Sampras vs. Agassi? Becker vs. Edberg? Lendl vs. Wilander?
No, it is Federer vs. Nadal.
Never has a sports rivalry meant so much since Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova battled for supremacy in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It has far surpassed the Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe contests because Nadal and Federer have played longer, more often with much more riding on the outcome.
The battle for supremacy of the tennis top spot began in 2004 and rages on as the two combatants head into the French Open. Federer seeks to defend his championship as Nadal attempts to capture his fifth French Open Crown.
The two top players in the men's game have squared off in 17 finals. No doubt they will find themselves staring at each other across the net countless more times during the next few years—if we are all very, very lucky...
Federer was on a roll, having established himself as the No. 1 player in the world in February 2004, after winning his first two Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and Australia—all at age 22.
Nadal at age 17 was the youngest player in the NASDAQ 100 Open in Miami, meeting Federer in the third round. Ranked No. 36, Nadal had never won an ATP title.
The Majorcan had a reputation on clay—but this was a hard-court event. Even though Federer was struggling physically, barely making it past Nikolay Davydenko in the round of 64, the Swiss expected to win this contest.
Except that the youngster Nadal played and served lights out and took the match from Federer, 6-3, 6-3. The first salvo ricocheted and Nadal notched his first win over his esteemed rival...
NASDAQ-100 Miami: Nadal wins 6-3, 6-3.
Federer still ranked No. 1 met Nadal the following year at the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami—but this time it was in the finals—a five-set thriller where Federer was finally able to set the record straight.
By this time, Nadal had won three ATP finals and realized the importance of this match. It started out to be a repeat of their encounter in 2004 with No. 31-ranked Nadal taking the first two sets.
Seasoned pro Federer rose to the challenge and came back to win the third set in a tie breaker—then the Swiss closed out the match as Nadal continued to fade.
NASDAQ-100 Miami: Federer wins in five sets, 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Nadal's career was spiking as he skyrocketed to the No. 5 position. Having just taken ATP titles on clay at Monte Carlo and Rome, Nadal was looking to secure a permanent spot at the top of the men's game by winning his first grand slam tournament at Stade Roland Garros in Paris.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Nadal was going to establish himself as one of the premiere players on clay.
No. 1 Federer had just won the clay court tournament in Hamburg as well as defeating Nadal in a 5-setter in Miami. They met in the semifinals of the French Open—their first meeting on the red dirt.
Federer sought to win this title in Paris, placing him on an elite list of players who had won a career grand slam—Federer had won championships at each of the other slam venues.
They split the first two sets—but in sets three and four, as the conditions grew damper and heavier, Federer's game faltered and Nadal won sending the Majorcan into his first French Open Championship match. Federer returned to the drawing board.
2005 French Open Semifinals: Nadal wins 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Federer's loss in Dubai to Nadal cost the Swiss his record on hard courts—56 consecutive match wins on the artificial turf. It was also Federer's first loss in 2006.
Nadal had secured the No. 2 ranking and this match was their first as No. 1 vs. No. 2. Federer took the first set in convincing fashion but was not able to convert on those points that mattered most in sets two and three. Federer lost to the Majorcan again—losing three of their first four contests.
By now the pattern was beginning to form as the early stages of their rivalry would project the path of subsequent matches for the next few years...
Dubai 2006: Nadal wins 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
After being dismissed by Nadal in Dubai in February 2006, Federer resumed his normal modus operandi by sweeping aside all the competition set in his path.
But now the tour returned to the dirt and this stuff was Nadal's turf. The two top players on the men's tour met in Monte Carlo where Nadal was defending champion.
In the finals at Monte Carlo, the conditions were more to the Majorcan's liking. Federer and Nadal battled for four sets with Nadal emerging as the winner in three and three-quarter hours.
Federer had his chances to win this contest but once again he failed to capitalize on his opportunities in key moments—which becomes a key to the dominance of Nadal in this rivalry....
Monte Carlo Masters Series 2006: Nadal wins 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6.
This final between Federer and Nadal in Rome in 2006 was perhaps one of the best finals ever in the history of the tournament. The top two players in the world slugged it out baseline to baseline for a little over five hours.
But Federer finally refused to stay back, disrupting the action from the back of the court by strategic forays into the net to force Nadal to defeat the Swiss by passing him.
Once again, Federer actually won more points than Nadal but the Majorcan seized control and won those critical points when he had to. That ultimately made all the difference.
Even with match points on the Swiss' racket, Nadal dug down deep and dictated the outcome while Federer failed to convert. The world No. 1 did everything right except win in the end.
The pattern was becoming ingrained in their rivalry. So far, it was confined to clay. Rafa was dominating on the dirt but not making much headway on other surfaces...so far...
Rome Masters Series 2006: Nadal wins 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6.
The final at Stade Roland Garros in 2006 marked the first time that Federer had played in a final at the French Open.
A win would give him a career Grand Slam, something the Swiss would dearly love to capture to cap off the rest of his accomplishments at the majors.
Even better was the fact that having won the 2006 Australian Open, Federer was still on track to win a calendar-year Slam.
A win would give Nadal his second consecutive French Open championship and seal his hold as the best on clay. So far Nadal was perfect at Stade Roland Garros—he had never lost a match there.
Invigorated by the tenor of his match in Rome, Federer began play on a high note, breaking Nadal's serve twice in the opening set and taking the first in record time.
But then Nadal regrouped and began to dominate the match sending those dreaded high bouncing returns to the Federer backhand.
The result produced unforced errors and doomed Federer's chances of winning this elusive Slam. Nadal would go on to secure the win and with it 14 consecutive finals—his 100th win on clay.
French Open 2006: Nadal wins 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6.
Here was something new to bother the No. 1 seed. Nadal, who had shown no real promise on the grass prior to 2006, stood across the net from Federer during the Wimbledon final.
Federer was seeking his fourth consecutive title on the storied grounds of Wimbledon, where he considered himself most at home—enjoying a grass winning streak of 47 matches. The Swiss needed to steady the ship, having lost to Nadal in their four previous meetings in 2006.
Nadal was thrilled to be in the final facing the No. 1 seed, Federer. The Majorcan worked hard to improve his movement on grass, especially concentrating on his serve.
Federer, however, was not going to allow Nadal any level of comfort—bageling him in the first set. The two battled to a tie break in sets two and three, with Federer winning the first and Nadal coming back to win the next.
In the fourth set, however, Federer settled the score by defeating Nadal and winning his fourth Wimbledon crown. They would meet again here the following year, but the real news was that Nadal's reach was stretching beyond the clay...
Wimbledon 2006: Federer wins 6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3.
Federer met Nadal in the semifinals of the year-ending round-robin championship tournament in Shanghai where the eight best did battle at the end of the tennis year.
Nadal's fade during the second half of the tennis year was evident in his play on the hard courts.
Federer got off to a good start by breaking the Nadal serve early on and holding on to secure the first set. Fighting off Federer in the second set, Nadal finally succumbed as Federer took the set and the match.
Winning the Masters Year-End Championship against James Blake in 2006 gave Federer his third victory in four tries in this event. It also moved the rivalry of Nadal and Federer to 6-3 in favor of the Majorcan.
Federer ended the year with 92-5 record with four of his five losses in 2006 to Nadal...
Year-End Masters Championship: Federer wins 6-4, 7-5.
The start of 2007 found Federer in a bit of a slump as the surprising Guillermo Canas upset him early at both Indian Wells and Miami—in the opening round and the fourth round respectively.
But Federer seemed to take the losses in stride as he advanced to the Monte Carlo final where he would once again meet Nadal who was the two-time defending champion in this ATP Masters event.
Nadal was at his conservative best in the final, breaking Federer once in each set and holding on to witn the match. Federer's bad results in 2007 continued.
Nadal in taking this championship won his eighth ATP Masters Shield and extended his clay winning streak to 67 matches.
Federer did well to make the final but the world No. 1 was not satisfied with just getting to the final because he was used to winning—except when he met Nadal on clay...
Monte Carlo 2007: Nadal wins 6-4, 6-4.
By now, of course, the press was questioning everything regarding Federer—his coaching (or lack thereof), his girlfriend, his racket, and his training regimen.
Federer had not won in his last four attempts and that was a first in his career.
But Hamburg would turn his season around, temporarily. Federer was to meet Nadal in the final and in the process secure his first win on clay over the Majorcan.
For Nadal, the loss ended his winning streak on clay at 81 matches and stopped his consecutive victories in clay finals at 16. It was a monumental win for the Swiss.
It did not, however, begin well for Federer, who seemed stuck in the past. After losing the opening set, Federer stirred to life and decided to win this one.
He began to attack Nadal and he also began to make his first serves, allowing Nadal few opportunities to break him.
Federer felt the win indicated a new era in their rivalry and it gave him greater hope as he headed once again into Roland Garros and the French Open...
Hamburg 2007: Federer wins 2-6, 6-2, 6-0.
Federer's newfound optimism after defeating Nadal on the clay at Hamburg became the foundation for his hope as he made his way into the finals of the French Open in 2007, where was to face Nadal once again.
Federer was poised for a second consecutive run at a calendar-year Grand Slam or a career Slam––having retaken the Australian Open earlier in 2007.
Federer charged at Nadal, being aggressive and backed the Majorcan into the proverbial corner several times during that first set, but Nadal refused to be broken and never let Federer gain the upper hand.
In fact, Nadal came back to take the first set as Federer squandered 10 break-point chances in the early going.
Federer managed to win the second set but eventually that high bounce to his backhand began to take its toll—that plus Nadal's ability to hold off 16 of Federer's 17 break chances.
Federer would fall short once again at the French Open as Nadal claimed his third straight championship at Stade Roland Garros...
French Open Final 2007: Nadal wins 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
It was becoming apparent to the tennis world that Nadal was no longer just a clay specialist.
Having reaching his second consecutive Wimbledon final, Nadal was playing some of his best tennis on the green lawns where Federer was supposed to reign supreme.
Nadal forced the action in 2007, taking Federer to five sets before finally falling to the mighty Swiss. Federer did not break Nadal's serve until the final set, winning sets one and three in tiebreaks.
Nadal was severely disappointed not to win because he played his best tennis in the final.
Federer captured his fifth consecutive Wimbledon crown, tying the record of the illustrious Bjorn Borg. Next year he would be trying to win his sixth straight championship...
Wimbledon 2007: Federer wins 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2.
As they had in 2006, Federer and Nadal met in the semifinals of the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai where Federer dominated the Majorcan in the final set.
The first set, however, was close and tense as Federer fought off his nerves, struggling to hold his serve.
Federer's ability to serve saved him in this match, never allowing Nadal to gain a foothold.
The Swiss' final win would give him four championships in the last five Masters Cups. Federer defeated David Ferrer in the last match to achieve this mark.
Pundits predicted that Federer would be the early-season favorite at the Australian going into 2008...
Tennis Masters Cup 2007: Federer wins 6-4, 6-1.
2008 was not great for Roger Federer as he began the year diagnosed with mononucleosis, losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic. It was Federer's first time to miss the finals of a major since 2005.
Federer finally won his first title of the year a week prior to Monte Carlo in Estoril. The Swiss needed to win this tournament to reestablish himself.
Nadal was looking to secure his fourth consecutive championship at Monte Carlo—the last two over Federer.
This time around Federer was able to break Nadal's serve in this match—in fact, he did so frequently. This time his own serve let him down, though, and the Swiss could not capitalize on his aggression.
In the end, Federer lost the match that once again was on his racket time after time...
Monte Carlo 2007: Nadal wins 7-5, 7-5.
By winning the tournament in Hamburg in 2008, Nadal won the only clay-court tournament to have eluded him so far in his career.
It was a hard-fought contest that seesawed back and forth as the No. 1 and No. 2 players fought it out a week before the 2008 French Open was to get under way.
Federer opened up a 5-1 lead in the first set but could not sustain his dominance as Nadal fought back to take the set 7-5. Then Nadal broke Federer in his opening game in set two.
Federer, however, fought back, breaking Nadal twice and serving for the set at 5-3—only to see his serve broken again. Federer finally won the second set in a tiebreak.
In the third set, Nadal broke Federer in the fourth game and held on to secure a victory, Nadal's first at Hamburg, giving him victories in all three ATP Masters series clay tournaments during his career.
It also gave Nadal another shot of confidence as he headed into another French Open....
Hamburg 2008: Nadal wins 7-5, 6-7, 6-3.
If you watched the French Open finals of 2008, then you understand that it marked the pinnacle for Nadal and the low point for Federer in their rivalry on clay.
It proved to be a very one-sided affair with Federer winning only four games during the match.
Prior to the match, many predicted that Federer had a real opportunity because his matches on clay leading up to the French had been close and it was felt that Federer was getting the hang of Nadal on dirt.
The dismantling of the No. 1 player shook the tennis world and rocked Federer's confidence as he struggled to regain his equilibrium after such a drubbing on the world stage.
Next up for the dynamic duo was Wimbledon 2008...
French Open 2008: Nadal wins 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
In perhaps the greatest match every to be played on Centre Court, Nadal and Federer battled literally for hours in between rain delays and other claps of thunder.
For the third year in a row, the No. 1 and No. 2 seed challenged each other in the championship match. Unbelievably, Nadal broke out to a 2-0 lead in the match as the crowd at Centre Court sat in disbelief watching Federer, who was aiming for his sixth consecutive crown, fall disastrously short.
When Federer had pulled ahead 5-4, rain delayed the conclusion of set No. 3. A little more than an hour later, Federer and Nadal returned to court to conclude the third set in a tie-breaker which Federer won, 7-5.
The fourth set ended in a tiebreak as well with the crowd sitting on the edge of their seats as Federer pulled out another win, leveling the match at two sets apiece.
The fifth and final set had no tie-break to end the proceedings. After another rain delay at 2-2, the players returned to court with darkness descending.
After four hours and 48 minutes, Nadal seized the trophy away from Federer in the longest final in Wimbledon history.
Federer's No. 1 ranking was now in jeopardy....
Wimbledon 2008: Nadal wins 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
After losing Wimbledon and eventually his No. 1 ranking to Nadal, Federer did come back to win the U.S. Open for the fifth consecutive time, giving Federer his 13th Grand Slam title.
Nadal went on to win the gold medal in tennis at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He captured the No. 1 ranking just prior to the 2008 U.S. Open.
As the two met again in the finals of the Australian Open in 2009, Federer was hoping to equal Pete Sampras' mark of 14 Slam titles with a win over Nadal.
Nadal had never won on hard courts—he had never before made the finals of a major held on hard courts.
As a matter of fact, a Spaniard had never won an Australian Open title. For both players, as usual, much was riding on the outcome.
As the match got under way, Federer did not serve well, nor was he mentally strong during the match. The Swiss had opportunities to put Nadal away but never could.
Nadal defeated the Swiss once again in five sets, winning his first-ever Slam on the hard courts.
For Federer, the future seemed bleak, having lost three of his last four major finals to the man from Majorca.
Australian Open 2009: Nadal wins 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2.
After losing the 2009 Australian Open to Nadal and slumping on the hard courts, Federer fought his way into the finals in Madrid where he would face Nadal on clay.
Nadal had just completed a marathon semifinal contest the night before against Novak Djokovic—a match that had lasted just over four hours.
During the final Federer broke Nadal in the ninth game then held his own serve to take the first set, 6-4.
This seemed to settle Federer and awaken his competitive spirit. The second set went similarly and Federer held on to win this set, 6-4. Nadal lost his first match on clay in over a year.
Madrid Open 2009: Federer wins 6-4, 6-4.
In a rematch of last year's final, Federer and Nadal played each other for the 21st time since 2004.
Federer's defeat of Nadal in 2009 at this event was the beginning of a long downward spiral for the Majorcan, as injury set in to derail his career and end his No. 1 ranking.
With his win over Federer in Madrid in 2010, Nadal will once again seize the No. 2 ranking displacing Novak Djokovic.
With his win, Nadal is the first player in the history of the game to win all three Masters Series events on clay in the same year.
It means that Federer and Nadal will be seeded No. 1 and No. 2 at the 2010 French Open which begins next week.
Early on it was difficult for either player to hold serve. When Nadal broke to go up 4-3 in the first set, Federer had a great opportunity to break back as he held two break points at 15-40. But Nadal's serve saved him and he was able to hold, serving out the set.
The second set went to a tiebreak, which Nadal finally won in breath-taking fashion.
As the players get ready to head into the French Open where Federer is the defending champion, the pressure once again settles on Nadal, who will, without a doubt, be the favorite to win his fifth championship.
Madrid 2010: Nadal wins 6-4, 7-6.
The rival now stands at 21 meetings, with Nadal winning 14 and Federer winning seven.
Total Meetings: 21
Clay: Nadal 10––Federer 2
Grass: Nadal 1––Federer 2
Hard Court: Nadal 3––Federer 3
Grand Slam Finals: 7
Clay: Nadal 3––Federer 0
Grass: Nadal 1––Federer 2
Hard Court: Nadal 1––Federer 0
Nadal has dominated Federer throughout this rivalry, especially on the clay. What will happen after Madrid 2010 is yet to be written, but there is no reason to imagine that much will change as Nadal resumes his place as No. 2, dominating as only he can on clay.