How Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Built Tennis' Friendliest Rivalry

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistOctober 21, 2016

Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal (R) laughs beside Swiss's player tennis Roger Federer during the opening of the Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor on October 19, 2016. / AFP / JAIME REINA        (Photo credit should read JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images)
JAIME REINA/Getty Images

The Rafael Nadal Academy by Movistar opened in Mallorca, Spain, with all the trappings of a lavish tennis center, featuring fitness, education and more than a few trophies that celebrate its eponymous superstar. It is infused with the promise of its creator to help the youth of tomorrow.

But the ambitious vision could only be christened by Nadal and a generous appearance from his great rival and friend, Roger Federer.

"I've been around the game 17 years," Federer said, per ATP World Tour. "I've seen a lot of hard workers and inspiring players, but you've been the one in my opinion who has been the most inspiring and most influential and made me the player I am today."

Nadal was equally effusive in sharing the moment with Federer to attend. After more than a decade since they created the “Fedal” tennis rivalry, they have continued to share abiding respect and admiration through their mutual understanding of what it has meant to be human ambassadors.

Their tennis styles differ, but their work ethics and values are one and the same. They understand life is much greater than being perhaps the greatest players to play their sport.

Their camaraderie grows as they slip into the twilight of their careers, but they have left indelible footprints in the sands of yesteryear.


Swiss Chocolate or Spanish Paella?

Paris, FRANCE:  POUR ILLUSTRER LES PAPIERS DE FIN D'ANNEE 'LA RAZZIA DE FEDERER ET NADAL' (ARCHIVES) - Picture taken 03 June 2005 in Paris of Swiss Roger Federer (L) congratulating Spanish Rafael Nadal (R) after their semi final match of the tennis French
JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

Tennis’ golden era arrived when teenage Nadal showcased his relentless fire to vanquish the mighty Federer in the 2005 French Open semifinals.

Fierce and methodical, the Spaniard introduced a bludgeoning forehand that produced his whirly, devilish topspin. He was architect and gladiator; he could grind through long rallies and matches like he was the spiritual descendant of Bjorn Borg—the original king of clay.

Indeed, Nadal was the lionhearted answer to Federer’s ATP dominance that saw the Swiss dominate the ATP tour with 11 major titles in four calendar years (2004-07).

Federer was the beautiful artist with ballet footwork and a mathematician’s mind. His mastery of shot variety earned the "genius" moniker that set new standards for offensive precision. His liquid-whip forehand, changes of pace and graceful textbook skills would be reproduced in every tennis club around the world. He became the popular hero who linked the past with the future and the standard for all future comparisons.

LONDON - JULY 06:  Roger Federer of Switzerland congratulates Rafael Nadal of Spain in winning match point and the Championship during the men's singles Final on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Cr
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Fedal was born at the perfect time when social media and streaming technology came of age. Their fanbases could follow them up close as they battled out memorable finals at Wimbledon 2006-08, Australian Open 2009 and four times at Roland Garros from 2006-11. Above all, they witnessed the classy manners and words they heaped upon each other.

Nadal often insisted Federer was the best of them all, perhaps never more succinctly than in his press conference before he would go on to win the 2010 French Open, as archived in the New York Times: "If somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person don’t know nothing about tennis."

Before Wimbledon 2015, Federer reiterated his praise for Nadal’s greatness in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (h/t Rachelle Corpuz of the International Business Times): "...he’s the best ever on clay, hands down, so he has been the toughest and probably the most challenging and fun to play against just because of his character and he’s been unbelievable for the game so I love that rivalry."

Neither player let his ego interfere with his respect for the other, and even through some of their most excruciating challenges and losses, they forged what Federer referred to as a natural relationship while seeing each other on tour in an interview with GQ Australia (h/t Tennis Tonic):

We see each other almost every week, and we take those occasions to chat a bit about ourselves.

I have shared a lot with Rafael, from 5-set matches to promoting together a tournament in Qatar. In those occasions we had dinners together. I know Rafa's family the best, as well. They are a nice and close family. I know his dad, mother and sister.

Our bond is stronger than the one I may have with Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. That's why I feel the most connected and closer to Rafa.

It seems like a friendly rivalry fit because of their more reserved personalities, which is a contrast to past tennis rivalries that were not quite so amicable.

  • In the early 1980s, John McEnroe resented Ivan Lendl’s rising challenge. It hardly improved once Lendl eclipsed McEnroe for good.
  • The rivalry of the 1990s, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were outwardly antagonistic toward each other at a fundraiser match in 2010 (right under the noses of astonished doubles playing partners Federer and Nadal).
  • Federer and Djokovic have been prickly at best since the Serb’s early years when he brashly asserted his future claims to the Federer throne. It has hardly eased in the late stage of their rivalry.

Fedal is a special rivalry. It’s a warm day in the midst of a nuclear winter, a refreshing example of sportsmanship and friendship, first and last.


Aging Together

BASEL, SWITZERLAND - NOVEMBER 01:  Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal  of Spain pose prior the final match of the Swiss Indoors ATP 500 tennis tournament at St Jakobshalle on November 1, 2015 in Basel, Switzerland  (Photo by Harold Cunningham/G
Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Injuries have taken many tolls on their aging bodies, but it only strengthens the goodwill between Federer and Nadal. They are signed up to play doubles at the inaugural Laver Cup at Prague in September 2017if they are healthy.

Federer and Nadal have played exhibition matches in the past, and it seems likely they will do so often in the future, simply because they both recognize what it means to reach out to others’ causes be it through charitable fundraising or for kids.

It’s an important example as well for their respective fanbases who often used to throw verbal slings and arrows at each other on social media. These days, Federer and Nadal fans are less likely to poke at each other and more likely to be armchair critics of Djokovic, Andy Murray or the uncertain future of the next generation of star players.

But maybe even the Federer and Nadal fanbases will become more of a Fedal merger, even while keeping the flames alive for their preferred hero. At the least, they’ve gone from screaming teenage hubris to middle-age composure. One day they will be wise sages, nostalgically sharing the joy when Fedal was the center of the tennis universe. They will have validated each other.

"I am curious to see what is going to happen once we'll be done with our tennis careers," Federer told GQ Australia, per Tennis Tonic. "At that time I'll know how truly close me and Nadal are. Don't know if we are going to keep in touch or not, it will be interesting to see."

We got a sneak preview this week in Mallorca.

Someday we will probably see Federer and Nadal seated in sharp suits and dark shades, watching younger combatants trade blows on hallowed grounds like Centre Court or Stade Roland Garros.

They will understand the spirit of tennis and its sportsmanship because they have always understood it through their actions toward each other.