I think the "window" for tennis greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to meet in a meaningul final of a Grand Slam event is closing more quickly than people think.
I say this after watching Nadal win his first US Open a few days ago following Novak Djokovic's defeat of Federer in the semi-finals. I was like most tennis fans who had hoped Fed and Nadal would meet again and give us a terrific match. I'm a huge fan of Federer's and had hoped to see him beat Nadal in a big match - for a change.
Nadal looks unbeatable right now, however. He's playing superbly - better than I've ever seen.
Federer, meanwhile, though still one of the world's best, looks more flawed and vulnerable than he has in recent years.
So, when might these two rivals meet again in a contest that remains competitive?
Perhaps the 2011 Australian Open - if - if - Federer can make a few key improvements to his game. He'd have to serve better, and make far less unforced errors, for starters, and, he'd have to be far more aggressive against Nadal. He'd have to go for - and get - more winners.
Would he have even a miniscule chance to beat Nadal at the French Open? No way. The 2011 Wimbledon and US Open remain possibilities, but, as the calendar keeps advancing and Federer gets a bit older, Nadal will still be young and in his prime.
This is my main point. The possible occasions for Federer and Nadal to clash in a Grand Slam event while Federer's game remains at a high level - are extremely limited. They are two players going in different directions. Nadal is peaking while Federer is has very limited time. My own sense is that the moment will have to come in the next year, with possibly one more opportunity at the most, in 2012 - at, probably the Australian Open.
It's a shame because at least two of the Federer-Nadal finals matches have been uniquely exciting. I'm thinking of their unforgettable 2008 Wimbledon Finals match, which went to an incredibly close, tension-filled fifth set - as darkness set in. Some consider that the greatest match of all time because of the high level that both men played at. It was so close and exctiing that you felt either could win at the end of the fifth set.
The 2009 Australian Open was also exciting, What made that one interesting was that Federer managed to keep it close until the fifth despite his serve and other parts of his game being sub-par. (I don't think that Nadal, today, would have needed five sets to win that 2009 match!)
The extent to which Nadal has improved his game in the past two years or so is truly remarkable. His serve is much better. While he wins a small number of aces, he often serves balls that are impossible to return well. For instance, he's perfected that one slice serve to his opponent's backhand side that requires his opponent to react with bullet-speed by lunging sideways off the court in order to have a chance.
In addition, Nadal's forehand is more powerful and effective than ever. He hits winners routinely when using his forehand going the opposite way.
Now, with the last Slam event of 2010 over, we've all witnessed the indisputable rise of Nadal to the top of men's tennis as he won the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open all in the same year. He's the first man to win three of four Slam events like that in many years. If he remains healthy, it's not hard to imagine him winning Slam events repeatedly, and, eventually catching up to Federer's current total of 16. Interestingly, the question of whether Nadal's knees can stay healthy for a few years may be the greatest uncertainty for this multi-talented player.
Many tennis observers have wondered if his punishing style might take a toll on him and force an early retirement. He has already hurt his knees and missed considerable time and he's only 24.
Federer faces different challenges. With 16 Slams, can he stay motivated to keep finding ways to improve his game, or, ward off the decline of certain strengths? He did recently hire new coach Paul Annacone, who formerly coached Pete Sampras, and, this, to me, is not insignificant. Federer seemed to finally realize he needed help if he wants to remain on top. For several years, he had refused to hire a coach despite encountering repeated problems on the court.
I think one of Federer's new weaknesses is not hitting the ball hard enough and hitting too many "soft" returns - particularly with his backhand - that are left too shallow - in the middle of the court for his opponents to belt for winners. We saw Djocovic bash many weak Federer returns all over the court and run Fed from one side to the other. It was a sad, unusual sight to see, and, yet, one I've seen often in the past year or two. Federer allows himself to get into extended rallies, and, while he plays incredible defense, he loses too many of these points by not taking enough chances.
Beyond this, Federer needs a jolt of new confidence. Sometimes, at pivotal moments in matches when he has always been remarkably cool and clutch, he now gets distracted and seems even a bit tentative about where he wants to hit the ball. He makes more uncharacteristic unforced errors in these big moments.
After winning the 2010 Australian Open, Federer had a fairly bad year -- for him. He lost in the quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon before bowing out at the US Open. (He did win a Master's tournament this past summer in Cincinnati, defeating Mardy Fish in the finals).
Don't get me wrong. I think Roger Federer has already had an amazing career - even if he does not win one more Slam event. To me, he plays a more fun, beautiful brand of tennis than any player I've ever seen.
I'd just love to see Federer get one more chance to play at the top of his game against Nadal, while he's on top. Time is running out on this great rivalry and there are not many great rivalries like Nadal-Federer left in all of sports.
I post opinions at least once a week here. Often I write about politics or media coverage of politics -- two subjects I have followed closely for more than 30 years.