by Paul Knepper
Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal doesn’t have the pageantry of the Super Bowl, the tradition of Michigan vs. Ohio State or the rancor of Red Sox – Yankees; what makes their matches so spectacular is the quality of play. Theirs is a rivalry built on brilliance and artistry, desire and power, spins and angles. It’s two legendary warriors battling for every point, until one champion is left standing.
Together Federer and Nadal have dominated men’s tennis for the past eight years. From the the 2003 Wimbledon through the 2010 U.S. Open they won 25 of 30 majors and one of the two has been seeded number one at the last 30 Grand Slam tournaments.
Federer is considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all-time. From his feathery touch on half-volleys to his lethal forehand, never has an athlete made the sublime look so ordinary. He has no holes in his game and has prevailed on every surface. The Switzerland native holds the men’s record for most Grand Slam titles, with 16, and his 23 consecutive semi-finals appearances in Grand Slams may be the most remarkable feat in all of sports.
Whereas Federer is the epitome of grace, Nadal is like a bull, who flattens opponents as much with his sheer will as his crushing ground strokes. Born and raised on the Spanish Island of Majorca, Nadal developed a fierce whipping motion on his forehand which creates a heavy topspin ideal for clay surfaces. The southpaw has won six of the seven French Opens he’s entered and at the age of 25 is already considered the greatest clay court player ever. Over the past few years, increased velocity on his serve and an improved net game have enabled him to translate his success to other surfaces.
Federer and Nadal have clashed 25 times since 2004, with Nadal winning 17 of them, though the majority of their matches have been played on clay. Nineteen of those took place in the finals of a tournament, including 8 Grand Slam finals. In the early years, the edge belonged to Federer, then in his prime and nearly unstoppable on grass and hard court.
The 2008 Wimbledon was the turning point in the ongoing feud. Nadal was 22-years-old and his game was beginning to click on all cylinders. He had pushed Federer to five sets in the Wimbledon final the year before, and though the five-time defending champion showed no signs of slowing down, there was a sense that it might be the young Spaniard’s time.
The drama of the finals matchups between Federer and Nadal is inherent in the nature of the tournament. For two weeks, the excitement rises and pressure mounts as fans witness stellar shot making and five set contests in anticipation of the two champions on different sides of the bracket facing off at the end.
It’s a crescendo similar to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, except these men stand alone. They don’t have any teammates to share the spotlight or the blame, to confer with about strategy or lean on during difficult stretches. They live inside their own heads, relying on the discipline, intelligence, focus, determination, resilience, confidence and courage that got them there.
Federer and Nadal cruised to the 2008 Wimbledon finals. What ensued was a match no tennis fan will ever forget; the two champions at the height of their powers slugged it out for a thrilling five sets. Nadal was nearly flawless as he grabbed the first two sets, but the five-time defending champion would not go quietly. He clawed his way into the match and though unable to convert on several break points, won the third and fourth sets in tie-breakers.
The fifth set was awe-inspiring, with seemingly every point ending on a stunning winner. With darkness threatening, Nadal finally captured the fifth set 9-7, and promptly collapsed on his back in utter joy. The match was the longest Wimbledon final ever at 4 hours and 48 minutes. Three-time Wimbledon champion and commentator John McEnroe, himself a one time participant in a five set finals thriller against Bjorn Borg on that same court, was one of many people to declare it the greatest match they’d ever seen.
The rivalry has taken on another dimension over the past few years, as both men have made themselves more vulnerable and revealed a fondness for one another. Devastated that his best effort was no longer enough to beat Nadal, Federer broke down in tears after losing to his rival in the finals of the 2009 Australian Open. Nadal responded by putting his arm around his opponent and went out of his way to praise Federer, stating that he would certainly break Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Federer, for his part, calls Nadal by his nickname Rafa.
Nadal still routinely refers to Federer as the greatest player of all-time and it’s difficult to argue with him. What’s become equally apparent is that Nadal is one of the five greatest players ever himself. When else have two of the top five players in the history of an individual sport faced off against each other? Perhaps Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. That may be the best analogy for the Federer-Nadal rivalry, the 2008 Wimbledon final was their Thrilla in Manilla.
In August of 2008, Nadal secured the world number one ranking and never looked back. Federer, who turned 27 that summer, began to slip just a bit, though he was far from done. In fact, he rallied to win the French Open and Wimbledon the following year. Nadal had gained the upper hand in the rivalry, though the clashes remained as intense as ever.
The two champions most recently squared off at the Finals of the French Open earlier this month. Novak Djokovic had been the big story heading into the tournament due to his undefeated record this calendar year. The Serbian was seeded number two behind Nadal and if he had beaten Federer in the semi-finals would have been the number one player in the world. Perhaps inspired by the doubters, Federer turned in his best performance in years and knocked off Djokovic in four sets.
His finals matchup with Nadal was riveting once again. Federer was surgical early in the first set, moving the Spaniard around by mixing up speeds, spins and location. He had Nadal on the ropes, up 5-2, but lost the next five games and the set. It looked like Nadal might roll over him at that point, but a proud Federer continued to fight. He surprised Nadal with well disguised drop shots and swung away for the corners, ripping several backhands down the line for winners.
Equally impressive was Nadal’s ability to run down and return many of those shots. Federer lost a heartbreaking second set tiebreaker, but rallied to take the third 7-5. Then Nadal took control of the tempo with his powerful ground strokes and pounded Federer into submission, 6-1 in the fifth, for his sixth French crown.
Wimbledon begins on Monday, with Federer and Nadal both chasing history. Federer is pursuing his seventh Wimbledon crown, which would tie him with Sampras for the most ever, and Rafa is chasing Federer. With ten Grand Slams of his own, Roger’s 16 is in his sites. Nadal is the number one seed and Federer number three, so if they meet once again it will be in the finals. Let’s hope they do. They’re the greatest show in sports.