The greatest song of the greatest blues man, Robert Johnson, was Hellhound On My Trail, in which Johnson famously imagined being pursued by some demon or devil that just would not let him rest. It might now be time for Roger Federer to consider singing the blues, because he too has a hellhound on his trail and that hellhound’s name is Rafael Nadal. Nadal might not capture Federer’s soul (as Johnson feared the “hellhound” would capture his), but it appears increasingly likely that he willl soon capture and then overtake Federer’s record for a male tennis player of 20 Major victories.
Having defeated Dominic Thiem for a second successive year in the French Open Final, Nadal looks almost as imperious as he ever has done on the clay of Roland Garros. His record in Paris truly is astonishing and Greg Rusedski was surely exaggerating only slightly when he opined that it would still be talked about “in 200 years”. (Tragically, in our age of climate destruction, it is of course doubtful whether the human race will last that long.) Nadal’s record of 12 French Open victories is genuinely historic, as it makes him the first man or woman to win a Golden Dozen of Majors at the same event. And in the process, he has moved within virtual touching distance of Federer in the all-time Majors list.
Rafael Nadal Is The Hellhound On Roger Federer’s Trail
Federer still leads on 20 Majors, but Nadal is now on 18, which is the first time that he has ever been within just two Majors of matching the extraordinary Grand Slam record of the great Swiss. Before Federer and Nadal faced each other in the 2017 Australian Open Final, no less a tennis expert than Andy Roddick (who has played all of the current greats as opposed to just watching them from the commentary box) expressed the opinion that if Federer was to win (which he ultimately did), it might just take him clear of Nadal for good. Of course, Roddick, like almost everyone else at the time, made the mistake of underestimating Nadal’s incredible competitive drive and sheer will to win.
Since that 2017 Australian Open Final, Federer has won two more Majors, at Wimbledon later that year and again in Australia in 2018, and yet he has still been unable to pull clear of Nadal, because the Spaniard has effectively kept up with him every step (or Major) of the way. In 2017, Nadal won the French Open (for the first time since 2014) and followed that up by winning the US Open later that year, before retaining the French Open in 2018. Now, after nearly a year at the Majors when the “Third Man of Tennis”, Novak Djokovic, has been unbeatable, winning three Majors in a row, Nadal has finally broken the Serb’s stranglehold on the sport’s biggest prizes and in the process moved to within two Majors of catching Federer.
What must really frighten Federer (if the famously unflappable Swiss is capable of being frightened) is that Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros is so complete that he could probably surpass Federer’s record of 20 Majors simply by winning the next three French Opens in a row. Nadal looks eminently capable of that, given that his only two realistic challengers for the title at Roland Garros are the two men who competed for the right to face him in the final, namely Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem. Djokovic has already won the French Open, of course, to complete his career Grand Slam in 2016, and Thiem, by making two French Open Finals in a row, has proved beyond doubt that, at least on clay, he is by far the best of the “Next Gen”. Nevertheless, all the smart money will be on Nadal retaining his Paris title for the foreseeable future, unless he retires (which is incredibly unlikely at the moment, when he is playing so well) or finally succumbs to the injuries that have blighted his career.
However, it is not only at Roland Garros that Nadal will continue to challenge for Majors. Although the bulk of his 18 Majors (12, or two-thirds) have come in Paris, he has still won the US Open (three times), Wimbledon (twice) and the Australian Open (once). And in the wake of his victory at the French Open last weekend, he announced that he would not be playing any warm-up tournaments on grass before Wimbledon, in the hope of resting fully and finally recapturing the Wimbledon title that he last won in 2010.
That is what makes this year’s Wimbledon potentially so historic, as it might just be the last time that “The Big Three” of tennis – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – face each other in a Major where every one of them has a realistic chance of winning. Djokovic has dominated in the Australian Open, winning it for a record seventh time this year; Nadal has virtually made Roland Garros his own; and the US Open, coming at the end of the “Grand Slam” season, is always something of a lottery, in the sense that fatigue and injuries can have a greater effect there than at the other three Majors earlier in the season. So, it is Wimbledon, and specifically Wimbledon 2019, that could be the historic battleground that finally decides which of the Big Three will end their career with the most Majors and with them the title of (to use boxing parlance) the undisputed greatest male tennis player of all time.
Federer is still a contender for Wimbledon; in fact, for many he will be the favourite, having won on the grass of London SW19 a record eight times already. However, Djokovic is the reigning Wimbledon champion and he will reason that if he can win again, for a fifth time in total, that he too will be within touching distance of Federer’s total of 20 Major victories, or at least his Wimbledon total of eight. And Nadal, refreshed and rested after his exertions in Paris and throughout the rest of the clay-court season, may just put on his best show on grass in nearly a decade.
And so, less than a week after Nadal claimed his douzaine d’or, the scene is already being set for the next Major, at Wimbledon, which begins in just over a fortnight. Whether Federer can win his ninth Wimbledon and 21st Major in total, or Nadal claims a Paris-London double for the first time since 2010 (and in the process draws to within a single Major of Federer), or Djokovic shows that his defeat in the gales of Paris was just a blip and wins a 16th Major, it truly promises to be a battle for the ages. And FedHeds everywhere will fear that it will be Nadal, the hellhound on Federer’s trail, who ultimately proves the victor.