Theirs is a rivalry that is already poised to move beyond the realms of the record books and into legend.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have stood shoulder to shoulder atop of the ATP rankings since July 2005: four and a quarter continuous years (aside from the three-week interlude this August while Nadal recovered from injury).
And, barring further injury, the two are set to maintain their duopoly of the men’s tour at least until the end of 2009, though both have played fewer tournaments than anyone else in the top 10. That is the measure of the vice-like grip these giants have on tennis.
Little wonder, then, that they and their stories have become inextricably interlinked.
In style, they are as contrasting as sun and rain, as distant as the Arctic from its polar opposite, as different as Mozart and Gershwin. One moves like mercury, the other like a ravenous tiger. One has a rapier attack, the other has all guns blazing. One is slender, angular, fluid, and silent. The other is expansive in muscle from shoulder through to calf, daring and plunging, volume set to high.
These very contrasts have produced some of the most compelling, competitive, intense, challenging tennis of their generation. Yet while Federer has dominated the tennis landscape since the beginning of 2004, Nadal has dominated Federer like no other player. Until 2009.
This article continues to follow the shift in domination towards Federer. Meanwhile, Rob York assesses the rivalry from the Nadal standpoint.
The story so far
Though Federer has held the top spot for all but a year of their combined reign, Nadal has won almost twice as many of their contests: 13 to seven. Federer dominated on the green and blue, but Nadal never let him near the red stuff. Nine of Nadal’s wins were on clay.
No matter: Federer ruled at Wimbledon—until Nadal beat him in 2008 in the most tightly-contested, high-quality final in living memory.
Never mind: Federer dominated on hard courts—until Nadal snatched victory in another nail-biting five-setter in the Australian Open this year.
As Nadal took control of Federer’s domain and seized the No.1 ranking, people talked openly about the long-awaited shift in the power-balance. They pointed at Federer’s refusal to take on a coach, at his emotional collapse in Melbourne, at his losses to other players. He was hit by back injury, and then diverted by the revelation of impending fatherhood.
That allowed the chorus of doubters to develop a new tune. Was Federer finding it hard to maintain his hunger? Were marriage and children the last nail in his professional coffin?
With the advantage of hindsight—or the application of some common sense—such debate was at best ill-informed, at worst foolhardy. No-one achieves the records posted by Federer, nor is held in such high esteem by his fellow players, without exceptional drive, commitment and heart.
And sure enough, in the blink of an eye, a period of rehab brought a sharper, stronger and leaner Federer back to the 2009 tour as it switched to its clay swing.
By May and Madrid, the tables had turned as Federer took his first Master’s title since Cincinnati in 2007. It was on clay and it was against Nadal.
The hard work of March continued to pay off at Roland Garros. The draw opened up perfectly to give Federer the opportunity to equal the Grand Slam record and to seal the one title that had eluded his C.V.
The reversal of fortune was completed at Wimbledon: Federer regained his favorite crown, his No.1 ranking, and the all-time Grand Slam record, while Nadal could only look on, nursing damaged knees as his titles and ranking were handed back.
Within the space of 12 months, then, their entire rivalry had been played out in miniature, with fortunes swinging back and forth, punctuated by unexpected losses, dramatic victories and debilitating injuries. It allowed the slate to be wiped clean, ready for a new chapter.
Under the microscope
The Australian Open was clearly a watershed.
Federer recognised that only extensive rehabilitation would remedy what was becoming a chronic back problem that had cost him the Masters Cup in Shanghai, and then returned with a vengeance after Melbourne.
Although his return to fitness and match-play brought frustrating losses for the remainder of the hard-court season, the real reward from the lay-off began to show on the clay. Quite simply, Federer seemed to be a man reborn.
He signed up, as a wild card, to Monte Carlo to get his eye in. This revealed some new shots, most notably a long-shunned drop shot.
By Rome, a revitalised backhand was reaping rewards, and his movement was back to its free flow. He lost in the semis after a rain-storm broke his concentration and gave Novak Djokovic a second wind, but the signs were good.
Then in Madrid, the reason for all those little shot adjustments became clear. This was the game plan for beating Nadal on clay. Added to the Federer weaponry was a wider, swinging serve deep to the Nadal backhand. This was a play that Nadal had learned to use ruthlessly against Federer. Now it was tit-for-tat. Intelligent tactics, flawless execution, and glittering variety gained Federer only his second ever win against Nadal on clay.
In the event, Federer did not have the opportunity to apply the thumbscrews to Nadal at Roland Garros, though his new range of shots and tactical nous got him through tough matches against Tommy Haas and Juan Martin Del Potro. And what these same two matches also showed was a Federer who was up for the fight, both physically and mentally. He appeared to have a regained the self-belief that he could win from any situation.
This confidence, and a passion to win at all costs, were the outward expression that Federer had changed. What had also changed was the imminent arrival of his first children, and this also appeared to sharpen his resolve. Suddenly he was faced with the prospect of a complete change to his life. And he had things to achieve before that happened. At Wimbledon, he duly claimed Pete Sampras’ record and reclaimed the No.1 spot. Job done.
The Momentum Shift
So does this dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of Federer and Nadal prefigure a permanent change in the rivalry? The momentum since the spring has certainly moved Federer’s way, and has continued into the hard-court swing.
He claimed his 16th Masters title in Cincinnati, so is closing in on a new record: Andre Agassi’s score of 17. And Federer came mighty close to winning his sixth U.S. Open, while Nadal wrestled to the semis with more injury.
Most important of all, Federer has shed the huge weight of expectation—that growing pressure to take the Sampras record, all the Slams, and the scalp of his nemesis on clay.
He is relaxed, content and revelling in fatherhood.
He had no qualms about pulling out of the Asian swing to rest up, relax with his family, take in some fashion shows, and head to Dubai for his missed summer break.
Since Madrid in May, he has lost only two matches—the final at Flushing Meadows and in the Montreal quarters—and has chalked up wins against all the five players below him: Nadal, Andy Murray, Djokovic (twice), Del Potro (twice before Flushing), and Andy Roddick. No wonder he is upbeat and laid back at the same time.
He has no coach, but no need of a coach.
He has been in great shape, and has added some new ammunition to his game. He has nothing more to prove, and nothing he hasn’t won. He is simply enjoying the tennis.
The rumor mill suggests that Federer has back problems. He himself has only mentioned general soreness in legs, arms and back. Were he really injured, he is unlikely to have played two rubbers in the September Davis Cup tie, let alone won them in straight sets.
Nor will it have escaped Federer’s notice that Nadal might be back to match-play, but his recovery from two separate injuries will be sorely tested on the end-of-season hard courts.
Show-downs to look out for
Federer and Nadal may have battled it out 20 times, but they have never met in the Davis Cup. That could all change next March. And should Federer and Nadal decide to play the tie, it could be the high spot of their sporting rivalry. The problem for Federer is that the hugely anticipated tie will be in Spain, on clay, over five sets: a scenario that has always ended in victory for Nadal.
Before that, though, there is revenge to seek in Melbourne. It is a surface that favors Federer, and he is a multiple winner there. He was distraught to lose it in 2009 and will expect to take it back.
On to Roland Garros. What wouldn’t Federer give to beat Nadal on the French clay? He may now have the title, but there continue to be naysayers who undermine Federer’s win because it was not over Nadal.
The desire will be great on Federer’s side to prove his superiority once and for all. It will be equally great on Nadal’s side to reclaim his most precious of crowns. On the day, it may all come down to fitness. But even at the very height of his achievements, Federer failed to beat Nadal at Roland Garros. It is unlikely that the momentum has shifted enough for him to do so next time.
Wimbledon will be another matter. With the serving, the speed, the fitness, the volleying, and the grit that Federer showed in winning the title in 2009, and an undimmed love of the venue, he must be favorite to take his seventh title.
It would be a joy to see him lock horns with Nadal on the grass for the fourth time. It would be a joy to see another match like their 2008 record-breaker. It would be a joy to see Federer exact revenge for one of his hardest defeats.
Before all that, there is the little matter of the Tour Final, in a new venue, on a new court, this November. There are very few games between now and then to see how Federer is playing. So consider the history.
Only one other player has ever recaptured the year-end No.1 ranking after losing it: Ivan Lendl. Federer could become the second.
Federer and Nadal met each other in the semis in 2006 and 2007. The former won both times.
These statistics are all incentives for Federer. Yet there is still another carrot to tempt Federer over the winning line. By the time he and Nadal arrive in London, Federer will have held one of the top two rankings spots for an unbroken six consecutive years.
He won't want that one to pass unnoticed.