For the better part of the past decade, they have dominated men's tennis almost exclusively. With vastly different styles and personalities, they have each stamped their places in the annals of tennis history and continue to make their mark.
Their rivalry is legendary. Each has benefited enormously from the other across the net on so many historic occasions.
Federer benefited from having a true rival validate his greatness after Andy Roddick proved to be a much easier nut to crack, while Nadal's benefit has come with his personification in the chase of greatness and his becoming even greater in the process.
There are murmurings and whispers from my fellow tennis fans and possibly from some big tennis critics, a question that is starting to gain some real weight—Should Nadal no longer be considered the Agassi to Federer's Sampras, but much more? Should he start to be considered more of an equal and less of a sidekick?
Some may read this shocked and wonder. How can you compare them when one has half the total number of Grand Slams? How can you even consider them equals?
I realize immediately the gut reaction to the question. But, before people start typing furious remarks to this post, let's just entertain the notion for a while.
Let's wait to answer the big question and answer a smaller one first. What factors should be considered when you measure greatness, especially when comparing legends of the game?
Certainly the slam count is the biggest factor, but sometimes that part of a player's legacy can overshadow other significant accomplishments that are nearly as important, yet go barely noticed or remembered.
For instance, Nadal will probably add a slew of additional World Tour Masters 1000 Tournament titles to his record of 18, all by age 24.
One of the biggest notable aspects of the Federer/Nadal rivalry is that it is the only certain rivalry in the open era, in which the supposed superior player with more Grand Slams has a significant losing record in both overall matches and more significantly, the Grand Slams themselves.
Whether it was Borg/McEnroe, Agassi/Sampras, Laver/Rosewall, or any other pair, their records were either very close or extremely lopsided.
Currently, this rivalry has Nadal dominating with a 14-7 winning record, and more importantly, a 6-2 (5-2 in finals) record in Grand Slam finals. Overall, Nadal leads 10-3 on clay, they are tied 3-3 on hard-courts, and Federer leads 2-1 on grass.
While the overall record is definitely telling, it's the slam finals where the real argument holds water.
With three wins at Roland Garros, and one win each at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, Nadal has shown he can defeat Federer on a variety of surfaces, while Federer has defeated Nadal only on the lawns of Wimbledon in Grand Slam play.
On top of those telling Grand Slam wins is the 7-3 record Nadal holds against Federer in the finals of the World Tour Masters tournaments (6-3 Masters 1000). Now those wins are mostly, if not all, on clay, but they are wins nonetheless.
Speaking of clay.
I think it's about time that people start giving clay it's due and stop treating the surface as an aberration. While grass was the first surface, clay came along shortly thereafter and has remained a large part of the tennis calendar ever since.
In many ways, it's grass that is the specialist surface, not clay. I don't mean to go on a tangent here, but people complain often that Nadal's head-to-head record is lopsided due to clay, and it is true that many of their matches have been played on the soft red stuff.
However, clay is simply another surface one must compete on. Federer will go down as one of the best on clay—he just happens to be facing probably the best player of all time.
If most of the wins were on hard court or grass then this argument would not exist. This prejudice against the "other original surface" needs to stop. Federer couldn't get it done, even when he had the chances to. Some were blowouts and some were tight matches, but he couldn't get it done on clay against the Spaniard—it's as simple as that.
As I recall, Nadal managed to defeat Federer on "his" surface in 2008 at Wimbledon. Federer couldn't reach a victory though at Roland Garros in three successive years against Nadal.
Nadal is now a multiple Wimbledon champion—only a handful of men can claim that title, and it is certainly possible for Nadal to win a couple more before his career is done.
At barely 24 years old, Nadal is entering his prime as a player. The next two to three years are especially critical to his success, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it.
With the U.S. Open coming up in a few months, we may again be privy to another fantastic match between these two legends.
I am not entering Nadal into the GOAT discussion because he doesn't yet deserve to be there. But, barring injury, with another three or four years of high level tennis, his name could certainly be in there somewhere then.
No, the essence of my article is about the fact that while Federer is clearly the greatest of all time, when holding these two men up to one another, there is no superior. Federer has the slam record, but Nadal is clearly the better man overall with their match record as proof.
Maybe one day after their careers are over, Nadal will get the respect he is due from everyone that's just as good and just as great as Federer. Something tells me they view one another as equals. It's about time we did as well.
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