Federer and Nadal Renew 'Big Tennis' Rivalry at Indian Wells

Andrew Prochnow@@AndrewProchnowAnalyst IMarch 14, 2013

Federer and Nadal have faced off in 19 finals, an Open Era record.
Federer and Nadal have faced off in 19 finals, an Open Era record.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Big Tennis.  

That's what the sport of tennis translates to in the Russian language. Bolshoi Tennis.   

The Russians may have invented the unique phrasing, but it was Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who gave it new meaning. What better describes the rivalry between these two players than the words, Big Tennis? Together, Federer and Nadal have arguably conjured the biggest tennis the game has ever seen.  

And after a year on hiatus, Big Tennis is finally back. Federer and Nadal kept their latest date with destiny at the 2013 BNP Paribas Open by squeaking through their respective fourth-round matches in three sets, both finishing with a score of 7-5 in the decisive set.  

In a rivalry that has so often pushed both players to their limits in regards to physical and emotional exertion, the match will undoubtedly draw significant interest from the global tennis community. Now begins the period of sweetness, anticipating their match before the drama begins.  

The fact that neither looked particularly sharp against the likes of Stanislas Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis should be quickly forgotten by match time this evening.  

Although this will be their 29th meeting, there's still room for something new between these two legends of the sport. For starters, this will be the first time in their history that they will face off in a quarterfinal round. It will also only be the second time they will face off in a round prior to the semifinals. 

On the list of the most matches between Open Era rivals, Federer and Nadal will now be tied for seventh place. Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe top the list with 37 total matches. However, Federer and Nadal have played in 19 finals, giving them the Open Era record for most finals decided by the same opponents.

McEnroe and Lendl competed for 18 finals, while another familiar pair, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, have, thus far, played in 15 finals against each other.   

Finding true context in the Federer-Nadal rivalry while they are both still active would be a bit like concluding the implications of World War II during the Battle of the Bulge. The war is still going on, and neither side appears ready to raise the white flag. Therefore, it is simply not possible to understand the full historical meaning of their matches until both players have retired from the game.

Certainly, that won't stop people from trying. Federer and Nadal have made such an impact on the game that the comment section of almost every article written in the realm of tennis seems to deteriorate into a flame war between their vocal supporters.  

Like the head-to-head matches, the online debate is usually fierce and wearying. And like the rivalry itself, it often leaves a smoldering residue that hints at unfinished business.   

Although most of us hope that the Federer-Nadal era isn't entering its twilight, reality may hold a different perspective. The fact that their last meeting, also at Indian Wells, was almost exactly a year ago would seem like evidence enough that times are changing. Seeing the two draw each other in the quarterfinals, after so many semis and finals, also feels as if natural law has been tampered with.   

However, looking back on their history, this isn't the first time the two have experienced a long break between encounters. In fact, there have been two other occasions in the Federer and Nadal rivalry in which they took a one-year break. On each occasion, they contested a match at one tournament, then met at the exact same tournament one year later with zero head-to-head matches in between.    

Their rivalry has never paused for longer than a year, which almost suggests that when their paths threaten divergence, a cosmic force steps in and slams their destinies back together.  

The three time periods in question occurred between the 2004-2005 Miami Masters, the 2009-2010 Madrid Open and the 2012-2013 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. Notably, the first break came immediately after their first-ever meeting, while the other two breaks came on the heels of Nadal stepping off the circuit due to tendinitis in his knees.      

The first match that Federer and Nadal ever played on the professional tour was at the Miami Masters in 2004.

They met quietly in the round of 32, with Nadal winning in straight sets. After that match, Federer and Nadal didn't play again until the final of the 2005 Miami Masters a full year later. That match went the distance in a best-of-five format, with Federer ultimately claiming victory and tying their head-to-head tally at one apiece.  

In 2009, Federer beat Nadal in the final at the Madrid Open to claim one of his rare clay-court titles opposite the King of Clay. It wasn't until 2010, again at the final of the Madrid Open, that they renewed the rivalry. That time around, Nadal turned the tables by winning the title with a straight-sets victory over the Swiss maestro.

Interestingly, during each of these two previous year-long breaks, the loser from the first encounter became the winner in the second. Given that Nadal was the loser in last year's match at Indian Wells, it will be intriguing to see if he can perpetuate the pattern by winning round two in 2013. Nadal holds a 5-2 edge against Federer on an outdoor hard court, which is the surface they will play on at Indian Wells.    

As both players prepare for the upcoming collision, it's certain that fleeting memories from their previous matches will pass through their minds—a set of mental highlight reels that the rest of us can only dream of tapping into.  

Given that each player has experienced a significant high and low against the other, it would be interesting to know which side of the coin is the most prominent and vivid in their minds as match time approaches.      

Before the first ball is struck, there's also little doubt that the loyal fans will be sharpening their digital swords in anticipation of fresh data to analyze and apply to their well-documented opinions on the two players. We can only hope that the din of that particular sideshow doesn't distract from what's really important: Big Tennis and a celebration thereof.   

Federer and Nadal have dedicated the bulk of their lives to mastering the skill of using a racket to hit a round, green ball over a net. The collision of their careers provided the catalyst necessary to create something truly unique in the world of tennis.  

Without each other, it's arguable that neither would have attained so much. And for that reason, it seems difficult to be a fan of one, without being a fan of the other. It's the combination of the two, not the isolation, that seized the world's attention and gave the phrase "Big Tennis" a new home.  

And while a desert scene reminiscent of the Old West may ultimately be a fitting backdrop for these two racket-slingers to fight their last duel, let's hope it's not this desert—and not this day.