by Sanket Mohanty
Nadal and Federer are two champions who epitomize art in sport.
In March 2004, an unheralded 17 year old by the name of Rafael Nadal Parera surprised many by defeating the then world number one, Roger Federer, in straight sets at the third round of Miami Masters. Few would have suspected on that windy day in Miami, that these two gentlemen would get embroiled in a storied rivalry that would captivate millions of people around the world.
Theirs is a rivalry that has come to define a generation of Men’s tennis. Each era of tennis has had it’s share of rivalries, be it Agassi – Sampras, Becker – Edberg or Borg-McEnroe. However, hardly ever has any rivalry divided people into two clans based on the style of play of the individuals involved.
Styles too make rivalries. If Nadal was the wild left hander in cargo shorts who thundered after balls, on the other side of the net was the perfect gentleman with hair done just right, with perfect technique who seemed to float across the court. Nadal and Federer were opposites. That’s what made it interesting. One style was beating another, and you could cheer for the style you liked.
Nadal emerges as the Arch-Nemesis:
Many who considered Nadal’s victory at the Miami Masters in 2004 a fluke were proven wrong, when while playing his first French open, Rafa once again obliterated Federer in the semi-finals in four sets. It was a hard hitting performance from Rafa which would become his vintage style.
It became pretty clear that while Federer was the artist, Nadal on the other hand was a physical specimen. He won most of his matches by tiring out his opponents and believed in putting his body on the line in long, arduous rallies. Nadal grew up on dirt and has always maintained that he feels at home on clay courts.
Clay is a relatively slower surface compared to the others and pure hard hitting takes a backseat and thus points are won more on opponent’s mistakes. Nadal is a master at wearing down opponents by engaging in lengthy rallies, avoiding mistakes and persevering till he finally manages to force a mistake from the opponent.
Nadal is undoubtedly one of the greatest defenders tennis has ever seen and he can slide on clay better than anyone else. Federer, who believed in defeating opponents by unleashing his winners, never had a chance against the pragmatic Spaniard on clay. He was fighting a long lost battle.
No one floats on clay like Rafa.
Wimbledon 2008: The rivalry reaches its’ pinnacle
Rafael had already proven his dominance over Federer on clay. He was the undisputed king there. But his game which didn’t particular the grassy surface often let him down. Nadal, however, was determined to be a champion on all surfaces. From being a clay court specialist to being in the Wimbledon final in 2006, he came a long way in a very short span of time. There was one person who was still better than him on grass, the person being none other than the Swiss maestro Roger Federer. Nadal lost two consecutive finals in 2006 and 2007.
Yet one thing all could see was his improvement. Each year, he gave a tough fight to Federer before succumbing to defeat owing largely to the technical prowess of Roger. But 2008 brought the winds of change and a power shift in Men’s tennis seemed imminent.
2008 was the year when Roger Federer finally lost his stranglehold over Men’s tennis.
Roger Federer lost in the Australian open semi-finals to a certain Novak Djokovic who would go on to establish himself as one of the modern day greats himself. This was followed by a crushing and humiliating straight sets demolition in the finals of French Open to none other than his arch nemesis, Rafael Nadal. These defeats clearly dented the Swiss Maestro’s confidence. His play heading into Wimbledon was wobbly and Nadal clearly had a psychological edge.
As fate would have it, the two juggernauts collided yet again in the final of the Wimbledon for a third consecutive year. After a hard fought contest that lasted an epic four hour and forty eight minutes, Nadal finally managed to knock Federer off his perch. The stranglehold had been loosened. And a Rafael Nadal had won the one slam he craved for, the Wimbledon, defeating his greatest opponent.
Relief and Ecstasy as Nadal wins the coveted Wimbledon title.
The dichotomous declines of Nadal and Federer :
There’s not a shadow of a doubt that Federer and Nadal put in their life’s best play on that rainy day at the All England Club in 2008. Even though they would continue to rule the sport for a next few years, their play never touched that exquisite greatness again. Federer would finally manage to complete his Career grand slam in 2009 by winning the French Open by beating Robin Soderling who had halted Nadal’s progress in an upset of epic proportions. Nadal on the other hand would continue to prove himself as an all surface juggernaut by winning the Australian and US Opens on hardcourts.
Despite this, Federer would find it hard to cope up with the young crop of players while Nadal would be constantly troubled by his troublesome creaky knees. But after 2008, Tennis was no longer ruled by only two individuals. The emergence of Djokovic resulted in setting up of parallel storied rivalries with both Nadal and Federer.
While with the emergence of the younger players many thought that the fabled rivalry between these giants had succumbed to age and injuries, the two maestros defied all odds to make it to the Finals of the Australian Open, 2017. In what was an enthralling contest, Roger Federer outlasted Nadal in five sets to finally win a grandslam after five barren years. They rolled back the years as Nadal was at his defensive best against a motivated and focused Federer. This might just be the beginning of the final stretch of this absolutely fascinating rivalry.
Even though for most parts of their career they have been embroiled in a very competitive and heated rivalry, the two greats share a very gracious and cordial relationship with each other. While initially Federer refused to acknowledge the significance of their rivalry, he was finally forced to after the 2008 Wimbledon final, even admitting “It definitely becomes more and more special the more times we play against each other.” Similarly, Nadal has always cherished the rivalry as he looks up to Federer both as a role model and also as a measuring stick to gauge his own development.
The two greats share a very cordial relationship.
Who’s the greatest?
Analysts, commentators and pundits increasingly recognize that Nadal is just a bad matchup for Federer as the heavy topspin created by Nadal’s groundstrokes combined with his strategy of directing the majority of his serves & groundstrokes to Federer’s single handed backhand keeps Federer on the defensive and making it harder for Federer to use his aggressive groundstrokes to dominate baseline rallies as he typically does against other opponents. The head to head is heavily skewed in favor of Rafa mostly because of his absolute dominance on clay court. The head to head on other surfaces presents a far more competitive picture. Moreover, Nadal’s failure to progress to the later stages of many tournaments on grass or hard courts never really let Federer gain an advantage over his nemesis on his favorite surfaces.
While different former players have favored one over the other at different points of time, there’s no doubt that most of them regard both Nadal and Federer as two of the greatest to ever grace the game if not the greatest. Mere statistical analysis cannot be the basis to recognize who’s the better among the two. And opinions of players, tennis watchers and enthusiasts is varied. Even though it’s impossible to definitively designate who’s the best, there’s no doubting that theirs is a rivalry who will go down in the sporting folklore. Theirs is a rivalry that will be taken in the same breath as the Senna – Prost rivalry or Ali-Frazier rivalry. As tennis watchers, we should just consider ourselves fortunate enough to have lived to witness the absolute majestic tennis that only these two gentlemen are capable of producing.