The Federer-Nadal rivalry uplifted the game, and gave a sense of purpose to both players

The duo played their first match in March 2004 at the Miami Masters, where Nadal beat Federer in straight sets

September 22, 2022 04:04 pm | Updated September 24, 2022 11:21 am IST

Roger Federer (L) and Rafael Nadal at the 2014 Australian Open.

Roger Federer (L) and Rafael Nadal at the 2014 Australian Open. | Photo Credit: AP

To be invested in a sporting rivalry is to experience moments of pure feeling. It leaves fans intimately connected to the sport, through the very visceral emotions of excitement and disappointment.

For the past two decades, a match-up that has left most tennis fans transfixed is the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Simply known as ‘Fedal’, it is one of the most idealised and sentimental of rivalries; a convenient binary that has sustained men’s tennis with the right amount of suspense and energy.

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The duo first met in the spring of 2004 on the hard courts in Miami when Federer had just started his empire-building activity with triumphs at Wimbledon and the Australian Open. But the teenage rebelliousness of Nadal caused an ever-so-slight dent in Federer’s ascent as the Spaniard won that encounter in straight sets.

Since then, over 39 further meetings, they have come to represent two belief systems, not necessarily at loggerheads with each other but enough to drive small amounts of polarisation. Federer’s fluid on-court majesty versus Nadal’s more earthly magnificence; Federer’s attacking genius versus Nadal’s slightly restrained intelligence; and Federer’s clean-cut forehand versus Nadal’s spin-heavy version.

Beyond comfort zone

The rivalry had enough going for both casual and serious fans. For starters, it was simple to follow. Nadal led handsomely on clay (14-2) while Federer led on grass (3-1, all at Wimbledon). Hard courts were the middle ground, with Nadal ahead 8-6 in outdoor settings while Federer was 5-1 indoors.

Nadal (pink T-shirt) and Federer during the ‘Match for Africa’ tournament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 2020.

Nadal (pink T-shirt) and Federer during the ‘Match for Africa’ tournament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 2020. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Playing for Africa
Federer and Nadal played in the Match for Africa series, a set of tennis exhibition matches to raise money for the Roger Federer Foundation, which supports educational and sporting activities for underprivileged children.
In the first edition in December 2010, the duo played a match each in Switzerland and Spain.
In February 2020, the duo joined forces again, this time in Cape Town, South Africa, for the first time, along with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and comedian and TV host Trevor Noah for a doubles match.
The event was attended by a record 51,954 people (the highest attendance ever at a tennis match) and more than $3.5 million was raised.

For those interested in technical pedantry, Federer trying to dictate with his ultra smart first serve and crisp forehand was absorbing. Nadal continuously attacking Federer’s one-handed backhand to the point of breakdown with shots loaded with spin was equally fascinating.

What elevated this rivalry was also the sense of purpose each player attached to it. For Federer, Nadal was the single biggest roadblock in his conquest of clay. The Swiss had lost three straight French Open finals against his younger rival from 2006 to 2008. For Nadal, Federer’s tight grip over grass had to be loosened in his quest to become a consummate all-courter, but he was beaten both in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals.

Like John McEnroe gave Bjorn Borg a reason to rise to a level well beyond his comfort zone, Federer and Nadal became yardsticks for each other, a gold standard to be emulated.

Generous opponents

Nadal finally beat Federer at Wimbledon in the 2008 final, after five glorious sets, a match described by many as the greatest ever. Federer completed his career Grand Slam (winning all four Majors) a year later with his maiden French Open triumph. It didn’t feature a win over Nadal, but it was a clear case of one lifting the other.

“Rafa definitely has been very particular in my career,” Federer once said. “I think he made me a better player. Because the way his game stacks up with me, it’s a tricky one. I’ve said that openly. It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him.”

The rivalry was also different from many others in that it wasn’t fuelled by dislike. There was none of the deep-seated resentment that drove the relationship between McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, or Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Federer and Nadal’s equation was built on fondness and decency. They conceded nothing easily but were generous opponents. They featured in ads together, wrote lavish and heartfelt testimonials for each other and joined forces for humanitarian causes. For a significant duration of their careers, they even let the same manufacturer — Nike — design their outfits, an anomaly in this era of ambush marketing.

In a sense, the overall head-to-head is lopsided, 24-16 in favour of Nadal. It was not until the 2017 Australian Open final that Federer found a winning tactic, helping him triumph over five engrossing sets.

But it was one of those rare rivalries that left both players satisfied and uplifted the game. They gave context to each other’s accomplishments even as they worked out who was better on the day. They loved the thrill of the chase, but were also deeply content in their respective achievements.

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