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The greatest of rivalries inevitably elevate the sport. That is certainly true of this rivalry. As Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal competed against each other, they also elevated the level of play and especially the quality of each other’s games. Now, in order to beat one or both of these tennis phenoms, the rest of the field had to reach the bar set by the men’s top two tennis players.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been playing tennis matches against each other since 2004 when Nadal upset the new world No. 1 in the third round of the Miami Masters. Federer was 22 at the time and Nadal was 17. The match was a harbinger of things to come.
To date, they have met 25 times with Nadal winning 17 of those matches. The majority of the wins of the current world No. 2, however, have come on clay where Nadal had the superior game. He leads Federer 12-2 on the red dirt. They are equal on hard courts at 4-4 and Federer holds a slight edge on grass at 2-1.
In fact, the two have met most often on clay because the two were consistently the two best clay court players of their era. While it took Nadal some time to translate his clay court prowess onto grass and later onto the hard courts, Federer has always owned an all-around game.
Today, their rivalry continues to evolve as the players mature. Like all other great sports rivalries, the two players are widely dissimilar on and off court. While Federer is cool, smooth and his game aesthetically pleasing, Nadal’s game is emotional, employing brute force, while he exhausts players and spectators with his power.
You imagine that Federer is skirting the surface, barely breathing or breaking a sweat. His on court demeanor remains totally unruffled. His game seems perfectly choreographed. Nadal’s game is like releasing a force of nature loose on the court as you live through a raging storm.
Nadal and Federer have combined for 26 of the last 32 Grand Slams. Nadal leads in their head to head in grand slam finals 6-2. They met in four French Open finals with Nadal winning each time, although Federer had his best outing against Nadal most recently in 2011. They met in three Wimbledon finals, with Federer winning two out of the three. The last time was in 2008. They met once on hard courts at the Australian Open in 2009 when Nadal won. It was the only time the two have met in a hard court final.
Together, they reigned over men’s tennis from 2005 until Novak Djokovic passed them both in 2011, first Federer at Indian Wells and then Nadal at Wimbledon. It is hard to say how much longer the Federer-Nadal rivalry will continue. Hopefully for many, many more years to come.
Pivotal Match: 2008 Wimbledon Final, Nadal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7