Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have never faced each other at the U.S. Open, and they will not face each other in 2012 following Nadal's withdrawal due to injury, as reported by The New York Times. They are two ships passing in the night, never docking together in New York.
Four years have passed since Federer’s great five-year championship run at Flushing Meadows from 2004-2008. Though he is no longer in his prime years, there is hope that he can capture one more title here, given the optimism and success of his encore at Wimbledon.
Nadal is facing more difficulties at this time. He is battling knee tendonitis and has not played since June 28 in his second-round Wimbledon loss to Lukas Rosol. He will not play in the U.S. Open draw, and it's unclear when he will return.
We do not know if these two will ever meet up in New York. After all, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi played 34 times and only met once at Roland Garros. Agassi won in the 1992 quarterfinal before their career peaks really got started.
In the meantime, fans from both sides could make a case for what would have happened, had they played each other at their absolute peaks.Though Federer is indisputably a greater hard court champion, Nadal is the ultimate kryptonite.
Who would win between the 2006 Federer and the 2010 Nadal for one match only?
The Case for 2006 Federer
Currently Federer holds a slight 6-5 edge over Nadal on hard courts after their 2012 Indian Wells semifinal match. Four of these wins were end-of-the-year indoor matches in China and Great Britain, and prove that Federer does indeed love the fast hard courts.
In 2006, Federer won all four of his Masters 1000 finals on hard court and won the U.S. Open in four convincing sets over Andy Roddick. In total, he won 12 titles and finished 92-5. He would not lose any matches for the rest of the year, after the finals loss to Andy Murray in Cincinnati.
Federer had just turned 25 years old in 2006 and was arguably at his most explosive and physical peak. He was on his third straight year of dominating the ATP tour, and his championship experience and confidence were extremely high.
Federer’s advantages over Nadal at New York would be enhanced by the hard court surface. He dropped only two sets the entire seven matches with key wins over final three opponents James Blake, Nikolay Davydenko and Roddick.
Hard courts help Federer’s serve by adding even more speed and also help better disguise and place his shots. He would get his share of aces and service winners and often be in position to control the court with his forehand.
For his five consecutive U.S. Open encounters against super returner Novak Djokovic from 2007-2011, Federer served up 11, 20, eight, 12, and 11 aces.
Against Nadal at their two Australian Open meetings, Federer served up 11 and 12 aces over a combined nine sets.
Federer has also proven to be adept at breaking big serves. For example, Roddick only served seven aces against Federer in 2006. Though Nadal had his biggest serve in 2010, Federer would continue to find new ways to set up break point opportunities. He has quick reflexes, is a sharp thinker and handles the fast pace. He can be patient and take chances because of his service holds.
The 2006 version of Federer had lost matches to Nadal, most famously at Roland Garros, but he would still find himself to be the favorite everywhere else. He would not have to face the mental demons that took their toll on him while facing Nadal from 2008 through February 2009.
His movement was great, his stamina was optimum, and he was an explosive front runner who put constant pressure on his opponents to play perfect tennis. It was scarcely possible to beat Federer on hard court. How could he lose to Nadal?
The Case for 2010 Nadal
Though Nadal trails behind in their head-to-head battles on hard courts, he leads 5-2 outdoors. Particularly impressive was Nadal’s 2006 win over Federer on Dubai’s hard courts, which are perhaps most comparable to the courts in New York.
In 2010, 24-year-old Nadal won three straight Grand Slams on three different surfaces. He had reached his peak with all-court adjustments to enhance his already advantageous style versus Federer. Many thought he was in line to eventually surpass Federer’s career Slams record.
Nadal’s confidence against Federer was also supreme. He had dominated Federer at Roland Garros and had turned things around with his 2008 Wimbledon and 2009 Australian Open victories. He did all this with his incessant topspin (while attacking Federer’s backhand) and by showing feisty resolve and endurance in their matches.
In the 2010 U.S. Open, Nadal did not drop a single set en route to the finals over No. 8 quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco and surprise No. 14 semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny. He defeated Djokovic in four sets to capture his only U.S. Open title.
Nadal had adjusted his serving grip and was hitting several big serves in the 120 MPH range—even topping some out at 130 MPH. He broke serve 106 of 111 times in the 2010 U.S. Open. Certainly Federer would have fits with Nadal’s lefty kicks and slices out wide to his backhand.
He moved into the baseline, ala Wimbledon, and took an even more aggressive approach. He hit 49 match winners against Djokovic while giving up only two unforced errors in the fourth set.
At one point in the tournament, Nadal played 40 straight points without an unforced error. It was perhaps the most perfect blend of aggression and defense that Nadal had ever put together in his career.
Above all, the 2010 Nadal was at his absolute peak as all-court champion. He had the mental advantage over Federer and the tools to disrupt his great rival. He was healthy and experienced.
His movement and retrieving skills were great, he was the king of endurance, and he could grind his way back from any setback. Nadal could not be put away. How could he lose to Federer?
Someday, we may get to see Federer and Nadal square off at Flushing Meadows. If we are lucky, they will both be enjoying a renaissance of their great peaks, and they will clash in an epic final outside of Roland Garros, something not seen in three-and-a-half years.
Which U.S. Open Match Would be the Ultimate Dream Scenario?
But the odds say otherwise. Both players, for all their greatness, may perhaps one year stumble into a New York meeting when one of them would be less prepared than the other. It could happen in a round-of-16 encounter in which the conclusion would be anticlimactic.
It’s likely that the great U.S. Open showdown will never happen.
So we may have to think back on what might have been, and neither fanbase will ever relent in the face of the other.
At least there is still something to argue about in their declining rivalry.