Golden era: Federer and Nadal show shines on

It is Andy Murray's misfortune - and fortune - to be part of probably the most glorious spell in the game's history

There are two sides to the current golden age of tennis. For most of the world there is the joy of watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest players and ambassadors the sport has ever known, sweep all before them. For those who live this side of the Channel Tunnel, however, that pleasure is inevitably tinged by the realisation that the domination of the Swiss and the Spaniard may mean the best British player for the better part of a century never wins a Grand Slam title.

Andy Murray, nevertheless, expresses only pleasure at being part of arguably the greatest era in the history of tennis and having the chance to face the two players he regards as the best ever. "I would love to play Roger every week if I had the chance," the world No 4 said recently of the man who has beaten him in both his appearances in Grand Slam finals. "It's a great experience every single time."

Murray feels similarly about Nadal. After losing a titanic three-hour semi-final against the world No 1 in the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals in London on Saturday, the Scot expressed disappointment at the result but acknowledged how much he had enjoyed the experience. "I kind of knew when I was out there that it was a great match," he said. "I just love playing against Rafa. I don't know if there's ever been a better sportsman in terms of the way he conducts himself."

It was only fitting that the 2010 season should end with Federer and Nadal contesting the last big prize on the men's tour, the former triumphing at the O2 Arena to become one of only three players – Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl are the others – to win the title five times.

Debates about greatest players and eras inevitably come down to a matter of opinion, but some facts speak for themselves. The domination that Federer and Nadal have enjoyed on all surfaces and in all corners of the globe over such a long period of time is unprecedented.

Between them they have won 21 of the last 23 Grand Slam titles. Since Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open, the only players to have denied them are Novak Djokovic, who won in Melbourne nearly three years ago, when Federer was suffering from glandular fever, and Juan Martin del Potro, who beat the Swiss in five sets in last year's US Open final.

Federer, 29, has won more Grand Slam singles titles (16) than any other man, while Nadal, five years his junior, already has nine to his name, three more than his rival had at the same age. Both are members of an elite seven-strong group of men to have won a "career Grand Slam", Nadal having completed his set of the big four titles at this summer's US Open, three and a half years ahead of the schedule established by Federer.

Since February 2004 no other player has topped the world rankings, Federer having reigned for 237 weeks until Nadal succeeded him two summers ago. They have since swapped the lead again, with the Spaniard currently enjoying a big advantage at the top after winning three Grand Slam titles this year.

If Murray and Djokovic have had to scrap for crumbs from the top two's table, the quality of the contributions made by the Briton and the Serb to the present era should not be underestimated. Their excellence has helped to push Federer and Nadal to greater heights and to bring depth and contrast to the top of the game. The leading four men bring a wonderful range of styles to the sport: Federer the elegant attacker, Nadal the indefatigable defender, Murray the smart strategist and Djokovic the great all-rounder.

At a time of financial stringency around the world, tennis, spearheaded by the big four in the men's game, has been bucking the trends for both attendance and revenue from sponsorship and television rights. It would be hard to imagine any other sport being able to draw more than 250,000 paying customers to an indoor event in November, as the season-ending championships did in London last week.

Is the current era the greatest in tennis history? Ask around the world and you would probably hear different answers. The French might choose the late 1920s and early 1930s, which were dominated by the "Four Musketeers" – Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste. Australians would no doubt nominate the years around the 1960s, when Rod Laver and a succession of his fellow countrymen took the greatest honours, while Americans might suggest a more recent time, when Sampras and Andre Agassi, challenged on occasions by Jim Courier and Michael Chang, vied for supremacy.

Bud Collins, the veteran American broadcaster and writer, has covered the sport for more than half a century and believes the only age that could rival the present one was the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe dominated, with Lendl right behind them.

"One of the great things about that era was that Connors, Borg and McEnroe seemed to be playing each other all the time," Collins said. "The 1960s could have been the greatest age of all, but most of the best players joined Jack Kramer and went professional, so we didn't have them playing the majors for a period. We never got to see all the best players of that era playing each other at their peak."

The spiky rivalry between Connors, McEnroe and Lendl, combined with the arrival of the never-to-be-ruffled Borg as the first pop star of tennis, certainly took the sport to a wider audience than ever before. During Wimbledon, for example, there was almost as much interest in the big-name players in the news and features pages of newspapers as there was in the sports sections.

The friendship and respect shared by today's two leading men may have become too cosy for some, who would prefer a sharper edge to the rivalry, but there is no doubt Federer and Nadal are great ambassadors, particularly in an age when the behaviour of sportsmen and women has never been under greater scrutiny.

After the Haiti earthquake struck, Federer was the inspiration behind the subsequent tennis fundraising events. Later this month, when other players will be taking time off during the close season or preparing for 2011, Federer and Nadal will play each other in Zurich and Madrid to raise funds for their respective charitable organisations. Unlike some of their predecessors, the two men also give thought to the wider needs of their contemporaries through their work as player representatives within the Association of Tennis Professionals.

After his defeat on Sunday, Nadal said he did not even regard Federer as a rival. "Our relationship is very respectful," he said. "We've never had a problem in our careers, even though we've spent a lot of hours facing each other on court and had a lot of tense moments. That's not easy, and it says that we have always had a really good relationship."

Can the top two maintain their supremacy? Federer said that Murray's victories over him in the Masters Series finals in Toronto and Shanghai this year should give the Scot great encouragement for 2011. He also singled out Djokovic, Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych as players who had proved their ability to beat the best.

"The men's game is at an absolute high right now, with a lot of exciting games being played," Federer said. "I also think Rafa and I having won the career Grand Slam already at a young age is great for the game. We're obviously playing not only for ourselves and beating the other guys, but also for history. There will always be a lot at stake in our matches."

The major men

Between them, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have failed to win only two of the last 23 Grand Slams. Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open in 2008, while Juan Martin del Potro prevailed at the US Open last year.

2005

French Open: Nadal

Wimbledon: Federer

US Open: Federer

2006

Australian Open: Federer

French: Nadal

Wimbledon: Federer

US: Federer

2007

Australian: Federer

French: Nadal

Wimbledon: Federer

US: Federer

2008

Australian: Djokovic

French: Nadal

Wimbledon: Nadal

US: Federer

2009

Australian: Nadal

French: Federer

Wimbledon: Federer

US: Del Potro

2010

Australian: Federer

French: Nadal

Wimbledon: Nadal

US: Nadal

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