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Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal: The ageless rivalry that keeps on giving

SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
416   //    05 Jun 2019, 14:56 IST

Federer and Nadal enjoy one of the greatest sporting rivalries of all time
Federer and Nadal enjoy one of the greatest sporting rivalries of all time

Back in 2005, a young, strapping Spanish lad, aged 18, caused ripples through the tennis circuit during the spring clay court season. After winning 24 matches on the trot, the then-teenage Rafael Nadal had catapulted himself into the top bracket of players in the world.

Being ranked No.5 in light of that run was a significant achievement in itself. Yet, the fact that he was being earmarked as one of the prime candidates to take home the French Open crown, ahead of the likes of Guillermo Coria, Marat Safin and a certain Roger Federer signalled that the Spaniard had a tinge of greatness about him, even at that stage. 

As destiny would have it, playing in his first Roland Garros, Nadal came face to face with Roger in the 2005 semi-final. With expectations at an all-time high and the latter looking to clinch his 5th Grand Slam, many believed the former would wilt under pressure.

However, Rafa cruised past the Swiss to ease into his first Grand Slam final. That game highlighted the dominance the left-hander enjoyed on clay and he’s taken that supremacy to dizzying heights over the years.

Nadal won the 1st of his 11 French Open titles in 2005
Nadal won the 1st of his 11 French Open titles in 2005


Since that clash in 2005, the pair has met four times in Paris. Unsurprisingly, Nadal has emerged victorious on all other occasions, despite Federer being one of the best clay-court players on the ATP tour. Unfortunately for Roger though, the gap between the world’s 2nd best player on clay and the premier clay courter was alarmingly quite vast.

Apart from their meetings in the French capital, the duo has also crossed swords on 12 other instances in a Grand Slam. Nadal holds the edge in that respect too with a superior 9-3 record; the only solace for Federer being the 2 matches he has won at Wimbledon as opposed to the left-hander’s one.

The numbers of their overall rivalry also paint a similar picture as the Spaniard has won 23 of the 38 times they’ve matched up. Thus, history forces us to believe that if the two of them are on a collision course, Nadal emerges from the rubble unscathed, more often than not.  

The statistics are further skewed in favour of the left-hander when talking about Grand Slams and especially the French Open. Hence, evidence suggests that one should brace oneself for a drab, one-sided encounter in the 2019 Roland Garros semi-final.

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Yet, as both men have shown throughout their storied feud, that is one mistake one should refrain from making. 

The past few years have seen both men undergo their fair share of injury troubles. While Roger has been hampered by lower back issues in the twilight of his career, Nadal has faced a recurrence of knee and wrist problems. However, both men have found ways to recapture their mojo and still be at the top of the tennis world.

Of the two though, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it has been Federer who has found an extra gear or two when compared to Rafa, especially considering the additional battle the Swiss is fighting against Father Time. 

Time out of the game meant that the 20-time Grand Slam winner could introspect and plan his return smoothly. He also tried to tweak a few things technically and started to use a larger racquet, which allowed him to control his backhand a touch more.

Moreover, the right-hander has gone back to his aggressive roots and in the process, has distanced himself from indulging in long baseline rallies. 

Federer won his 20th Grand Slam in Melbourne in 2018
Federer won his 20th Grand Slam in Melbourne in 2018


Thus, since coming back from injury, the Swiss has notched up three Grand Slams with two coming at Melbourne and one at SW19. This helped him breach the 20-Slam barrier, a peak many believed he was destined to not scale, after his sudden decline in the early 2010s.

However, like countless occasions before, the champion in Roger devised a method to stay ahead of his opponents and enrich his own game further.

Nadal, on the other hand, hasn’t changed a lot and has rather relied on making himself injury free. Though he has attempted to make his serve a lot meatier than before, that change isn’t as drastic as what Federer has undertaken.   

This has borne fruit for the Spaniard as well, with him piling up three Grand Slams in the past four years. One of those was achieved at New York while the other two came at Roland Garros, obviously. 

Nadal recovered from his injuries to win the 2018 French Open
Nadal recovered from his injuries to win the 2018 French Open


However, neither Rafa nor Roger were at the peak of their powers coming into the clay court season. The latter had failed to defend his Australian Open crown while the former was annihilated in the final of the same tournament by Novak Djokovic.

Yet, after a good workout in the pre-French Open clay court competitions, the pair arrived in Paris in pretty decent shape.

After all, Nadal had to be the favourite at a tournament he has won 11 times previously and Federer is always a front-runner at a Major, as long as he can hold a racquet straight.  

Surprisingly though, the duo have outdone themselves so far at the 2019 French Open.

Rafa has looked imperious this year, losing just a solitary set en route another semi-final appearance. The Spaniard has been hitting his groundstrokes powerfully and his backhand, in particular, has been extremely useful.

For quite a while, players used to spar with Nadal on the backhand side before attacking his forehand wing. However, the left-hander has ensured that the same hasn’t been possible this time around as he has cracked winners off the backhand front frequently.

As for Federer, his blend of aggressive tennis has been refreshing to watch. The devilish backhand slice, the drop shots and the passing shots have complemented the impeccable serves and volleys perfectly till now. However, Roger, of all people, would know the steepness of the task that awaits him on Friday.  

The last five times Rafa and Federer have encountered each other, the Swiss has emerged victorious. To put things into perspective, the last time the Spaniard beat Roger was at the 2014 Australian Open.

Having said that though, the 37-year-old has only won 2 of their 15 matches on clay, with none coming this decade. 

Thus, the semi-final in a couple days’ time is tantalisingly poised. After all, the pair has never met on Rafa’s preferred surface since undergoing startling transformations in the mid-2010s.

Nadal and Federer would go down as two of the greatest tennis players ever
Nadal and Federer would go down as two of the greatest tennis players ever


Moreover, the possibility that the match could have major implications for either to be crowned the ‘Greatest of All Time’ adds another layer of intrigue.

Yet, one would do well to not concern oneself with what might unfold in the aforementioned race. Over the years, several have weighed in on who the best player to have walked on to a tennis court is. But, with both superstars’ career meandering towards the finish line, that particular conversation is one that is better left untouched, for now. 

At this juncture, the prospect of Rafa and Roger not gracing the tennis court is unimaginable. However, akin to every walk of life, that sight could turn into reality very soon.

Till then, the best one can do is enjoy the two geniuses at work for one doesn’t know if the world would be privileged to watch such masters in tandem again.

And as for who would eventually be bestowed with the title of the ‘GOAT’, that discussion would certainly survive the ravages of time, well after both these greats have hung up their racquets.

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