The SPORTS PHILOSOPHER says: “In the great card game of Life a lobster can always beat a goat….but in the end he can never avoid drawing The Joker!”

January 30, 2012
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     We need to celebrate greatness.  

     In a world where Pat Sajak recently went public with the revelation that he used to host Wheel Of Fortune while he was drunk (is nothing sacred?), I think we need to pay homage to men and women who become famous for actually achieving something.   You know.   To remind ourselves of what really makes the world go ‘round.   Or at least to keep us from getting depressed and then going insane.

Nadal reacts in the finals against Federer at Roland Garros 2007.

Nadal reacts in the finals against Federer at Roland Garros 2007.


     Anyway, I saw greatness on TV last Wednesday night.

    Make that Thursday morning.   Between one a.m. and five a.m.   I’m talking Australia, other side of the world, the International Dateline, that sort of thing.   Literally, a sleepless night.

     But I wasn’t going to miss it.   For the 27th time, and for the 10th time in a Grand Slam match, the so-called Greatest Tennis Player Of All Time, Roger Federer, stood across the net from the man who renders that unofficial title meaningless.

     His name is Rafael Nadal.   He is one of the greatest sportsmen of our time, and, in the United States at least, he is certainly the most underappreciated.   He is better and more accomplished at tennis than LeBron James is at basketball or Brett Favre was at football or Alex Rodriguez is at baseball, yet we Americans would never consider including Nadal’s name in their pantheon, let alone rank him above those icons.   In fact, I’m sure there’s a large percentage of Americans who consider themselves sports fans who have never even heard of the gritty left-handed Spaniard….

     More’s the pity for that.   Because Nadal is one of the best tennis players ever born.   Oh, he might not be the very best ever.   He probably isn’t the very, very, very best.   But after Thursday, one thing is for sure.  

     Roger Federer isn’t either.

     First, the set-up: –When they stepped onto the court on Thursday at one a.m. PST, for their Australian Open semi-final match, tennis fans like me fairly drooled at the prospect of being privileged to witness yet another edition of tennis’ most celebrated 21st century rivalry. (Personally I always drool at rivalries, and always drool a little after one a.m. anyway, whether I’m asleep or not).   And make no mistake, Nadal/Federer is tennis’ version of Ali/Frazier, or Russell/Chamberlain, or Affirmed/Alydar.   Pure greatness.   Their 2008 Wimbledon final is generally considered by tennis experts to be the greatest tennis match ever played.

     Trouble is, it has been a decidedly one-sided rivalry.   It has been all Nadal.   Going into this match the lefty had won 17 of their 26 meetings, including seven of their nine summits in “Grand Slam” tournament play.   That epic, 5-set, 2008 Wimbledon final was also won by Rafa, despite the Wimbledon grass being Fed’s best surface and Rafa, at that time, hadn’t even really learned how to play on the green stuff yet.   His great heart and iron will carried the day that day.   So, as rivalries go, this is a little like calling the Harlem Globetrotters versus Washington Generals a rivalry just cuz they’re on the same court a lot.

     All this has been quite embarrassing for Federer.   When he broke Pete Sampras’ record of 14 major victories a couple years ago, he was supposed to be regarded by all, now and forever, as “the GOAT”, as in greatest of all time.   G-O-A-T, get it?   Personally, I think it’s silly.   I mean how can you be rightly called the greatest at anything if there’s another guy out there who beats you like a drum?

     The answer is you can’t.   Federer had to win this match.   He had to.   Time is running out for the 30-year-old Fed.   He knew he had to close the gap a little bit on Nadal’s head-to-head lead right away, asap, now.   Why not here, down under?   They had played at the Australian only once before, in the 2009 final, and an exhausted Nadal still found a way to win.   It was the worst defeat of Federer’s career.   It was so emotionally draining for the Swiss superstar, that he broke down and wept like a baby during the awards ceremony immediately afterwards.   So this being the first time he has faced Nadal in Melbourne since that particularly embarrassing retreat from greatness, if he was to ultimately merit the GOAT thing, he had to win this match.   He had to.   Period. 

     And I can’t deny that the Swiss guy came out ready to give it his best shot.   The frisky Fed started out like a German panzer division rolling across the Polish frontier.   In the first five games of the match I don’t think I’d ever seen him look better.   First he ripped a vicious, frightening cross-court backhand winner the likes of which I’d never seen him hit, then he executed a perfect drop-shot with a deftness of touch no other man on Earth could have duplicated, and he was serving with the style and sting of a dancer turned fencer turned boxer turned cold-blooded assassin.   He was carving the Spaniard up.   It was 4-1 Fed, and I was thinking, well, maybe this is the day he turns this “rivalry” around and starts to take charge of their relationship.   It’s about time, I said to my bleary-eyed sleepless self….

     I should have known better.   The tide turned quickly.   Mainly because Rafa started pounding Roger with his forehand.   That huge, lobster-like forehand.   That’s about what it’s like, this topspin hammer from hell—Nadal pounds on Federer with that thudding left-handed stroke like a lobster might use his left claw to pound away on some helpless hapless trout.   It is a merciless, irresistible shot, mixing power with accuracy and an annoying high topspin kick that makes it a shot almost impossible to get on top of.   Combine that with Nadal’s other great weapon, his physicality.   He is the strongest, the fittest, and the fastest player on tour all in the same body.   His ability to run full speed way wide of the alleys, and then manage to hammer a topspin forehand winner into the corner, is a shot the likes of which no other player in history has ever produced.   I don’t know how he does it.   But he was doing it.   And soon he was beating Federer up, bullying him, wearing him down.   (And oh by the way, Nadal’s ugly two-handed backhand is also better than Federer’s far more beautiful, though more erratic, one-handed one.)

     Federer held on to win the 1st set 7-6, but was blown out 6-2 in the 2nd.   At one point Federer lost 11 points in a row.   The writing was on the wall.

     The 3rd set was close.   Federer could scarcely have been more brilliant.   He hit Nadal with everything he had.   The desperate Fed was blasting brutal groundstrokes off both wings, rushing to the net with verve and élan, and moving with the grace of a rubber-soled Nureyev.   And yet, suddenly, they were in the tiebreaker and Nadal was quickly ahead six points to one, with five set points upcoming.   It must be terribly frustrating for Federer to play this well against Nadal, time after time, and still be forever swimming upstream.   It must be disillusioning beyond words to give it his best, and produce his best stuff, and have it literally not be good enough.   He fought nobly to get on-terms, winning four points in a row to get it to 6-5.   But then the lobster swung that left claw one more time, firing a thudding, un-returnable, high-kicking thunderbolt into the deep corner, and the set was over.   Just like that.

     The 4th set was also close, yet watching it I knew it was a foregone conclusion.   Not only was Nadal’s artillery and weaponry superior to Federer’s, so too, now, was his will.   As always.   The look on Federer’s shattered face said it all.   He was dead-man-walking, beaten before the final shot was even struck.

     So now it is Rafa with 18 wins to only 9 for Federer in their head-to-head legacy, he leads 8-2 in their Grand Slam matches, and 2-0 at the Australian Open.   If this is a rivalry, so was Reagan/Mondale.   If they meet at the French Open in May, where Nadal has won a record six titles and is virtually unbeatable, Federer has about as much chance of winning as Alf Landon did against FDR….

     So now, what do we do about this Federer being the GOAT thing?  Is he really the best player ever, just because he won the most grand slam titles?   Everyone still says so.   Including the gracious Nadal, who continues to refer to Roger as “the best in history” every time he opens his mouth, including, again, right after this match!   Right after beating him into submission yet again.

     Well, I don’t mind being the one to say that this is nonsense.   Federer does not get to be the best ever merely because he won 16 majors.   Greatness cannot be defined solely by numbers.   For one thing (and no one in the mainstream media has the nerve to say it), Federer rolled up most of his majors in a weak era.   He came along right after Sampras and Andre Agassi, and piled up almost all of his major titles before Nadal and the current #1-ranked player, Novak Djokovic , far younger men, were on the scene.   So his 16 Grand Slam titles, though wildly impressive no matter who he beat to get them, don’t hold the same cache than if they came at the direct expense of Sampras, Agassi, Djokovic, and Nadal.

     Ultimate greatness in sports is a touchy-feely thing.   For instance, the aforementioned Favre is often included in the discussion of who is the “greatest quarterback of all time”.   This is primarily because he played the longest, never missed a game, and racked up all-time statistical leads in touchdown passes, yards, and completions.  And of course he’s colorful; Southern accent, texts chicks naked pics of himself, that sort of thing.   In other words, his resume is the gaudiest.

     But the truth is that Brett Favre is not even close to being the greatest quarterback ever.   I could rattle off 10 better quarterbacks before I even began to give it serious thought.   He threw far too many interceptions.   He took far too many stupid risks.   He blew a lot of playoff games by himself, where his casual approach to ball security and decision making were the deciding factors in the game.   Favre blew not one but two NFC title games where he played poorly and then, at the end—when he still might well have carried the day—his last pass of the game was intercepted.   Favre once threw six interceptions in a single playoff game.    Compare him to, say, Joe Montana, my personal choice for best quarterback ever, or at least the best QB in the Super Bowl Era.   For those of you old enough to remember “Joe Cool”, ask yourself this: Can you remember even one single instance where Montana was the primary reason his team lost a playoff game?   Or any game?   Montana played in four Super Bowls.   He won them all.   And did not throw a single interception in any of those four games. 

     Take basketball.   I mentioned the Russell/Chamberlain rivalry earlier in this column.   My brother Jeff and I have been arguing for forty years about who was the best player in basketball history, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell.   It has been an entertaining dialectic.   I always maintained that Wilt was by far the better and more talented player, whereas Russell simply played on the better, classier, more well-rounded, and far luckier team (the stupid lucky Celtics).   Conversely, Jeff always maintained that even though basketball is a team game and that individual achievements can be viewed as separate, Russell’s ability to be at his very best in the big moments against Chamberlain is the very reason Big Bill (who I call “the wildebeest”, in honor of his Serengeti-ish goatee) won a staggering 11 championships to Wilt’s two.

     The truth is, we have both been wrong all these years.   Neither one of these dudes is the greatest basketball player ever.   Russell’s huge limitations on offense, lack of shooting ability, statistical inferiority to Wilt in head-to-head matches, and poor foul shooting disqualifies him from the best-ever debate.   And yet there is no way to award that honor to the far-more-talented Wilt, seeing as how he habitually shrunk from the moment in the face of the white-hot incandescence of Russell’s iron will.   Perhaps the ultra-competitive Michael Jordan was the best ever (no weaknesses), perhaps it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (most points, most MVPs, most unstoppable shot), perhaps even Magic Johnson, with his unique blend of size, skill, will, and versatility.   But not Wilt or Russ.  

          But in tennis, we have it easier.   Football and Basketball are team sports.   Tennis is an individual contest between two modern-day gladiators.   If one guy beats you like a drum for five years, takes your will, rips your heart out and shows it to you time and time again right before you die on the court, guess what: HE’S BETTER THAN YOU!  

     And as great as he is, that is Roger Federer’s problem.   The Multitudes, both experts and lay people alike, will continue to call him the greatest player of all time.

     But he himself knows he is not.   All you had to do was see his face the other night.   He knows.   And he’ll always knows.   And it has to be killing him.


Author’s note:  *Incidentally, a couple days later, Nadal—amazingly—wound up losing in the finals to Djokovic.   Even more amazingly, it was an even greater match than the Federer match.   It was the epic of epics, 5 sets, 5 hours and 53 minutes long, the longest Grand Slam final in history.   And Nadal lost despite winning the 1st set.   In 134 previous Grand Slam matches in his career when he had captured the 1st set, Nadal had won 133 of them.   133 out of 134!   But no matter.   Djokovic has now beaten Nadal seven times in a row.   “The Joker” has somehow completely stolen and taken total control of the sport of tennis.   I’m still not quite sure exactly how the skinny little Serb has done it.   But that’s another column…


meet….The Sports Philosopher!image0025

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered literary giant, and lover of epic tennis matches in the middle of the night.   Brad’s other recent columns for La Verne Online can be found in the Sports Section under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels* and over 20 short-stories.   

*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack, of triumph, and of utter despair, called WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for it on,, or   And then order it.   And then READ it.   And then tell everyone about it.   He thanks you.








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