Long time rivals Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras battled each other on tennis courts around the world from 1990 until Sampras retired in 2002. They met in Grand Slam finals five times in 12 years.
Even the great rivals Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe met only four times in Grand Slam finals—twice at Wimbledon and twice at the U.S. Open in 1980-1981.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, however, have established a record few male rivals will come close to equaling in the Open Era of tennis. The two have met in eight Grand Slam finals starting back in 2005 when Nadal won his first French Open championship.
Federer and Nadal played their first Grand Slam final against each other at the French Open in 2006 and their most recent major final at the 2011 French Open—Nadal, of course, won both clay court matches.
Moreover, between the two of them, Nadal and Federer have dominated Grand Slam finals since the year 2003 when Federer won his first at Wimbledon—marking the start his record-breaking streak.
In 2003 Roger Federer won his first Grand Slam title at the Wimbledon Championships, defeating Mark Philippoussis in straight sets. He was 22 years of age.
In 2004, Federer won his first Australian Open title, his second at Wimbledon and his first U.S. Open title. During the 2003-2004 seasons, Federer won four out of eight titles at Grand Slam tournaments.
In 2005, Federer was upset by Marat Safin during the Australian Open semifinals. Safin would go on to win the title. The world No. 1 was also upset by another rising star, Rafael Nadal, in the semifinals of the 2005 French Open—which Nadal would go on to win on his first try at Roland Garros.
When Nadal won his first Grand Slam title at the 2005 French Open, he was 19 years old.
Federer would end 2005 by winning his third consecutive Wimbledon title and his second consecutive U.S. Open title.
During the three seasons from 2003-2005, Federer won six out of the 12 Grand Slam titles. Nadal added one.
In 2006 and in 2007, Federer won every Grand Slam title except the French Open, which Nadal won. But his opposition during the Wimbledon finals in both 2006 and 2007 was Nadal, who continued to enhance his grass-court skills getting closer to winning each season.
It should be noted that in addition to Nadal being Federer’s opponent during the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals, Federer was Nadal’s opponent during the French Open finals these same years.
Together, the two won all eight Grand Slam tournaments in 2006 and 2007.
By the end of 2007, Federer alone captured 12 of the last 20 Grand Slam titles—Nadal added three.
The following year, however, the Grand Slam landscape shifted. Novak Djokovic broke through winning the 2008 Australian Open, defeating Federer in the semifinals. That was a huge shock to the tennis world, accustomed to Federer winning most Grand Slam finals. The press pounced and Federer fans swooned.
As yet, Nadal was not a factor on hard or grass courts.
But he won the French Open again in 2008, humiliating Federer in the final. To add insult to injury, Nadal would go on to defeat Federer in the finals of Wimbledon in an epic five-set match. Plus, Federer would fall in the quarterfinal round of men’s singles competition at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games to James Blake.
To put an exclamation mark on his fall, Federer lost his No. 1 ranking to Nadal, who held the No. 2 spot for three years.
Federer, it seemed, was human after all—starting in 2008.
To salvage his season, Federer would go on to win the 2008 U.S. Open for his fifth consecutive title at Flushing Meadows.
Ultimately, it proved that Federer could bounce back quickly.
In 2009, Nadal began the year winning his first hard-court Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, defeating Roger Federer in the final. But Federer would achieve a career grand slam by winning the 2009 French Open when Robin Soderling upset Nadal in the fourth round at Roland Garros.
Nadal withdrew from action after his loss at the French to allow his knees time to recover from tendinitis—missing Wimbledon in 2009—and not returning to action until the Rogers Cup in Canada.
Federer, however, would win his sixth Wimbledon title in 2009 but be upset by Juan Martin del Potro in the finals of the U.S. Open later that summer.
Except for the 2008 Australian Open, Nadal or Federer appeared in every final in 2008 and 2009—seven of eight.
Federer had won 15 of 28 Grand Slam titles since 2003.
Nadal had won six of 20 since 2005—together they owned 21 of 28 Grand Slam titles since 2003.
In 2010 through 2012 to date, one of the two men has appeared in 10 of the 12 Grand Slam finals.
The two exceptions were at the 2011 Australian Open when Andy Murray faced Novak Djokovic and, of course, that same duo in the finals of the 2012 U.S. Open.
At the 2012 U.S. Open, Nadal did not play and Federer was upset in the quarterfinals by Thomas Berdych.
Currently, Roger Federer has reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, holding a scant lead over Djokovic.
With his on-going knee problems, Nadal’s future playing professional tennis seems uncertain. Will he be able to come back and if he does, how will the constant situation with his knees affect his game?
Federer continues to ebb and flow in the game—now past 30 with not much left to prove. The Swiss plays for the love of the game, still capable of producing a very high level of play.
Since 2003, Nadal and Federer, together or separately, have appeared in 32 of the last 40 Grand Slam finals, missing only eight—three of those coming in 2003. The two have won 28 of the last 40 with Djokovic coming on strong—winning a total of five to date.
So who will be the next duo whose rivalry will light up the media fires? Will it be Murray vs. Djokovic? Or will one or both of them be supplanted by someone else on the rise in the game?
Or could it possibly be Federer and Nadal all over again?