Ten years have now passed since the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry tossed up its first tennis ball at the Miami 2004 NASDAQ-100 Open. It was a beginning that nobody could have foreseen. Who knew that this quiet, third-round match would plant the seeds to grow a golden age of tennis?
Looking in on this Miami match in late March 2004 is a glimpse at history before it happened. We know the destinies of Roger vs. Rafa, but what were the signs that this could be perhaps the greatest rivalry to ever change tennis? What was different? What was the same?
To watch the entirety of this match, you can check out the taped (YouTube) broadcast on Sky Sports with commentators Mark Petchey and Leif Shiras.
There's a raw, uncut feel to this broadcast as if we are watching The Beatles perform at Hamburg nightclubs in 1960. It's colored with a tone of innocence, and outlined with more curiosity than hype. There is no Grand Slam title at stake, no media circus or "Greatest of All Time" discussions. The portmanteau "Fedal" had not been coined as a rivalry term.
The atmosphere was laid-back, like a competitive exhibition, but already both players were showing they had something to prove.
Federer had won Wimbledon in 2003 and had opened 2004 with the Australian Open title. He was on his way to the first of his three-Slam seasons, and he came into Miami with only nine career weeks at No. 1.
Nadal was 17 years old and seeded No. 32 for the Miami tournament. He had already become a Davis Cup hero a month earlier, and he had gained a reputation as a good clay-court player. How would he respond against the newly-minted No. 1 player?
Federer serves first, misses and lands in his second serve. Four shots are exchanged in the middle of the baseline before Federer plunks the next one into the net. First point to Nadal.
It's startling to be reminded of how youthful they were. Federer had his samurai look, complete with hair tied up and an over-sized white shirt with a big horizontal bar across his front; the bar continued on his lower back for an oddly uneven effect. Nike had already signed him up, but the image of the mighty Federer had scarcely arrived. He was not yet "The Genius" or "Swiss Maestro." He was still learning and already scary good, and he would keep raising the bar as the best in the world for the next four-and-a-half years!
Nadal's long hair was held in place by a fat, crumpled headband that looked more like an old dish towel. He wore baggy white shorts and a sleeveless red top more fitting for a weight-room workout. He also wore his stoic glare as seriously as ever. There were whispers of Nadal's potential, but the image of Gladiator Rafa and King of Clay had hardly been conceived.
In 2014, Federer and Nadal are enormous brands, larger-than-life symbols through their styles and mannerisms. Winning has spawned commercialism. They evolved with televised streaming, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, enveloping global sports audiences with their images. But it came match by match and year by year, earned through every hard-fought win and title. Only the perspective of years makes this seem like a quantum leap.
Federer and Nadal are still figuring each other out. The pace of their shots is producing safe spin, but misses on routine shots, especially from Federer. The young Swiss champion seems ambivalent about coming into the net or staying back. He's having less success than he would like with both approaches.
Meanwhile, Nadal is hitting to Federer's forehand as often as to his backhand. He's angling his backhand cross-court like a frozen rope, and with consistent depth in this match.
The Fedal rivalry has made both players greater champions over the year. Without Nadal, Federer might have closed the book on 25 Grand Slam titles, who knows? Nadal would likely have a few more majors as well. But they are better players because of each other. They have always kept one eye open on the other.
How much extra training and innovation dotted their efforts to be the best, knowing all the while that the other was coming? That's only an important part of what makes them special. They pushed each other to greater heights, and they are more potent and complete players.
"This kid (Nadal) seems ready to compete on the tour," Petchey observed.
In the fourth game, Nadal is racing around the baseline like a greyhound, and he saves a shot that would have been a winner against almost anyone else. It sets up a beautiful passing shot, and all constructed out of desperate need and desire. They are still on serve at 2-2.
Nadal is serving quickly. He gets the ball, bounces twice and serves. No hesitation. It takes him about 8-10 seconds. He's also very effective, winning 100 percent of his first serves midway in the set.
Federer's game often appears so effortless, but his footwork and timing is exquisite, and it showed in this match, even on an off-day.
Nadal's hustle and intensity was as transparent as ever. He was groomed to be a champion, and it was in his eyes during that 2004 match as much as Wimbledon 2008.
The remarkable thing is that these two did fulfill their potential and far beyond. They have created new inroads to championships, not so much because they are unbeatable, but because they are both filled with resilience and comebacks on a scale rarely, if ever, seen. This was not a foregone conclusion:
Marat Safin had that kind of talent but squandered much of his career.
Andre Agassi was intermittent with his dedication, realizing this essential only later in his career.
John McEnroe never could get back to the top after his greatest year, 1984.
Bjorn Borg did not even try to get back to the top after he left the game in his prime.
"As great a volleyer as Federer is, you wouldn't put him up there in the same category as a Pat Rafter," Shiras observes. "But Federer has something Pat Rafter would have dearly loved—a Wimbledon title."
Who was Federer exactly? Only the past can provide comparisons, but not to an original. Pete Sampras? No. Rafter? Of course not. Laver? Different era. Now Federer is that standard, and all talented players who look for the very top will inevitably find the Swiss yardstick sizing them up.
Nadal has already broken Federer but he holds serve for 5-3. At one point, he hit an in-and-out baseline drop shot of which Petchey explained as "a little genius from Nadal."
"Nadal has just imposed himself on Federer," Shiras adds soon after.
This statement would be a theme of explanation in at least 22 of their next 32 matches. Is it really that simple? Federer certainly competes with all of his effort and then some. But there have also been doubts and Nadal's very difficult matchup problem to attack his backhand.
Federer's backhand looks good, at times flicking it with early, deft control and taking time away from Nadal. A few times, Petchey and Shiras praise it as a great backhand.
Then Nadal breaks again to close out the first set, 6-3. He clinches his fist with a moderate yell and fairly leaps into his changeover chair.
The Miami crowd had only offered occasional shouts and whistles, as if the Federer-Nadal concert was indeed held in a pub. There's now more interest and energy in the stadium. Petchey continues his appraisal of Nadal: "When he (Federer) sits back, Nadal is good enough to take the points from him."
Federer's ambivalence in strategy in this match was apparent. Early in the first set, he came in often. Then a few volley mistakes and Nadal passes made him reluctant to attack. On these hard courts it was proving difficult to solve Nadal. On clay, this conundrum would prove nearly impossible, and the most difficult problem of his legacy. Better off untying the Gordian Knot, solving Einstein's Riddle or the Rubik's Cube.
Federer hits a sublime forehand winner. "Sweet...beautiful timing...effortless as ever," Shiras mutters.
A moment later, he discusses Nadal: "He seems to have the intensity, the belief that he can play for long periods of time without surrendering too many unforced errors. He plays very aggressively, yet he has so much safety on his shots."
Federer is now standing over in his corner, impatiently waiting for Nadal to come back from a very long drink of water at 0-1. He's bouncing a tennis ball. Is this a mind game, or Nadal being Nadal?
Federer smokes an ace. He rips a huge forehand up the deuce court. He whips a cross-court forehand winner. He closes with another ace. Time elapsed: about one minute. It's no wonder that he has compiled a 23-1 record for the year.
Then comes perhaps the most important game of the match. It's 1-1 and Federer and Nadal are locked into a few extended duels. Two of those points end with Federer's backhand producing weak errors. Nadal keeps attacking it, going away from his back-and-forth pattern from the first set. It's as if he suddenly realizes that this is where he can attack most effectively. He holds easily after some grinding points.
Appreciation is certainly in order for both players. All tennis fans realize this, regardless of their allegiances. Federer and Nadal raised tennis several levels. The sport has evolved with baseline exploits and incredible shot-making. It has seen more fitness and mental toughness with more champions like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The level of competitive depth has expanded and flourished in the past decade. Writers and commentators from several media outlets frequently refer to this era as a golden age. There are regularly conversations and debates about Federer and Nadal as the greatest players of all time.
There are evaluations of great matches and comparisons to tennis stars of the past. It's all added an historical fascination to tennis and fervor of expectation for each and every current match in the trails to championships. It's also had a trickle-down effect for second-tier players and journeymen. Each time they play Federer or Nadal, they are introduced to more sports fans.
Just appreciate both players. Beyond the numbers, their contributions are boundless.
Just the Beginning
The end of the match is all but over, but there is no letup from Nadal. His break of Federer's serve only energizes him more. He is grunting louder on forehands, pumping his fist and running to the changeover chair. This fuels his confidence and play. He seems to relish his accomplishment and is challenging himself to close it out. It's 5-2 now.
"Federer not his usual dependable self," Petchey summarizes.
Nadal does another big fist pump to set up match point at 40-15. He serves to Federer's left, follows up with three forehands to that side, the last one a nasty hook into the corner that Federer barely flips to the middle of the net. Nadal is there for the overhead smash, followed by a knee thrust and victory punch. It's all over at 6-3, 6-3.
But it's not all over. It's just the beginning. Nadal would not make his debut at Roland Garros a couple months later as he was sidelined with a stress fracture in his left ankle for the clay-court season.
One year later, in the Miami final, Nadal and Federer met for their second career match. Nadal raced out to a two-set lead, but Federer fought back to win a classic five-setter. The rivalry was now on.
They clashed again at the 2005 French Open semifinals, Nadal now showing his clay-court dominance. He won in four sets and polished off his first Grand Slam title two days later.
You know the rest of the story and there will be more to come.
But 10 years sure flies by.
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