One of my most precious memories of watching Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer slug it out is from the 2008 Wimbledon final. It is a match that has been called a classic, some even feel it is the best match ever played in Men’s tennis.
A 22-year-old Nadal beat five-time defending champion Federer in five gruelling sets (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7). This despite Federer saving two match points. The match saw two rain interruptions and finished past 9 PM British Standard Time (BST). It was the longest final in Wimbledon history (since 1877) at 4 hours and 48 minutes.
Nadal had lost two previous Wimbledon finals (in 2006 and 2007) to Federer and finally tasted sweet success against a man who probably knows the courts at SW19 better than his back lawn.
But more than the statistics, more than the fact that Federer had been humbled on the grass by a player who many felt was only a clay court specialist, more than the fact that Nadal had won his first Wimbledon title, the two things that really stood out for tennis fans were: One – The epic battle they had just witnessed, with two supreme forces going toe to toe, refusing to give an inch, in a fight that clearly meant so much to both and Two – The sheer respect that both players had for each other and how there was a very special, a very unique bond that the two shared, which would not be polluted, damaged, tarnished or shaken by anything that happened on the field of play. And this remember, was still early days in their rivalry.
After the match, Nadal said: “Federer is a great champion. His attitude always is positive when he loses or when he wins. I always have a lot of respect for him. I admire him a lot. We have a very good relationship.”
Federer, while quite gutted, had high praise for Nadal, a man who he had run into in the two previous Wimbledon finals as well (2006 and 2007). He knew just how special talent the man he had just lost to after an almost 5-hour duel was. He also knew that if Nadal could produce a show like that on grass, he was a lot more than just a clay court specialist.
Federer after the match had said: [It is] probably my hardest loss, by far. I thought I played well. [But I] missed too many chances obviously in the first couple of sets. Rafa played well. I’m happy we lived up to the expectations. I’m happy the way I fought. That’s all I could really do.”
There was no animosity. They were two players, who shared a few common traits – an undying love for tennis, supreme God-given talent and a work ethic that only true champions have. And over the years that bond would develop into a very special friendship.
The 2008 Wimbledon title was Rafa’s fifth Grand Slam singles title. Fast forward 12 years and Nadal now has 20 Grand Slam titles, the same as the man he beat on that July Sunday in 2008. It’s true that Nadal’s Slam tally is incredibly skewed. After all, 13 of his 20 titles have been won at Roland Garros. The remaining seven having been won at the other three Slams combined, with Nadal managing to win just one Australian Open title, as compared to Federer’s six.
Thanks to those numbers, you will find a few who will want to take away from Nadal’s overall greatness. Those who feel the Spaniard did, of course, produce great tennis at times to win two Wimbledons, four US Opens and one Australian Open title, but should still be tagged a clay court specialist. But no one who understands what it takes to win a Grand Slam title, let alone titles on all surfaces will ever doubt Rafa’s greatness. Least of all a man who has played nine Grand Slam finals against the Spanish matador and ended up on the losing side six times.
It wasn’t a surprise then to see Federer (who still trails Nadal on the overall ATP Head to Head count 16-24) put up a very special social media post for his good friend after Nadal’s recent French Open success.
Federer’s message read: “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. Therefore, it is a true honor for me to congratulate him on his 20th Grand Slam victory. It is especially amazing that he has now won Roland Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport. I also congratulate his team, because nobody can do this alone. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”
International individual sport has, over the decades, witnessed many great rivalries. Ali vs Frazier, Mcenroe vs Borg, Graf vs Seles, Senna vs Prost, Sampras vs Agassi, Woods vs Mickelson, Hunt vs Lauda, Niklaus vs Palmer, Lin Dan vs Lee Chong Wei – the list is endless.
But if you go through that list you will find that most of those great sporting rivalries had a bitter streak in them. And that is what makes the Federer vs Nadal rivalry different. There is no bitterness. No room for inflated egos. There is a lot of genuine mutual respect and that is what makes it very special.
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.”
Between 2003 and 2020 Federer and Nadal have won 40 of the 71 Grand Slams played between them (Federer’s first Grand Slam title was the 2003 Wimbledon title, while Nadal won his first Grand Slam title at the 2005 French Open). While Nadal denied Federer six Grand Slam titles by beating the Swiss maestro in finals, Federer denied Rafa thrice. They both know that if the other wasn’t part of this era, they would have gone on to win much more. They both know that the other is better than themselves in certain aspects. So, what they choose to do is use that rivalry to turn themselves into better players. They focus on making themselves better instead of trying to bring the other down.
In 2015, Federer said that Nadal “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.”
The two have had no problems over the years working with each other to promote tennis and to initiate charity events, like the Match for Africa for the Roger Federer Foundation, with the two rivals squaring off against each other. The 2020 edition of the event saw Federer play Nadal again and it broke the attendance record for a tennis match, with as many as 51,954 spectators.
What happened on the court, has always stayed on the court with these two. Their relationship off the court has never been affected in any negative way because of their on-court rivalry. In fact, it has only strengthened it.
The greatest of the all-time debate will rage on, perhaps forever. That I feel is a very personal choice. Numbers alone can’t be the only criteria. Many might pick Pete Sampras, whose record of 14 Slam titles stood for seven years before Federer equalled it in 2009. Remember, Novak Djokovic has 17 Grand Slam titles and is the youngest of the current ‘Big Three’. So the focus has now shifted to who will finish with the most number of Grand Slam titles in Men’ singles tennis, with a focus on the age of all three players. Federer is 39, Nadal is 34 and Djokovic is 33.
That tennis is a gruelling physical sport is an understatement. Going by that many felt that longevity would be Nadal’s biggest problem. The common refrain from many Federer fans was that there is no way Nadal could match Federer because he just wouldn’t last as long as the Swiss great, who is blessed with a smooth, classical, almost effortless playing style, as opposed to Rafa’s dogged, retrieve at all cost game that can wear the best of bodies down. Those voices have subsequently quietened down, more so now, since Federer fans realise that Nadal has already equalled the Swiss star’s tally. Federer fans are also a little worried because the last time he won a Grand Slam was back at the 2018 Australian Open.
Nadal on the other hand showed on Sunday just what a ruthless machine he can be, especially on the red clay courts of Paris. His run to the final might have been a rather straightforward one, with no real player of pedigree there to push him to the limit. But, to humble the World number one player (Novak Djokovic) in straight sets in the final, to win the tournament without dropping a single set showed that even at 34 he can set the bar even higher. The Spaniard, in fact, broke Bjorn Borg’s record by becoming the first man to win four Grand Slam titles without dropping a set. This was his 21st win against a World Number one player, the most by any player in the history of the sport.
So yes, age is pretty much just a number for these greats.
There will of course come a day when tennis will have neither Federer nor Nadal. They might play like superheroes, but they are after all human and they will both hang up their racquets at some point. But their biggest contribution to the sport will not be by virtue of the number of titles they will eventually finish with or the jaw-dropping tennis they both have and will continue to showcase till their respective retirements. Their biggest contribution will be their off-court camaraderie, which has shown the world that the toughest of rivals can be the best of amigos. After all, love, respect and friendship have, and always will trump hate. At least that’s how it should be.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.