Best Of The Decade In Sports: Roger Federer Vs Rafael Nadal
Every decade in sports produces transcendent moments and memories. Inevitably, some of these moments become ingrained in the collective minds and hearts of sports fans everywhere and naturally become over time, the stuff of legend.
This past decade has been no different. Throughout we have witnessed some of the best sporting moments not only of the decade, but of the respective histories of their sport.
Whether it was The Boston Red Sox coming back from the brink against The Yankees, Tiger Woods winning The 2008 U.S. Open with a major knee injury, Michael Phelps' eight Olympic gold medals, or Jonny Wilkinson's game-winning kick in the 2003 World Cup, sports have been good to us this decade.
Of all of the teams, players, and dazzling moments, these two players have exemplified all of the characteristics that make a sport great. Their matches are epic; filled to the brim with drama and shot-making of the highest order. They are both hungry and humble. They hold each other in the highest regard. They are one another's measuring stick.
They are the yin and yang of their sporting generation. Two players whose differences are so apparent one wonders if even their DNA would radically reflect it as well. And yet, like yin and yang it seems impossible to imagine a world in which one could exist without the other. Two men whose places in history are brighter and better because the other existed.
But where did it all start? How did this become what the sporting world may one day look back upon and say was one of the greatest rivalries of all time in sports?
THE BIRTH OF A RIVALRY: NADAL DRAWS FIRST BLOOD
The first clash was an unheralded one. Federer had just started his reign of supremacy by winning Wimbledon and followed it up by starting his 2004 campaign by grabbing his first Australian Open title.
Coming into the Miami Masters tournament, Federer was riding an incredible winning streak but met his first giant road block.
Rafael Nadal was a 17-year-old muscular kid from Majorca who was turning into a clay court demon. Still under the radar, Nadal shocked the world by dismantling Federer in straight sets in the third round and proved that he was not intimidated by the young Swiss prodigy.
A year later they met again in Miami this time in the final. Nadal looked like he was going to go 2-for-2 and grab his first hard court title. Federer was on the brink of defeat when he fought back to win in five sets and get his revenge served ice cold.
Next up was their first clash in a Grand Slam at Roland Garros a few months later. Now ranked fifth, Nadal showed just how great he was on clay by knocking Federer out in the semi-finals and blocked him for the first time from winning the one title he needed to complete a career grand slam.
2006: TRADING GRAND SLAMS
If 2005 was an appetizer, 2006 was the first of several main courses. They would face each other six times, with Nadal taking the first four meetings. First was on the hardcourts of Dubai, with the other wins coming on clay at the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters. The fourth was in the finals of Roland Garros.
This would be the first grand slam final facing one another.
Federer would race to a first set win before Nadal took the next three sets to win his second consecutive Coupe des Mousquetaires.
It was also the second consecutive year in which Nadal would keep Federer from completing the career grand slam; something he would do often.
Federer though would get his revenge a month later at Wimbledon by taking Nadal in four sets. It was Nadal's first Wimbledon final and was surprising, given that most critics thought me would only ever win a grand slam on clay.
Their last meeting of the year would be in the Masters Cup at the end of the year whereupon Federer would defeat Nadal en route to his third career Masters Cup title.
2007: 2006 REPEATED
Of the five matches they played against one another, Federer would go on to win three of them. Their first meeting would be the Monte Carlo Master's tournament where Nadal would beat Federer in straight sets.
But Federer would get his revenge by defeating Nadal on clay for the first time at the Hamburg Masters. It would end Nadal's record eighty-one match win streak on clay and give Federer the confidence that he could win the elusive title at Roland Garros for the first time.
Nadal, however would have none of it. In the much anticipated final, Nadal would come back from a 0-6 first set loss to claim his third consecutive title and again rebuff Federer's attempt to claim the elusive title he wanted so much.
Wimbledon again was the same as last year, with Federer defeating Nadal in the final though it was much closer this time. After trading two sets apiece, Nadal wasted four break points in the fifth set to give Federer is fifth consecutive trophy at Wimbledon.
2008: THE TIDES OF CHANGE
2008 would prove to be a landmark year for Rafael Nadal. Nadal would go on to win all four of their meetings.
The first three wins all proved to be on clay with Nadal taking titles in Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Roland Garros yet again.
The final at Roland Garros proved to be lopsided as Nadal allowed Federer to win a mere four games en route to holding his fourth consecutive Coupe des Mousquetaires. Federer appeared listless much of the match as though he knew that as good as Nadal was playing, it would be nearly impossible to defeat him.
The final at Wimbledon, however, proved to be the signature match in both of their careers and the turning point in the rivalry.
Both players were playing at near-peak perfection entering the final. Nadal would roar out to a two set lead before Federer would scrape and claw back with two tie-brakes to even the match.
With rain delays throughout the day, the fifth set was played in increasing dusk to twilight before Nadal would fall to the ground in exaltation as Federer's forehand hit the net.
Initially and since, this match has been labeled the greatest ever played and with good reason.
The shot making and brilliance of play remained at an impossibly high peak. Both players played the match of their lives with the best player (for that day anyway) winning in the end.
By winning the Toronto Masters a couple of months later, Nadal ascended to the No. 1 ranking.
Shortly before the U.S. Open Nadal and Federer participated in the Beijing Olympics. Though they did not meet, it must be noted that Nadal would again add to his amazing year by winning gold, whereas Federer would lose in an earlier round.
Federer wanted the gold medal tremendously and yet failed to win one of the few things left on his resume.
2009: THE HIGHEST OF HIGHS, AND THE LOWEST OF LOWS
Nadal would begin the year against Federer precisely where he had left off, by winning a third consecutive grand slam final against his greatest rival.
The Australian Open final turned out to be yet another five-set classic. Nadal was at his highest level on a hard court. Federer too was playing extremely well.
But Rafa had just played one of the greatest matches in Australian Open history against his friend Fernando Verdasco and was clearly not 100 percent.
Again, Nadal and Federer would go onto trade sets before Federer would seem to hit a wall early in the fifth set. Nadal would seize control and win the set 6-2 and win his first hard court grand slam.
Nadal's high level of play would continue, netting him a Masters title in Miami and three more clay titles, but a storm was brewing.
The constant play wore Nadal down and heading into Madrid; the tournament right before Roland Garros, it was clear Nadal was hurting.
Couple that with an epic semi-final match against Novak Djokovic meant that heading into the final against Federer, he was clearly at a disadvantage.
Federer would win in straight sets. It proved to be the beginning of the end for Nadal's 2009 campaign.
In Paris, Nadal would shockingly lose to Robin Soderling in the fourth round giving Federer his career grand slam.
After Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon, Federer would reclaim his title and his number one ranking.
Nadal on the other hand would lose several months on the sidelines with the rest of the year being a pale echo of the first half of the year when he was at his height.
2010 AND BEYOND: WHAT LIES AHEAD?
So far, 2010 has yielded no Nadal/Federer pairings, though with Roland Garros and Wimbledon just around the corner, it's easily possible to see Nadal and Federer battling it out in another slam final.
At the moment, Nadal appears to have regained his old form and seems to be injury free. Federer meanwhile, appears to be struggling since winning another Australian Open title at the beginning of the year.
Where this rivalry is going though and where it ends up remains to be seen. Nadal currently is enjoying a 13-7 career record, which is amazing considering how dominant Federer has been against everyone else on tour throughout his career regardless of playing surface.
Hopefully, this year will give us more meetings between two players who's rivalry has helped to define this generation in tennis.
Few rivalries past, present, and maybe even future will be able to stack up to the drama brilliance and overall excellence these two have provided so often.
WHY THEY ARE THE BEST OF THE DECADE?
I could have picked a great many people or teams who have created great memories over the last 10 years.
Tiger Woods certainly was at the top with Roger Federer by himself worthy of the honor as well, but this rivalry seemed to be even bigger in some ways.
Though Roger is worthy, I realized that come the end of both of their distinguished careers, Nadal and Federer will always be linked and defined by their rivalry. It's possible that it may be considered the de-facto rivalry of any sport for all time.
To get there, it certainly needs a few more slam finals but it is certainly near the top of the greatest rivalries list already.
So, let us appreciate how wonderful this pairing has been to us and savor any additional meetings these two great titans of the game may have.
One day, both will be gone and all we will have left are transcendent moments and wonderful memories.
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