilova won 25 of their last 32 matches. Likewise, Nadal is almost five years younger than Federer, who will turn 32 in August. Rafa has beaten Federer in 12 of their past 16 meetings (all surfaces), and the painful beating (6-1, 6-3) Rafa inflicted on his pal in Rome tells you that the use-by date on this rivalry may be past.
Unfortunately -- or is it “luckily?” -- Rafa never got the memo. He’s got this streak of humility that is beginning to look nothing less than bizarre, and it looks as though he’s going to cling to it no matter what the record books or scoreboards say. Who else would have reacted the way he did after Nadal won his sixth title of year and his back-to-back Masters in Rome?
"If you told me four or five months ago that after eight tournaments I would have won six titles from eight finals, I would say you are crazy,” said Nadal, conveniently ignoring the fact that by his definition several million tennis fans suddenly qualify as certified lunatics.
Seriously -- was anyone surprised that Nadal, who has been virtually unbeatable on clay throughout his career, returned to the tour this winter after his eight-month layoff and picked up right where he left off? Nadal also added: “To win three Master 1000s and two ATP 500 tournaments is more than I ever dreamed.”
Oh, please. Enough with the drama and humble protestations. Rafa is starting to sound like that gazillionaire who pleads abject poverty even as he’s adding a few million to his bank account with a 10-minute stock trade. I’m not going to question Nadal’s sincerity, but there’s something patently cuckoo about this degree of humility when it comes to his performance and record on clay.
So here we are on the brink of the French Open, and it sure looks like the same view we’ve had for every year but one since 2005 (Nadal is 52-1 at Roland Garros with seven titles in eight tries).
“I don’t want to think about Roland Garros yet,” Nadal said Sunday. “Let me enjoy this victory."
I have a funny feeling that the way Nadal is playing, nobody else wants to think about Roland Garros, either. Should Federer find his way to the final to meet Nadal yet again, I’d suggest he bring a cyanide pill for himself, not a bagel to share.