On March 28, 2004 a fearless 17-year-old from Spain overwhelmed 22-year-old Swiss star and the reigning Wimbledon champion in straight sets in the third round of the Miami Masters, giving birth to not only tennis’ most legendary rivalry but one of the greatest in all of sport. The lead protagonists of this spectacle — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Tennis has given us more than its fair share of compelling rivalries be it John McEnroe – Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert – Martina Navratilova or Pete Sampras – Andre Agassi. But none compares with this one that has kept the fans on the edge of their seats for almost two decades (17 years). The Federer-Nadal rivalry has its own legacy which although is different from their individual legacies, is equally appealing.
While some people may argue that the “Fedal” rivalry isn’t even the greatest in tennis and that Rafa’s duels with Novak Djokovic are better, the fact is that the Federer-Nadal rivalry wins hands down because of its longevity and intensity.
The beauty of this rivalry lies in the two vastly contrasting playing styles at display. The most obvious difference between the two is how they play backhands — Rafa prefers a two-handed backhand while Roger uses the more classical and elegant one-handed backhand.
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Federer is calmness personified on court. The Swiss appears to glide gracefully across the court, especially on lush green grass. He relies greatly on the variety of his strokeplay to build points. Rafa, on the other hand, is a raging bull and oozes raw power, thundering and roaring from far beyond the baseline. The Spaniard has introduced tennis to a kind of power and athleticism the sport hadn’t seen before. The fact that one is a right-hander and the other is a southpaw makes their matches all the more alluring.
For years these two men from Europe, who hit the peak of their powers at roughly the same time, reigned supreme constantly engaging in a battle for supremacy. For six straight years from 2005 to 2010, they finished 1-2 in the world rankings, the longest streak for any two men in tennis.
While Rafa leads 24-16 on head-to-head record, both players have dominated on their respected favoured surfaces compelling their legions of fans to engage in a never ending debate over who is better.
Of their 40 meetings, 20 have been on hard court, 16 on clay, and four have been on grass. Federer leads on hard court (11-9), grass (3-1), and indoor hard court (5-1) while Nadal leads on clay (14-2) and outdoor hard court (8-6).
The two have played 14 times on the Grand Slam stage with Rafa leading 10-4. The Spaniard has a formidable 6-0 record at the French Open and 3-1 at the Australian Open, while Roger leads 3-1 at Wimbledon.
Such was their dominance, that from 2006 to 2008, they played in every French Open and Wimbledon final.
While Federer’s list of Grand Slam wins looks more balanced with at least five wins in each Slam, apart from Roland Garros — eight Wimbledon titles, six Australian Opens, five US Opens and one French Open, Nadal’s tally is incredibly skewed. The undisputed ‘King of Clay’ has won 13 of his 20 titles at the French Open. The other seven include four at the US Open, two at Wimbledon and just one at the Australian Open.
Over the years the pair has produced several classic matches. At the height of their rivalry, the two met three consecutive years in the Wimbledon finals from 2006 to 2008, fascinating the sporting world with an epic trilogy that would immortalize their careers.
In 2006, Federer successfully defended his Wimbledon title for a fourth consecutive year, defeating Nadal comfortably in the final in four sets.
They met again in 2007 final and what an epic smasher it was! Federer won again, equalling Bjorn Borg’s five consecutive Wimbledon title record of the Open Era, but not before Rafa dragged it to five sets. The Swiss had to rally back from 15-40 deficits twice to hold serve early in the fifth set. Nadal has admitted in his autobiography that this loss would be the source of frustration and determination.
The stage was set for another epic final at the 2008 Wimbledon Championship, Federer was looking to clinch his 13th career Grand Slam title and sixth straight Wimbledon trophy, while Rafa was attempting to become the first man to win the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double since Bjorn Borg in 1980. And the two didn’t disappoint. They produced arguably the greatest tennis match of all time. Superlatives for this match continue to be formed.
One was the King of Clay, the other the greatest on grass. Federer was expected to win the title like the previous two years but Nadal took the first two sets 6-4 6-4. The next two sets were among the highest-quality tennis that was ever played in the history of the sport with Federer winning back-to-back tiebreaks to set up an epic fifth set.
The fifth set was the perfect picture of their rivalry. Roger with his class and Rafa with his powerful hits. Federer battled 16 games, never losing his crown but in the end he had to rather relinquish it to his arch-rival who had earned it after battling for four hours 48 minutes to the point where it was getting hard to see. “It is probably my hardest loss, by far,” the Swiss had said after the match.
The two met a few months later at the 2009 Australian Open final. Nadal, once again, emerged on the right side of the 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2 result, following a gruelling four hours and 23 minutes clash. For Nadal, it was an important victory. It was the first and only time he would lift the Australian Open trophy. While for Federer, who was then 27, the match had been a golden opportunity to go and win his 14th major title, which would’ve put him level with Pete Sampras at the top of the all-time rankings. Roger had struggled to hold back tears during his runner-up speech. “God, it’s killing me,” he said.
The two renewed their rivalry at the 2017 Australian Open summit clash – their first meeting in a Slam final since 2011. And once again the quality of tennis these two legends produced lived up to everyone’s expectations. It was a thrilling five setter. But this time Rafael Nadal was not on the winning side, it was the Swiss maestro jumping with joy at the end of it. Roger Federer roared back from 3-1 down in the tense final set to end a six-match losing streak against the Spaniard at Grand Slams. He defeated Nadal outside of Wimbledon for the first time while also avenging his painful 2009 loss.
“Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws. If there were, I would have been happy to accept one and share it with Rafa. Stay on the tour. Keep playing, Rafa because tennis needs you,” Federer had said.
Despite their intense competitions on court, the two rivals show great respect for one another and maintain a cordial relationship. Their camaraderie is growing as they slip into the twilight of their careers. The two have collaborated to hold charity tennis matches, including the “Match for Africa” and “Joining Forces for the Benefit of Children”.
When Nadal equalled Federer’s record of 20 Slams with his French Open win in 2020, the Swiss Maestro put up a post congratulating Rafa.
“I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion. As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it,” Federer said.
At the 2010 French Open, Nadal famously said: “If somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person don’t know nothing about tennis.”
Who can forget their friendship which was on full display at the Laver Cup? Nadal on absolute tenterhooks during Federer’s singles match against Nick Kyrgios, his elation and subsequent jump into Roger’s arms when the Swiss won or how much the two seemed to be enjoying playing doubles together.
“It’s a rivalry, of course, but it’s also a friendship. We’re having a great story together. We have had long careers. Facing each other in the most important tournaments for a very very long time,” Nadal recently said.
The Roger-Rafa rivalry is a refreshing example of sportsmanship and friendship. But alas it can’t last forever, with Federer turning 40 and Nadal 35 this year, the 2019 Wimbledon semifinal could have been the last glorious act of the greatest rivalry in sporting history. Till they hang their racquets, one can only hope these two legends keep gracing us with more exquisite tennis together, for they bring out the best in each other.