How does one even begin to put into words a rivalry so immense it has inspired thousands, and captivated millions?
Grace meets power. Elegance meets rough and rugged.
Beauty meets beauty.
They could not be more different—and yet they remain the same.
Both produce breathtaking tennis. Their ground strokes, passing shots, volleys, and cross-court winners are some of the best ever seen.
They are of a class far above anybody else in the game. Try and find a time when Rafael Nadal has insulted another tennis player, or been in any way ungracious. You won't manage.
Find me a match where Roger Federer has not congratulated his victor, or given praise to the man he beat, and I will be beyond shocked.
To merely look at the head-to-head does not give an accurate picture of the rivalry. It stands at 13-6 in Rafa's favour—anyone who didn't know would imagine it to be a one-sided competition.
Many a time have I been told that, if we take away the surface of clay, Roger Federer would be winning out-and-out.
And once upon a time, that may have been true.
But not anymore.
9-1 on clay. 3-3 on hard courts. 1-2 on grass. Those are the current statistics for each surface, and grass is the only place Roger Federer has a winning record against Nadal.
So how can their rivalry be so incredible, so breathtaking, and so beautiful?
The supreme quality of their matches is a huge factor. Tennis is not about a "big three", or a "big four". It's all about the top two.
Separate, they are capable of out-playing and out-classing every other player out there. This is no slight to the rest of the tennis world—simply a fact. There are people who can beat them,but nobody who can do so regularly and consistently.
Not when faced down by Federer or Nadal on the other side of the net.
Together, they produce dynamic events—not just matches.
One will hit a shot that, against any other player, would have been an outright winner. The other will not only get there and put the ball back in play, but hit it with such precision and power that his opponent, along with the rest of the world, is left shaking his head in sheer disbelief.
They each believe that they should be able to win any match. During the times when it seemed Roger Federer was unbeatable, it appeared nobody could surpass him in terms of mental strength. One man has—his name is Rafael Nadal.
Nadal not only believes he can win every match—he expects to win every match.
Perhaps the reason we are so intensely drawn to this rivalry is that for so long, the tennis world was starved of anything remotely like it.
Roger Federer began his period of dominance just as Pete Sampras was reaching the tail-end of his career. Until the appearance of 17-year-old Rafa, there really wasn't anybody who was truly able to threaten Roger's reign.
And it took a long time for us to realise what we were witnessing. Roger Federer, revered by many—including Nadal and his Uncle Toni—as the best player ever to play the game, was being rivaled.
Certainly, it was not an immediate transition from boy, to challenger, to rival, for Rafa. He put in the hours on the court. He analysed his game, saw where he could improve, and worked until those improvements were made.
And today, that is still his mindset.
Roger Federer was on a winning streak unlike anything ever seen before, and the world was becoming so accustomed to his titles that it was his losses which made headlines, rather than his wins. While this happened, Rafael Nadal was being shaped into the tennis player who would become the ultimate challenge.
For any player—not just Federer.
2008 was the year in which the world witnessed the changing of the guard. It will not soon be forgotten.
It saw Nadal equal Bjorn Borg's record of four French Open titles in a row. It saw him break that habit of many Europeans of remaining no more than a clay-court specialist, by winning his first Wimbledon title—in doing so both changing history and creating it.
He stopped Roger Federer surpassing Bjorn Borg's record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles. He became the first man since Bjorn Borg to win the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double. And he became the first man ever to achieve the Roland Garros-Queen's Club-Wimbledon triple.
On top of this he took the Olympic Gold, on his first attempt—the very day before he took over the top ranking from Roger Federer.
Now the situation has been reversed somewhat. Roger Federer must try and catch up in the rankings, while Rafael Nadal must look over his shoulder.
It is an interesting scenario, and one nobody could have predicted as little as 18 months ago.
Now Rafael Nadal will be remembered for his achievements on all surfaces—not just clay, as was once presumed would be the case.
And Roger Federer will have to wait a little longer for that 14th Grand Slam. Chances are, he will have to go through Rafael Nadal to get it.
Just as it should be, in a rivalry that has enthralled us so.
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