Call me crazy. Call me blind. Criticize my rose-tinted glasses at your leisure. I genuinely believe that Roger Federer's start to 2014 has been more impressive than that of arch-rival Rafael Nadal.
I sit here as Federer enters a third set with Novak Djokovic in Dubai, having just captured the second set in their semi-final clash at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. To me, his year has been more difficult that Nadal's. Questions still remain, but many have been addressed. And another few have been answered as I finish this article.
In January, Nadal arrived at the season-opening event in Qatar buoyed by a sensational 2013 during which he returns to the top of the men's rankings. The script went as planned, with Nadal winning in Doha, without facing anybody in the world's top 20, and three of his five matches going to three sets.
His win may have been his first ever title prior to entering the Australian Open, but it was hardly convincing. Federer, meanwhile, opted to make his debut at the Brisbane International, and fell in the final to Lleyton Hewitt. Maybe at this point, Nadal has had the better start. I can't really argue with that.
The two titans clashed at the Australian Open, with Nadal winning convincingly. But was this really anything other than expected? Should a 32-year-old Federer really be challenging Nadal on a relatively slow hard court given all his storied troubles against the Spaniard? Again, I draw attention to Nadal's very lenient draw en route to his match with Federer, whereas the Swiss had overcome both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray. Nadal lost in the final having beaten just one top ten player. Federer had beaten two before his match with the world number one.
Nadal's ambitions of becoming the first person in the Open Era to win each of the Grand Slams twice were undone by a back injury, which then forced his withdrawal from the clay court event in Buenos Aires.
He returned the following week in the inaugural Rio Open, a event on clay boasting a field much weaker than the strongest of 500 events. The Brazilian tournament could only attract two of the world's top ten players, compared with the five in Dubai this week.
Cynics would argue this event has only been given 500-status to appease disgruntled clay-court specialists, discontent with the event in Acapulco opting to change to hard courts from this season.
Anyway, the tournament was won by eight-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal. Just. Saving match points against Pablo Andujar in the semi-final, Nadal laboured to victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov in the final to win his second title of the year.
It is very rare than a 500 event is won by a player without having to face an opponent ranked higher than 40th. Nadal may have two tournament wins, but had he not delivered in Doha and Rio, it would have been alarm bells ringing. And yet, it is Federer who faces ongoing criticism. In fairness to Nadal, he can only play who is in the draw, and winning is the name of the game.
By the way, Federer has just beaten Djokovic in Dubai. I make that three top ten wins for the year thus far, set against the one loss.
Federer can boast wins against Tsonga, Murray and Djokovic this year, Nadal has no real distinctive wins, with the exception of the Swiss.
As Federer looks forward to a clash with Tomas Berdych on Saturday in Dubai, Nadal is focused upon the defence of his title in Indian Wells in California. In my opinion, Nadal's 2014 thus far should be evaluated based upon his performance in the two upcoming American Masters events in March.
For all his lobbying of slower courts, Nadal has yet to prosper on the Floridian courts of Key Biscayne, which are traditionally played on a reasonably slow surface. Therefore maybe we should judge Nadal based on his ability to overcome new challenges, rather than succeed where he ought to have done anyway.
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