Commentary

Roger, Rafa dominance over

Updated: June 27, 2013, 11:16 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- In moments of crisis, there is always a tendency to rush to judgment. It's human nature to want to make sense amid the nonsense, to discover and describe a context where perhaps none yet exists.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the reigning Wimbledon and French Open champions; they have won nine of the past 10 championships at the All England Club. They already rank as two of the greatest tennis players ever, but -- and there is no gentle way to say this -- their days as the sport's dominant duo are over.

It is not unreasonable to presume neither will win another Wimbledon championship.

[+] Enlarge Roger Federer and Sergiy Stakhovsky
AP Photo/Anja NiedringhausIt had been a decade since the previous time Roger Federer lost this early in a Grand Slam.
There was a cruel symmetry underlining their stunning departures:

Nadal, who had reached five finals in his past six appearances here, lost Monday in straight sets to Steve Darcis, the No. 135-ranked player in the world. Federer, who made eight of the past 10 finals, fell Wednesday to No. 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky in four.

Federer and Nadal have played in the same Grand Slam on 35 occasions. This was the first time they both failed to reach the second week.

They are mortal now, for different reasons.

Nadal has a chronically tender patellar tendon in his left knee. Grass will always be the toughest surface for that fragile collection of collagen tissue. He recently turned 27, but there is a dog-years quality to that number. The physicality of his game, the torque of his forehand, the miles he's logged running on clay, have left Rafa in a battered state. He missed seven months after crashing out in the second round here a year ago. And then, while winning all seven of his matches in Paris, there was a relapse. On Tuesday, he attended a Julio Iglesias concert in Barcelona, but no one really knows how long this sabbatical will last.

"Not very late," Nadal said, trying to say that he didn't think he'd be out again for seven months. "Not that late, for sure."

Federer, in terms of tennis, is simply old. He suffers from an occasionally balky back and will turn 32 in August. He won his 17th Grand Slam singles title here a year ago, one month before his 31st birthday. Pete Sampras won his 14th and final major, the 2002 US Open, one month after his 31st birthday. For those Fed fanatics hoping for one more Slam title, it doesn't look good. The grass at Wimbledon remains the surface best suited to his diverse game, but against Stakhovsky, he was unable to knock down a pair of forehands that might have changed the pivotal third set.

"I thought I had my opportunities, had the foot in the door," Federer said. "When I had the chance, I couldn't do it. It's very frustrating, very disappointing."

Yes, Andre Agassi won the Australian Open at the age of 32. Indeed, Tommy Haas is playing some terrific tennis at the age of 35. But both of them missed significant portions of several seasons over the years. As a result, they both had physical and emotional reserves that Federer -- with the draining effort of reaching a record 36 consecutive major quarterfinals -- already may have exhausted. In retrospect, one suspects, history will show his last, Sampras-like push occurred here a year ago.

"I'm going to accept it and move forward from here," Federer said. "I have no choice. Looking forward to the challenge what's ahead now."

What's ahead is a lot of Novak Djokovic-Andy Murray finals.

Succession comes swiftly at the highest levels of sport. Just as Nadal pursued Federer and eventually surpassed him, Djokovic and Murray are now the ruling establishment. They are the two top seeds here, and six of ESPN's 11 experts picked Djokovic to win the title, with three going for Murray. Their dominance will make it even more difficult for Roger and Rafa to win more majors.

It's been only 18 days since Nadal won his eighth French Open title, but it feels like months. After Wimbledon, he actually will move up to No. 4 in the rankings. That's because Federer will fall to No. 5; the previous time he was that low was exactly a decade ago.

So let's do the math: If Federer fails to win another major, he'll still have the all-time record of 17. Say, for the sake of argument, that Nadal manages to win another title or two at Roland Garros (where he will concentrate most of his energies) and perhaps even the Australian Open. If he can win three, that would give him 15, one ahead of Sampras.

That would, fittingly, make them Nos. 1 and 2 on the all-time list. That they could do this playing in the same era feels remarkable. That is how dominant they were.

Were, the past tense.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.