Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Duel, Once Again, for Supremacy

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Neither dropped a set along the way, and now the 31-year-old Nadal and the just-about-36-year-old Federer are in position for a days-of-yore duel for the No. 1 ranking. It still belongs to Andy Murray but probably will not for long given the state of Murray’s hip and the mother lode of points he has to defend before the end of the season.

So bring on the United States Open, the year’s final Grand Slam tournament and the only major tournament in which Nadal and Federer have never faced each other. It begins Aug. 28, and Federer is already the bookmakers’ favorite.

Who can blame them? He was the pretournament favorite at Wimbledon, too.

He can obviously handle the burden, but it is no doubt less magical to win when many expect it than when nobody expects it, which was how he won the Australian Open in January.

“It felt like a fairy tale,” he said of Australia on Monday morning at the All England Club, looking a little groggy after partying with a large group of friends and finally going to bed at 5 a.m.

“My head is ringing; I don’t know what I did last night,” he said, his baritone voice a note or two lower than usual. “I just drank too many types of drinks, I guess.”

Federer presumably will be as smart as usual about recovery even if he admits that he is eager for more matches after spending much of the last year rehabilitating his postoperative knee, doing fitness work or practicing.

He has picked his spots and tournaments beautifully, however, which is how he is ranked No. 3 despite playing just seven tour events in the last 12 months.

Federer also has no points to defend the rest of the year. He is No. 2 in the 2017 points race, behind Nadal, who has 7,095 points to Federer’s 6,545. Nobody else is close, certainly not Murray or Novak Djokovic, the two men who — way back in January — were expected to dominate the season.

Photo

Rafael Nadal, left, after winning his record 10th French Open in June.

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David Vincent/Associated Press

Neither has reached the final of a major tournament this year, and it is unclear when they will play again with Murray’s hip a big concern and Djokovic’s right elbow pain serious enough to force him to retire in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon.

Djokovic said the elbow had been an intermittent problem for about 18 months and he was expected to seek medical advice in the United States. His wife, Jelena, is due to give birth to their second child in early September, and some in Djokovic’s camp would not be surprised to see him skip the rest of the season.

Some savvy outsiders agree, even if the consensus is that the equation that works for Federer (long break = Grand Slam title) will work for precious few.

“Roger’s fortunate because of the way he plays and his hand-eye coordination,” said Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon champion now coaching Coco Vandeweghe. “He can get away with that, but I don’t think a lot of players could do that. But it makes sense for someone like Novak. He should take six months off.”

That only makes sense if the elbow problem is serious or requires surgery. Djokovic did look motivated and focused again at Wimbledon. But for now, Federer is ahead of Djokovic in the rankings for the first time since November 2012.

He has yet to face Djokovic or Murray in 2017, and it is possible he will not have to face either of them at any stage this season. It does seem for Federer as if all the stars have aligned (or are too hurting to line up), even if that is not a theme he embraces.

“Not really,” he said on Sunday night. “I thought Andy and Novak were going to continue. Novak, one year ago, was holding all four Slams, and Andy went on this unbelievable run. And that’s why my mind-set coming back was this is going to be rough. Novak was on top of the world. Rafa was going to come back strong. I thought I might have runs and go deep maybe, but then maybe I’m at the mercy at the end of Rafa or Andy or somebody.”

For now, the only two men to beat him in 2017 are Evgeny Donskoy and Tommy Haas. Donskoy was a qualifier ranked No. 116 when he upset Federer by winning a third-set tiebreaker in the second round in the United Arab Emirates on March 1. Haas was a wild card ranked No. 302 when he beat Federer, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, in Federer’s opening round in Stuttgart, Germany, last month.

But Federer is undefeated against the top 100 and a phenomenal 25-0 in Grand Slam and Masters 1000 play. So where is the next generation?

Alexander Zverev, 20 years old and ranked No. 11, is its clear leader. Nick Kyrgios, 22, remains a fire that can blow out too quickly. But Federer wonders about it, too, speculating that the current ranking points structure makes it harder for new talent to rise but also pointing out that the new wave lacks variety.

“I wish we’d see more players and coaches taking chances at net, because good things do happen at net, but you have to spend time up there to feel confident up there,” he said.

Even Federer served-and-volleyed on only 16 percent of his service points at Wimbledon, but that was still well above the tournament average of 7 percent.

“In any case, the race for No. 1 will go through us,” he said of himself and Nadal. “Unless someone like Novak wins 25 or 30 matches at the end of the year, which is of course possible. He and Murray have done it before.”

Federer also said he would not become caught up in chasing the year-end No. 1 ranking if it comes at taking chances with his body. “I think maybe getting there for just one week anytime would make me just as happy,” he said. “That’s my feeling. To be No. 1 again would be something totally unexpected for me.”

He has not been there since 2012, which brings us back to the same question.

What year is this?



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