Roger Federer’s ascent to the top of the game in 2004 was a blessing to all tennis fans who longed to see a dominant figure in the men’s game.
Rafael Nadal’s rise to No. 2 the following year was another blessing, as it gave us an actual rivalry (long missing from the sport) between two great but highly contrasting players.
Together, they’ve won 21 Grand Slam titles in their five and a half years at the top, but how have all their years grinding at the top of the game affected the most interesting rivalry in tennis, if not all of sports?
I examine the tale from Nadal’s side, while Clarabella Bevis examines Federer’s.
The Story So Far
Though they split their first two meetings on hard courts, their most storied encounters were to take place on clay and on grass.
This was due mainly to Nadal; Federer’s graceful movement and easy generation of pace and spin allows him to conserve energy and avoid injury.
Meanwhile, Nadal is certainly capable of playing great tennis on hard and indoor courts, but hard surfaces beat up his joints and lead to significant ailments.
Therefore, grass and clay were the surfaces on which both men could be counted to play their best. Their top matches, particularly Rome 2006 and Wimbledon ‘07 and ’08, have been the best matches between any two men in this decade, as Federer sought to end Nadal’s dirt dominance and the Spaniard attempted to do the opposite on grass.
Nadal maintains a 13-7 lifetime edge against the Swiss, who has had the misfortune of facing the Spaniard on clay 11 times, winning only twice.
Furthermore, Nadal’s heavy spinning forehand bothers Federer more than any other player’s best shot, and the Spaniard’s defensive skills have made the Swiss doubt the certainty of his attack.
Under the Microscope
There have been a few instances in which it appeared that the duopoly at the top of men’s tennis would expand into oligopoly: Novak Djokovic showed no reverence for either man when he emerged, and his 2008 Australian Open win seemed to indicate the entry into the exclusive club.
However, he never got higher than No. 3. Andy Murray, on the other hand, temporarily bumped Nadal to No. 3 this year, but he's still seeking his first major, and his ability to survive finals weekend remains unproven.
What ultimately changed the status quo was Nadal himself; or rather, Nadal’s knees.
After years of putting them to the limit, they finally gave out on him in the middle of the 2009 season, contributing (along with Robin Soderling’s forehand) to his dramatic departure from Roland Garros and his absence from Wimbledon.
When he finally re-emerged for the summer hard courts, he faced a new threat: the towering Juan Martin del Potro, he of the 110-mph forehand.
Del Potro twice defeated the Spaniard, first in Canada, and then in Nadal's most lopsided defeat in a major in the US Open semis.
The fact that del Potro then defeated Federer in the finals of that tournament may finally signal the end of the two-man show.
The 6’6” Argentine is overawed by neither Nadal nor Federer, and it’s easy to believe the 20-year-old del Potro has not yet peaked.
The Momentum Shift
But before Nadal’s summer sabbatical and the Argentine’s arrival, Federer foreshadowed his RG triumph by defeating the Spaniard in the finals of Madrid.
Serving great and returning to his former confidence, Federer dismissed Nadal in straights, only his second win on clay against the Spaniard and his first against him on any surface since late-2007.
Madrid plays faster than most clay surfaces, but Nadal was No. 1 at the time the holder of three of the game’s four majors, so a straight-sets win over him has to be considered a feat, no matter where it happened.
It’s hard to know when they’ll play again, as Federer has indicated that he’s playing a limited schedule this fall, and Nadal is not entirely comfortable on the indoor surface.
If healthy, Nadal is likely to be favored over Federer on most clay surfaces simply because his game is better designed for the dirt, but that Madrid win, and the Grand Slam glories that followed it, should boost Federer’s chances on firmer footing.
Though Federer is nearly five years older than his Spanish rival, they’re at a similar stage in their careers. Both have been winning for years, have seen their share of disappointments, and need to begin considering which events not to play to preserve their chances.
Given what both have achieved so far, it’s also safe to say that both men have priorities. The Great Swiss wants two more Wimbledons and one more US Open, which would give him the records for most wins in both places.
Having finally won the RG this year, it would be considered less of a priority, except he’d still like to get the recognition of topping Nadal in the final.
The Spaniard wants three more RGs, which would give him one more than Bjorn Borg’s record. One US Open would give him the career Grand Slam, making him only the fourth man to claim that distinction in the Open Era.
Therefore, the most intriguing possible confrontations between them would take place at the RG or the US Open. However, Nadal has yet to make it to an Open final to challenge Federer, so it remains to be seen whether he can in the future.
The RG clash we witnessed between them for four straight years is no longer a certainty, either, as del Potro took Federer to five sets in the Paris semis and would appear to have grown further as a player since then.
Del Potro has also beaten Nadal three times in a row, and while none of those matches took place on clay, the sure-footed Argentine would surely be a formidable threat.
But Nadal and Federer will surely meet again on a big stage; both men are too gifted and too driven not to.
Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi had some of their most exciting matches in the early part of this decade when both were in their 30s, and fans appreciated those matches at least as much as their encounters in the ‘90s.
We knew they still provided the best show in the game, and that there was a limited time to see the two men on court together. Let’s not wait until this rivalry is over to fully appreciate it.