There was a curious moment in Roger Federer’s second round press conference at Wimbledon after he lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky. After being asked his thoughts on some fans saying it was “the end of an era”, Federer reiterated he still plans on playing for many years to come. Then he seemed to scold the media assembled, very politely mind you, on their having overhyped what was a potential quarterfinal between him and Rafael Nadal who lost the previous day.
Federer went onto say that the media should perhaps learn not to do such a thing next time, mainly out of respect for the other players left in the draw. While Federer shouldn’t hold his breath, it is intriguing that he mentioned that considering his meetings against Nadal have been the most anticipated ones so far in the 2013 season.
While Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are currently the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world and still very much alive at Wimbledon, it was indeed “Fedal XXXI” that most people wanted to talk about. What makes it even more curious is that the last two matches between Federer and Nadal this year, both overhyped beyond comprehension, ending up being rather disappointing affairs.
The first was at Indian Wells back in March. Unfortunately Federer tweaked his back in his previous match against Stanislas Wawrinka and wasn’t 100% taking on Nadal the next night. Federer went ahead and played for the fans who had bought tickets for the anticipated showdown. Nadal won easily and the evening ended on a mute note.
The second was last month in the Rome finals. Both men were thankfully in fine shape. But this was Nadal on clay at his very best in a match that almost became a rout with some vocal Italians booing at Federer’s inability to do much against the Spaniard. While many had memories of their classic battle in the same stadium years ago, this was a final most will probably forget.
And now with both Federer and Nadal gone before the third round at Wimbledon, we are left in a new, and, for some, uncomfortable place. While both will likely be back for the next several years to try again for the title, the “greatest rivalry of all time” as some have described it appears to, if not having totally run its course, is at least reaching its final ebb. They certainly could meet in another Grand Slam final, but it feels more likely they will collide earlier now in future events. Will the media, and the fans themselves, continue to overhype any future encounter? Or will they have finally learned to temper their expectations in how a next encounter will play itself out?
What about Djokovic and Murray? With Nadal still sorting out his physical issues and Federer in something of a slow decline, both Djokovic and Murray appear poised to become the dominant players over the next few years. They have certainly clashed in several major finals already, but is the sport really ready for Djokovic and Murray to become the must-see rivalry? Can it even be possible if the sport as a whole continues to salivate over the next possible Federer and Nadal meeting wherever or whenever that might be? Federer was correct in saying those players remaining should be respected and not be overlooked. But old habits and fond memories die hard. And it may only be until Federer or Nadal finally exit the game before the tendency by many to overlook the rest of the field is finally put to an end.
It was five years ago that Federer and Nadal competed in the Wimbledon men’s final. That match still remains for many not only the greatest final ever played but the greatest match of all time. Leaving that debate to the historians, tennis fans, some who only follow the pro game when it arrives at Wimbledon each year, are now having to deal with not being able to watch the anticipated quarterfinal that they heard so much about preceding the fortnight.
Will they take the time to watch some of the sport’s lesser known players battle each other and likely themselves for a rare chance to go very deep at a Grand Slam? Will an impending Djokovic versus Murray final keep them hanging around until the last Sunday? Are those within the sport who have depended a great deal on the star power of Federer and Nadal ready to shift focus and look ahead to the future, however uncertain it might appear at first?
If you want a glimpse of that future, look no further than the next ten days.