Over the last decade, we may well have seen the biggest rivalry ever seen in tennis, that being the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Of course there were other great match-ups in the past, like McEnroe – Borg or Sampras – Agassi, but the one between the Swiss and the Spaniard is in my mind the best rivalry ever seen in men’s professional tennis.
They have won 28 majors between them (Sampras and Agassi had 22, McEnroe and Borg 18), have become good friends despite their rivalry, and attract not only tennis fanatics but also non-tennis fans when the square up against each other.
Federer has won 17 Grand Slam titles to date, and Nadal reached no.11 by winning the 2012 Roland Garros title and taking his total Slam titles to 10. The Swiss was 25 years and 173 days old when he achieved the Spaniards current total, 171 days older than his rival.
Nadal and Federer are the only ones on ATP Tour to have finished six consecutive calendar years as the top two ranked players (from 2005 to 2010). Although then world no.1 Djokovic broke that pattern in 2011, the Swiss maestro reclaimed the top spot once more, beating Sampras’ record for holding the no.1 ranking for most weeks.
It all started in 2004 at the Miami Masters. A 17 year old Nadal, then ranked no.34 (and wearing his trademark pirate tennis gear), played the world no.1 Federer in the third round and stunned him with a straigh sets victory that immediately thrust him onto the world stage. Their next meeting happened at the same venue, exactly one year later, but this time it was Federer who managed to turn around a two set deficit as he beat the Spaniard to win the title.
Now, looking back at those years, it was only the beginning of a great rivalry between two superb athletes that often got the crowd sitting at the edge of their seats and biting their finger nails during their high intensity rallies.
What is a perhaps a bit surprising – that Nadal has got the better of Federer in the long run, with a 18-10 head to head record against the Swiss maestro. Ten of those matches have been at Grand Slam events and again, it was the Spaniard who dominated them (winning eight). Federer only managed to beat Nadal on two occassions, in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon final. Rafa has beaten Roger in four French Open finals, where he has only ever lost one match to date (against Robin Soderling in 2009). Nadal’s 52-1 win/loss record on the Paris clay courts is something that possibly no one is ever going to replicate again. He could easily call the Philippe Chartier Court his living room, just like Becker did when playing at the Wimbledon center court.
Federer, at the age of 31, still seems to be in full swing and he proved it to everyone at the Indian Wells 2012 Masters as he outclassed Nadal in possibly the best ever performance against the Spaniard, beating him 6-3 6-4. And after he captured his 7th Wimbledon title, defeating Brit Murray in the final, it was a confirmation that he is eager for more slams.
There is something unique about this rivalry – a right handed Federer with his strokes of geniality and flick of the wrist that can often confuse his opponents and captivate crowds all over the world, versus the left handed Nadal, who is a perfect example of a Roman warrior who will fight till the end and won’t give his last drop of blood to the cause. One favours a faster court and the other prefers the slower red clay and so came the idea of the battle of surfaces that took place in 2007. Federer and Nadal played a best of three set match on a specially designed tennis court, with grass on one side and clay on the other side. It was a very entertaining encounter and the Spaniard prevailed in three hard fought sets 7-5 4-6 7-6 (10).
When Federer retires, this rivalry will unfortunately come to an end. But we all hope that the Swiss legend will stay around for a few years to come, and the fans will get to see some more high quality matches between the two. And I am sure they will.