On his 19th birthday, Rafael Nadal made a blistering entry to the tennis world by beating world-ranked No. 1 Roger Federer in the 2005 French Open semifinal. He then went on to win the title two days later on his maiden attempt.
The next year in Paris Clay, Nadal became the first man to beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final. The Man from Majorca made it three years in a row when he defeated Federer in the 2007 French Open title fight at the Rolland Garros in Paris.
Federer won his first Grand Slam in 2003 by defeating Mark Philippoussis at the Wimbledon. Apart from all the money, which obviously wasn’t on show, the world got to see the new champion shed a few tears and then receive a beautiful cow, perhaps brought from his hometown in Basel, Switzerland.
Federer then leapt up to a different plane and 2004 saw him win three Grand Slam titles, the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open.
The year 2005 didn’t start that well and he did not make it past the semifinals in both the Australian Open, as well as the French Open, losing on both occasions to eventual champions Marat Safin and Rafael Nadal, respectively.
He did make up by winning both the Wimbledon and the US Open.
The year 2006 again saw Federer win three Grand Slam titles, but lose the one that had started to matter more by now. Federer tasted his first defeat in a Grand Slam final as Rafa out-muscled him from the baseline.
It was the same story again in 2007 and Federer added three more Grand Slam titles while Rafa picked up his third silverware in Paris.
By the end of the 2007 season, Federer had 12 Grand Slam titles while Rafa had three clay court crowns. The next year was the "Golden" year for Rafa as he picked up his maiden Wimbledon crown after he had demolished Federer on Paris Clay earlier.
In 2008, Rafa also won the Beijing Olympics gold medal and dethroned Federer from his No. 1 ranking. Federer bounced back from a nervous period to pick up four more Grand Slam titles, including a French, in the period until now.
Federer now has 16 Grand Slam titles and Nadal six, but Federer is yet to achieve what Nadal has already done. Federer needs to beat a fit Nadal on the surface that suits the style of Nadal.
Out of Nadal’s six titles, five have come by beating Federer in a Grand Slam final and one by eliminating him in a semifinal. Out of seven Grand Slam finals that they have played, Nadal has an imposing record of 5-2.
Three of those five titles have come on clay and the other two he has won demonstrate how Nadal has year-by-year improved and adapted his game to reach a higher level on grass and hardcourts. If Nadal has raised his game it begs the question as to what path has the game of Federer taken?
Has his prowess declined, has his game remained stationary while the field has caught up with him, or is it that he too has improved on clay, where he won last year, and has been improving on grass and the hardcourts as well, but his incremental improvement is slower to that of Nadal?
It is a tough question to answer because in this very period of the ascendance of Nadal, it is Federer who actually takes the spotlight. At the Australian Open in 2008, Federer lost the semifinal to eventual champion Novak Djokovic and this loss ended a record run of 10 Grand Slam final appearances in a row for Roger Federer.
Then he lost in the finals of the French Open and the Wimbledon to Nadal. He ended the year on a happy note by lifting the US Open trophy. In 2009 Federer made it to the finals of all Grand Slam tournaments and won the French and the Wimbledon. He lost the Australian Open to Nadal and the US Open to Juan Martin Del Potro.
The two finals he lost were both tight and Federer looked in control and on course to victory before he was surprised. At the Australian, he surprised himself and others by showing that he too can have nerves. He played an abysmally poor fifth set which the fighting but tiring Nadal gleefully accepted.
In Flushing Meadows he was up two sets to one having lost the second in a tiebreaker and had surgically dissected Del Potro and seemed on course for an easy win. This time he was surprised by Del Potro who got his rhythm going and seized the momentum from Federer and blasted away to his maiden Grand Slam title.
In the last 19 Grand Slams, Federer has been there on one end 18 times—the loss to Djokovic dividing his record run of 10 final appearances and his current continuing stretch of 8.
In the last 19 Grand Slams, Nadal has reached the finals on eight occasions and he has an impressive 6-2 win-loss ratio. Federer has won 12 out of 18 finals in the same period, but importantly five of the six losses have been to Nadal.
Nadal can boast of a better win-loss ratio, but Federer gives himself a greater chance and that is the reason why in the same period Federer has won double the number of Grand Slam titles than Nadal.
You don’t, however, become a Federer by resting on laurels and he would be conscious of the fact that he still has to put the stamp of his authority on this rivalry. This rivalry is raw and alive and only time will tell whether the Spaniard inflicts more pain to Federer or whether the Swiss comes out as a Gladiator and fights for his life.