Nadal v. Federer (New Substandard)

In the latest Substandard, JVL, Vic, and I spend most of our time chatting about The Mummy and Universal's classic monsters. I'm writing about those tomorrow, so instead I'll focus on what was kind of a throwaway topic that turned into ten solid minutes of #content: Rafael Nadal v. Roger Federer. (Subscribe, review, etc.)

We were discussing tennis because earlier this week JVL wrote a piece offering reasons why Rafael Nadal could be considered a greater player than Roger Federer following Nadal's win at the French Open. As JVL says, he doesn't really buy the argument that Nadal is better, it's a devil's advocate thing.


JVL's case is actually kind of convincing? Nadal is undoubtedly—as in, there is no case to be made to the contrary—the greatest clay court player of all time, period, end of story. And Nadal does dominate in the head-to-head matchup, 24-13.


There's an ineffable quality to Roger Federer's game, a level of skill that borders on the mystical, a weird sense of things that overpowered you when you were watching him play at the top of his game. Rafael Nadal's game has always made sense to me—you could see him working angles and setting up points, you knew he was fast and strong and mentally tough. Everything he does on the court is logical. He's obviously great but he's great in normal ways.

Federer, on the other hand, is … I dunno, magic? Like, powered by some sort of mystical force called forth from the aether by druids deep in the Swiss Alps? Inhabited by some sort of demon that allows him to do unholy and unnatural things on a tennis court? The beginning of David Foster Wallace's classic essay on Federer, collected in String Theory, gets at the sensation Federer causes in viewers when he does something out of this world:

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men's tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, watching the young Swiss at play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're OK. The Moments are more intense if you've played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. … [Author's note: What follows is a lengthy description of a point you can watch here; DFW highlights John McEnroe's "How do you hit a winner from that position?" but I prefer his colleague's muted "Back and away," a mutter that calls to mind Kevin Costner's recitation of The Magic Bullet's trajectory in JFK: "Back, and to the left; back, and to the left"] … It was impossible. It was like something out of The Matrix. I don't know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.

The "Federer Moments" are why I'll always think of Federer as better than Nadal, no matter how many majors he racks up on clay, no matter how many more times he beats Federer in head-to-head matches. He's simply magical. And nothing is better than magic.