John McEnroe is convinced Roger Federer, 30 in August, will win another grand slam, but not this Wimbledon. He reckons the 125th edition of the tournament is Rafael Nadal’s to lose.
That judgment sits alongside a thousand other opinions, most of which are split between these two pillars of the game, but McEnroe, the three-times former champion on this grass, whose perceptions are not dulled by the years, leans slightly towards the Spaniard.
As for Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who complete the leading quartet, they are serious threats, with little to choose between them, he says.
Federer, of course, thinks he will be crowned gentlemen’s singles champion for the seventh time on 3 July, equalling the record of Pete Sampras, whom he beat here in the quarter-finals 10 years ago — the genesis of his own rise and the beginning of the American’s retreat, although he would win a final major, the US Open, before he left.
Nadal? He never predicts. He just makes life hell for everyone else until they collapse on the end of the most withering, iron-fisted forehand in the sport, something he has done to the Swiss six times in eight slam finals, most recently in Paris last month.
So the maths, recent evidence and history would seem to be with Nadal and McEnroe. And, if anything is designed to inspire Federer to the mountainous peaks he has reached so many times, it is not only the burning desire to beat Nadal in a championship final but the creeping suspicion of others that he is approaching closing stages of an illustrious career.
This rivalry, between Federer and Nadal, is unlike any other in sport. It is not just a series of contests between probably the two best players in the history of their sport; it is a subtle psychological war.
Nadal is transparent. That is partly because his English is not his first language. It also because he shares with Murray the gift, or curse, of being unable to give an answer not wrapped with an iron chain to the truth.
Federer is equally candid — but clever with it. He would not be so brazen as to declare himself the best player of all time, although he probably believes it, certainly on grass, certainly at Wimbledon. This is his turf. To lose here – as he did in that majestic final against Nadal in 2008 – is a wounding blow.
So he crafts his verbal sparring with care. “I hope I get into the tournament a bit better than last year where I almost lost in the first round,” he said. “That’s the concern I have right now, not trying to break all these different records.”
Djokovic provided a measured judgment to the never-ending debate. “Obviously, results wise, it’s still Federer,” he said on Saturday. “But Nadal has been incredible the last couple of years. Nadal has maybe more years to play at the top. But you never know what’s going to happen. They have the biggest rivalry, maybe the biggest ever.”
And there’s not a lot more anyone can add — until, maybe, 3 July.