Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal: Something for Everyone in "The Magic Box"

Greg PearlFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2010

courtesy of EFE Images
courtesy of EFE Images

MADRID, Spain — If you could have front-row tickets to any sporting contest ever, what would it be?

A classic rematch like Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier? Something more modern, like a LeBron vs. Kobe one-on-one?

Well, if you’re a tennis fan it doesn’t get much better than Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer. The only thing that could make these epic battles possibly more quixotic would be to take the obscene amount of cash these events would bring in and, say, donate it to charity…oh, right before Christmas, no less! Yeah, that would be the best.

While Kobe vs. LeBron might be in the works (yeah, just like Pacquiao vs. Mayweather), Nadal vs. Federer is for real, and it is the year of giving for these two.

Not only has “Fedal” given us some of the best tennis in decades, showing the world what happens when speed and agility meet finesse and technique, for the first time ever this pair will duel for charity. After their wildly successful “Hit for Haiti” doubles and mixed doubles campaigns, these two broke the seal with their first-ever one-on-one matches against each other, on back-to-back days, in different countries…on Christmas week!

The No. 1 and No. 2 in the world met in Madrid, Spain on Dec. 22 in their second charity faceoff to raise funds for the Rafa Nadal Foundation. The match followed less than 24 hours after their first benefit in Zurich, in support of the Roger Federer Foundation. La Caja Magica, or “The Magic Box” arena, in Madrid seats more than 11,000, yet tickets were sold out in less than six hours—fans obviously eager to witness another chapter in tennis’ best rivalry.

But not even “best” describes the mojo between these two court doyens. Their rivalry is, well, unrivaled.

For instance, I could have asked any of the clearly biased Spaniards enjoying the match whom they were rooting for and I think the answer would have been resoundingly similar (VAMOS!). Yet, would these fans have shelled out their hard-earned Euros for a Nadal-Murray friendly, or even Nadal-Djokovic? Don't bet your pantalones!

Ask anyone in Madrid (or, sadly, most places these days) and they’ll tell you all about “la crisis” in their wallet. Not to mention it’s an exhibition three days before one of the most sacred, income-guzzling holidays in Spain.

Yet here they are, because Nadal-Federer is the best tennis has to offer. They might be the best tennis ever has to offer, and even the most diehard Nadal fans know anything can happen against Federer, so no one wants to miss out. The cavernous home of the Madrid Masters was packed to the retractable rafters at the mere mention of its billing. ¡Feliz Navidad Madrid!

While it’s clear fans know what they’ve got in the great rivalry, using their popularity is fairly new to the players themselves. "It is clear we both like to play each other, people see we do too,” said Federer. “We were very focused to make [these charity matches] happen this year and it has been a dream come true.”

Still, perhaps the timing was more in regard to swinging while the balls at its peak. After all, it can’t last forever.

In 2008 the pair looked to be on its last leg with Federer winning some—but not as much and certainly not as convincingly—because of a young Majorcan. Yet by 2009 Rafa didn’t seem quite so young, suffering through tendinitis in both knees. Somehow they have managed to continue rewriting record books, but for how long?

For now, the rivalry works for tennis. It works for the two men’s tennis icons as well. Both highly competitive and freakishly talented, they seem to respect one another in a way quite unique to sports. Not since Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have we seen two athletes forced to raise their games to a new level when playing against each other, and still step off the court with almost no animosity between them.

One could even go so far as to call them friendly. When asked how he would coach Nadal in a match, Federer said, "There’s maybe not that much I need to teach him because he's already a wonderful champion and a legend…He can do things I can only dream about."

With that sort of cooing it’s a wonder why the duo hasn’t exchanged Christmas gifts, let alone squared off for charity. While the pair has battled in two previous friendlies (a 2006 exhibition in Seoul, and the 2007 “Battle of Surfaces” in Mallorca), and headlined the previously mentioned “Hit for Haiti” (in Melbourne, January of 2010, and Indian Wells, March of 2010), these 48 hours represent the first and second charity matches mano-a-mano.

“Playing against each other serves to promote, not only tennis, but also contributes to great causes. The winner tonight will no doubt be the Rafa Nadal Foundation,” said Federer. 

Rafa and Rog know the power they have over tennis; the event is titled “Joining Forces: For the benefit of Children” on Nadal’s website. Meanwhile, Federer has a scoreboard with the duo’s head-to-head record proudly displayed (even though the Swiss is trailing, 14-8).

Still, it’s surprising that more great athletes don’t follow their lead and take up with their rivals for charity. Part of what makes “Fedal” unique is that they use their star power to better tennis, as well as take on issues that matter to them personally, through their foundations.

Could it be the physical tolls of a grueling season keeping rivals apart? It certainly doesn’t seem that way for Nadal and Fed. And the ATP tour is far longer than every other major sports season, spanning 11 months.

Is it possible that every other rivalry is too hate-filled to “join forces” like Rafa and Rog? There is a belief that “friendly” rivalries like theirs are actually bad for sports; that the lack of a truly despised rival means, at some level, the player isn't taking the game personally enough. But how much more personal can it get when an athlete chooses to face off against his greatest competition for nothing but pride?

So they can stand to be in the same room with one another, isn’t that a good thing? As a fan I’d find it much more entertaining to see them take out any hatred toward one another with a ball and racquet (no, Yankees vs. Red Sox—I mean use them to play tennis).

The rivalry may be unequaled, but it’s not just all title and no power. The positives are simply too heartwarming to overstate—in the last three years the Roger Federer Foundation has given over $1.55 million in grants. Tuesday’s charity match in Zurich alone brought in $2.62 million (2.5 million Swiss francs). That means one match with rival Nadal almost doubled the last three years of giving for Federer’s cause.

And now that these two tennis gods have harnessed their rivalry’s financial potential, everybody wins. Someone want to tell Rog he’s not taking the game “personally” enough?

Both men hope these charity H2H’s will not be the last they see of each other for a while. After handily losing in his first ATP World Tour Finals ever back in November, Nadal—the reigning Wimbledon, French Open and U.S. Open champion—will hope for yet another rematch with Federer in the 2011 Australian Open in January. In the most likely scenario, No. 1 seed Rafa would meet the defending Aussie champ and No. 2 seed Federer in the final to possibly add to their obnoxious 25 of the past 30 Grand Slam titles.

As far as their future in philanthropy?

“Maybe in the future we will be able to make it happen again because we have an excellent relationship off the court and in regards to our respective foundations, we have similar ideas," said Nadal.

As for the business at hand, both athletes valiantly held their respective “home” courts with Nadal taking the match in Madrid (7-6, 4-6, 6-1). Friendly or not, after watching them battle twice in two days it seems the only thing that matters on the court for these guys is the next shot.

That's just how they work. And boy, do they make it work.

If you would like to make a donation to the Rafa Nadal Foundation, click here.

If you would like to make a donation to the Roger Federer Foundation, click here.