Federer-Nadal Rivalry Takes a New Turn

Andrew ZercieCorrespondent IMay 17, 2009

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 17:  Roger Federer of Switzerland serves the ball to Rafael Nadal of Spain during the final of the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 17, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. Federer won the match in two sets, 6-4 and 6-4.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
I am not a huge tennis fan, but I have always been fascinated by the rivalries that the sport has spawned over the years. Right now, it could be argued that the best rivalry in all of sports, and not just tennis, is the one that exists between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Last summer, Nadal bested Federer in an epic, five-set Wimbledon final. It was easily the best tennis match in years—perhaps decades. Most importantly, it put an exclamation point on a shift in the rivalry between the two top talents in the sport of tennis.

For nearly three years, Rafael Nadal chased Federer. Sure, Nadal had proven he could beat Federer on clay courts, and had an advantage in head-to-head matchups overall, but the perception was that Roger Federer was the better player.

He won Wimbledon and the US Open year after year, and often threw in the Australian Open to boot.

Federer was hailed by many as the next to assume the Greatest of All Time mantle from Pete Sampras.

But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming the next GOAT. Rafael Nadal’s win at Wimbledon shifted perception. Many began to view his career in a new light. He was no longer just a clay court specialist. Now, Nadal was seen as equal to, or greater than Roger Federer, something viewed as blasphemous not long ago.

The shift in perception became more pronounced this past winter, when Nadal won his first Australian Open crown, defeating Roger Federer in the final. While that match wasn’t quite the classic that the 2008 Wimbledon final had been, the fact that Nadal beat Federer on grass and hard court surfaces began speculation that Federer’s career may be on the decline, and that Rafael Nadal may emerge as this generation’s top threat to Sampras’s record.

Today, once again, perception may be shifting.  This time, with Nadal wearing the bullseye, Federer shocked the world’s top player at the Madrid Open, on clay, with the French Open looming.

The surprising straight-set win by Federer came a day after Rafael Nadal outlasted Novak Djokovic in their semifinal match. In post-match comments today, Nadal acknowleged that the four-hour match against Djokovic impacted his ability to handle Federer.

Perhaps though, Roger Federer has overcome the psychological impact of having to hold off Nadal and retain the top ranking week after week. Perhaps now, holding steady in the No. 2 spot and trying to overtake Nadal for the top ranking, Federer’s career has been rejuvenated.

Maybe this year at Roland Garos, Roger Federer will finally claim the French Open title that has eluded him thus far.

And, if that happens, perhaps this rivalry will be on equal footing heading into Wimbledon this summer, setting the stage for yet another classic match between the two greatest players of this generation.