Will and fury, beauty and grace – Rafa and Roger bring a mosaic of gifts. They’re adored. Throngs gather to relish these athletic gods. Some travel thousands of miles just to see them practice. Small fortunes are spent for tickets. Poets and sages sing their praises. Wise men debate – just what is genius? Is there such a creature as an athletic genius?
Roger and Rafa elevate each other; they push the game. A Rafa-Roger matchup deep into a tourney, in the twilight of their careers, is a peak experience that combines the giddy anticipation of a Broadway opening with the sizzle of a memorable heavyweight championship.
Roger is the GOAT hoping to claim just his second French title. He’s never beaten his foe at the French Open. He returned to Paris to try to climb a mighty clay mountain. Rafa is the snorting, muscular bull, a formidable force who imposes. But he’s lost to Federer five straight times recently, all on hard courts.
The other day, Roger stated the obvious. To claim a clay crown you have to go through the man who’s seeking his twelfth French Open title. “That’s what I signed up for,” Roger confided. As winds swirl in Paris, so do questions – twelve of them.
- Are Roger and Rafa greater than the sum of their parts?
- Would there be modern art without Picasso? Would the NBA be the NBA without Michael Jordan? Where would modern tennis be without this duo, which has shaped the game for 16 years, been No. 1 for a combined 506 weeks, given us the greatest match of all time and collectively won 37 Slams?
- Are Rafa and Roger the most important sports duo of all time? How does their impact compare to Ali and Frazier, Bird and Magic, Palmer and Nicklaus, Mantle and Mays, Montana and Rice?
- Are they more important to men’s tennis than Venus and Serena are to the women’s game?
- Are their differences – lefty vs. righty, sublime savagery vs. balletic elegance, glowing Latin charisma vs. urban cool, King of Clay vs. the all-court monarch – what makes them so deeply appealing?
- Who is the GOAT? Roger has 20 Slams. That’s the game’s prime marker. Plus, he has 101 titles. While Rafa only has 18 Slams, 12 of them have come on clay, but he has a notable 24-15 record against Roger. Thirteen of those wins have come on clay, and in Slam finals, Rafa leads 9-3. Or might a Serbian lad they call Nole actually win here in Paris and, for that matter, win in the record books when all is said and done?
- Who would have benefitted the most if Roger and Rafa hadn’t reigned with such a firm grip? Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin come to mind. But Andy Roddick fell seven times in Slam semis or finals to Roger. Novak Djokovic has also suffered, losing 13 times to Nadal or Federer in Slam semis and finals.
- What are their most incredible feats? Rafa has a 91.75 winning percentage on clay, and 11 French titles. But he’s not merely a claymeister. He’s won two Wimbledons, four hardcourt majors, 23 other hard court titles and an Olympic gold medal. Roger has 20 Slams, 101 titles, has been No. 1 for 310 weeks and, incredibly, reached the semis of Slams 23 straight times.
- Is Rafa pounding his explosive, high-bouncing topspin forehand into Roger’s beautiful but vulnerable one-handed backhand the most important sequence in tennis history? BTW: Is the genius move by Rafa’s uncle Toni (or was it by Rafa himself) to have the otherwise right-handed boy Nadal play left-handed the most important decision in modern tennis?
- Is the fact that in their combined 32 appearances at the US Open, Rafa and Roger have never played each other the most amazing anomaly in their careers?
- Tennis duos have long been a part of the sport: Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody, Big Bill Tilden and Little Bill Johnston, Helen Wills and Helen Jacobs, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Venus and Serena. Will tennis ever again see a duo the likes of Roger and Rafa?
- Something has to give today. Is it still true that beating Rafa in five sets on clay in Paris is the hardest thing to do in tennis?