Commentary

Federer, Nadal in unusual spot

Updated: March 7, 2013, 10:12 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

When he was unquestionably the best pitcher on the planet, Pedro Martinez was so good, Pedro Martinez was so good that players around the league would step onto the field for pregame stretching and look at the out-of-town scoreboard, searching for No. 45. They would stand in awe of Martinez so much that, even though they were ostensibly peers, they were reduced to little kids by his mastery of his craft. The only thing more amazing to them than his talent were the rare times they'd look up during calisthenics to see that Martinez had actually given up an early run.

Now that he's gone to retirement, the respect for the great pitchers of today is still apparent, but that level of awe just doesn't exist. Not for Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, Stephen Strasburg or Felix Hernandez.

Indian Wells, the first Masters 1000 event of the year, has arrived, and Roger Federer, otherwise known as the Martinez of his day, arrives as a defending champion seemingly more vulnerable than ever before. Although there was no shame in being taken to five sets by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open quarters or losing in five to Andy Murray in the semis, Federer then lost in Rotterdam in a way rare for him. It had been three years since he lost to a non-top-10 or former top-10 player, but Julien Benneteau beat him in straights in the third round. Then, in Dubai, Federer dropped the opening set to then-world No. 130 Malek Jaziri before putting the world back on its axis, only to be beaten in the semis by Tomas Berdych, who had also knocked Federer out in the quarters of the U.S. Open.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Ricardo Bufolin/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal has made an impressive return, but can he maintain this level against the big boys?
Meanwhile, on another continent, the other Martinez of his time (calling him a Koufax might be better), Rafael Nadal, left South America and will arrive at Indian Wells to play on a hard-court surface for the first time since withdrawing against Andy Murray with a knee problem in the semifinals at Miami a year ago. Nadal has won nine straight matches, and two titles, and is 12-1 in his return. Before last week, he looked every bit like a rusty player with serious physical ailments who hadn't played competitively in 223 days.

The real news, of course, is that for the first time in a decade, despite Nadal's triumph, it may finally need to be said: Neither Federer nor Nadal is one of the two best players in the world. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, unless they are playing against one another, will not be underdogs against anyone else on hard courts. And another thing: 2013 may be the last year on clay or grass that Nadal or Federer is their superior.

The revelation that time would finally erode both Federer and Nadal is nothing remarkable. Both are still ridiculously formidable. Both may very well still win and defend their majors this year, Nadal at Roland Garros, Federer at Wimbledon. But for the first time in the past six months, some members of the field seem to have begun to shrink the gap on Federer.

Take a year ago: Juan Martin del Potro had been tormented by Federer, first 6-3, 6-2 at Indian Wells in a match that turned in the first five minutes when a Hawkeye malfunction cost del Potro a point from which he never mentally recovered. A few months later, in France, del Potro had Federer up two sets to love in the quarters at Roland Garros only to be demolished (by injury, Federer or both) 6-2, 6-0, 6-3. Then, a month later, at the Olympics, Federer lost the first set to del Potro only to win the final two and the match, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 . That made for seven straight losses to Federer.

Del Potro, however, has won their past two meetings.

Berdych lost eight straight matches against Federer over four years from 2005 to 2009, but has since given Federer headaches, having won five of their past eight meetings. Federer's greatness, his superhuman consistency, has always spoiled the public, and his sudden appearance of mortality might be a byproduct of nothing more than fatigue (back-to-back five-setters in Melbourne).

Still, he has pared back his schedule (he will play Indian Wells but not Miami) after winning his 17th major, reaching No. 1 once again and breaking Pete Sampras' record streak for weeks at the top spot. All this suggests that maybe the great man finally realizes, even indirectly, he has nothing else to prove.

Federer is the defending Indian Wells champion, and it may feel slightly premature to anoint Murray considering he hasn't played since the Melbourne final. Though Murray has played in three consecutive Slam finals, the Federer calendar consistency is something at which to marvel. In 2012, Murray went out of a tourney before the quarters five times. Federer did so once, to Andy Roddick a year ago in Miami. Murray doesn't have Federer's phenomenal resiliency, at least not yet.

Meanwhile, there is Nadal, who was close at Indian Wells and Miami in 2011, lost the 2011 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals to Djokovic as well as the Australian Open final in 2012, but still hasn't won a title of any kind at any level away from clay since beating Djokovic at the 2010 U.S. Open final.

In Acapulco, Nadal found his clay stride, a frightening sight for those who may have forgotten the visual of an overwhelming Nadal onrush, playing his toughest competition to date in consecutive matches. He outlasted the crumbling Nicolas Almagro in the semifinal before obliterating Ferrer in the final -- so completely that it required formidable restraint to not already consider Nadal a favorite to repeat at Roland Garros. After being broken in his opening service game to start the tournament, he held serve for 41 consecutive games. The destruction of Ferrer was complete, but the true test for Nadal will be when he plays Djokovic, Murray and Federer and gauges the gap between them, if one exists -- and if his body survives the exam.

In the meantime, the spoils of invincibility that defined the decade are gone, and men's tennis will finally have parity and unpredictability, either that or a Djokovic monarchy (158-17 with five majors since 2011). Nadal's past two losses were to Lukas Rosol and Horacio Zeballos. Benneteau showed that maybe Federer can actually lose before the final eight. Federer is now a major favorite only on grass, just as Nadal is only on clay.

Nevertheless, drama awaits in the California desert. The best four players in the world, for the first time since Wimbledon, are in the draw. This is the way it should be.