There have been ‘Lendl-McEnroe’, ‘Becker-Edberg’, ‘Agassi-Sampras’, ‘Connors-McEnroe’ and many other rivalries in Tennis, but very of them have the intensity and quality of a Federer-Nadal rivalry.
Having played against each other for 9 years (and counting…), it is no exaggeration to say that the rivalry between the two giants is arguably the greatest ever in tennis history, as noted by fans and critics alike. Federer and Nadal have won 26 out of 32 Grand Slam titles among themselves, starting from the 2003 Wimbledon Championships to the 2011 French Open . Similarly, 25 of 28 Grand Slams finals, from the 2004 Wimbledon Championships to the 2011 French Open, featured either Nadal or Federer, and the pair didn’t disappoint by winning all of them, except four. The Eight Grand Slam Finals between the two is also a world record for the most number of Grand Slam Singles Finals between two players. ‘Rafa-Roger’ also tie with ‘McEnroe-Lendl’ for the most number of Grand Slam Singles Matches between two players.
The stats, though somewhat tilt the argument in favour of Rafa. Of their 28 Slam matches, Nadal leads Federer 18-10. While Nadal is way ahead on the clay court record, leading comfortably 12-2, Federer leads Nadal by a match, on both grass and hard courts(Federer leads 4-0 on indoor hard courts while Rafa leads 5-2 in the outdoors).Also, Nadal leads Federer 8-2 in Slam matches, which includes a 6-2 lead for Rafa in Slam Finals. The Majorcan also leads 10-3 in five setters between the two. Federer has a 4-0 lead in ATP Finals against Nadal.
From July 2005 to August 2009, no other player broke into the top two of the ATP Rankings, as Nadal and Federer had comfortably secured that position .They held the No.1 and No.2 spots for a record consecutive 211 weeks. Federer was World No.1 for most of that period, while Nadal was a narrow second. For some time(mid-2008 to mid-2009) in that period, Nadal overtook him as he ended 2008 as the top-ranked player in the world. An important point to keep in mind here is that Rafa entered the big stage when Federer was already at his peak and was enjoying complete domination in World Tennis.
While Rafa is the undoubted master in clay, Federer also has had an incredible record on other surfaces(Grass and Hard Courts notably). Arguably the best player to have ever swung a tennis racket, Roger Federer was at the pinnacle of World Tennis from 2004 to 2007, finishing World No. 1 every year and winning 11 of the 16 Grand Slam titles during that period.
2004-2007: It was a dream period in World Tennis for the Swiss legend, who completely dominated the game with his aggressive serve, baseline strokeplay, volleys and a fearsome backhand, which still remains as his best shot. He had a record 65-match winning streak on grass, spanning over 5 years. During that period, he won an unprecedented 30 consecutive sets at the Australian Open and proved his dominance.
But many, including long-time analysts, believe Federer’s success during that period also has something to do with the lack of fierce competition, as his domination came at a time when the Sampras- Agassi era was all but over. The dip in Federer’s form and the subsequent rise of Nadal, has prompted many to call Nadal a better player than Roger, given his achievements at a young age. Also, many believe that with his fitness maintained, Nadal can scale greater heights than Federer.
Even though Federer dominated World Tennis from 2004 to 2007, it is worth mentioning that Nadal won the French Open title each time between 2005 and 2008, defeating Federer in the final every single time. Barring 2009, Nadal has won every single French Open title till date, winning 7 in 8 years and defeated Federer in the finals 5 times, including the 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 straight-set thrashing of Federer in the 2008 French Open final. A few weeks later, Nadal again defeated Federer in what is still considered to be one of the greatest tennis matches ever, the 2008 Wimbledon Final, a classic five-setter amidst numerous rain interruptions. Nadal once again defeated Federer in the 2009 Australian Open final, again a five-set classic.In the 2011 French Open final, Nadal once again beat Federer in 4 sets(Nadal came from 2-5 and a set point down in the first set to win it 7-5). Since then, they have not met in the final of a major Grand Slam tournament. During Federer’s peak, Nadal won a record 21 ATP Masters tournaments, and also helped Spain win the Davis Cup in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Also, Nadal has several unique records which includes 8 consecutive singles titles(Nadal won the Monte Carlo Masters 8 consecutive times), 7 wins each at the Barcelona Open and the French Open and 6 wins at the Rome Masters. He has a breathtaking 98.11 winning percentage at the French Open and holds a 52-1 record on the red clay of Paris.
In addition, Nadal had an 81 match winning streak on clay, from 2005-2007 and over the past 10 years, his clay court win percentage has been 93.04. He also achieved a “Clay Slam” in 2010.
While 2010 was a forgettable year for Federer(he won only the Australian Open and was knocked out before the finals of the next 3 Grand Slams), it was a Golden Year for Nadal. He won 3 consecutive Grand Slam titles, thus becoming the first player ever to do so since Rod Laver in 1969 and completed a career grand slam at the age of 24.
Federer however is far ahead of Nadal when it comes to Grand Slam title counts, with 17 major titles under his belt. But then again, age-wise Federer is 31 while Nadal is still only 26. At 26, Nadal has already captured 11 Slam titles and has become the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam(Nadal is the second player after Andre Agassi in the Open era to achieve a career Grand Slam). And as former player and all-time great Bjorn Borg said recently, “Federer is a great player, but Nadal has the chance to be the ‘greatest player’ if he stays healthy”. John McEnroe was also quoted as saying,”there is an argument to be made that Rafael Nadal may be the greatest player eventually, even possibly now.”However, Rafa still has a long way to go to reach Federer’s 17 Grand Slam titles and given the rejuvenated Federer in the last Wimbledon, the 31-year-old champ could be in for a few more titles.
Amidst several never-ending arguments, one fact that stands out is that tennis fans have been blessed and privileged to be born in the Federer-Nadal era. Entertained by two legendary athletes and humble human beings, the rivalry has also increased overall interest in tennis. But, the rivalry is only an on-court one and is just another in a page of statistics. Off court, the two are really good friends and conduct themselves in a good manner. Instead of arguing on who is the greatest, it would be better to enjoy the rivalry and the great tennis which these two athletes have provided us everytime they have played each other.