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What Roger Federer's return means to a Rafael Nadal fan

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2007
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2007
Rudra Biswas
ANALYST
Modified 06 Mar 2021
Feature

It was in 2005 when tennis' golden era was ushered in, as a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal met Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals. Federer and Nadal would go on to create a legendary rivalry spanning 38 high-quality matches which included epic Slam finals at Wimbledon, Australian Open and Roland Garros, and through it all the fans haven't been able to thank their lucky stars enough.

The two have helped boost the sport's viewership numbers tremendously, with their magnetic personalities attracting even non-tennis fans. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have also displayed the highest standards of sportsmanship and camaraderie throughout, despite their starkly different philosophies clashing against one another so often.

Federer was the relentlessly aggressive right-hander, Nadal the tirelessly defensive left-hander. Federer was the artist, Nadal the butcher. The narrative of this contrasting yet convivial rivalry between the two pushed the sport to the pinnacle of its popularity in the 2000s and 2010s.

But as they say, we all wish there was a way to know you were in the good ol' days before you actually left them. With tennis already down to its proverbial knees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the news of Roger Federer calling time on his 2020 season because of a setback in his recovery from a double knee surgery came like a thermal shock.

The tennis season ultimately resumed in August, but the 20-time Major champion was missed dearly.

A little more than a year removed from the Federer-less 2020 tennis season, the Swiss maestro is now all set to make his long-awaited return to professional tennis at the Qatar Open. And while the Federer fans are elated at the prospect of seeing their man wave his wand again, the Rafael Nadal fans are probably a little less happy.

The Spaniard is currently tied with Roger Federer when it comes to the record for most Grand Slams won by a male player. But with Federer back in the mix, it will not be as easy for Nadal to achieve and sustain tennis history; all of a sudden, the Spaniard has not one (Novak Djokovic) but two formidable obstacles if he wants to add to his Slam tally at Wimbledon or the US Open.

Roger Federer's return is certainly good news for the sport as a whole. But putting aside the numbers for a bit, is it really not good news even if you're a Nadal fan, like I am?

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - two starkly contrasting figures, united by a common love for the game

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in a thriller at Wimbledon 2008
Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in a thriller at Wimbledon 2008
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For anyone who has ever watched the sport, Roger Federer's playing style is immediately recognizable. Over the course of his storied career, the Swiss artist has dissected many an opponent with his bewildering guile, incredible variety and razor-sharp precision.

Roger Federer's effortless style of play, however, was thoroughly at odds with the bruising style of Rafael Nadal in the early to mid-2000s. If Federer's game (particularly on grass) was a song, Nadal probably didn't understand it - at least not at first.

The Spaniard failed to decipher Federer's song at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007, and the second of those losses famously reduced him to tears. But Nadal eventually managed to beat Federer in 2008, and from that moment on the Swiss' song probably started sounding a lot sweeter to the Spaniard's ears.

Nadal would regularly get the better of Federer over the next few years; his 2009 Australian Open win in particular seemed to suggest that Federer's aura of invincibility had been shattered for good. In that respect, the Wimbledon 2008 final was a watershed moment for the sport.

The two rivals went blow-for-blow at the All-England Club that day, in an exemplary display of peak modern-age tennis. While Federer effortlessly swung his racquet as if he was cutting hay with a sickle, Nadal kept sharpening his tools as he moved in closer to the baseline, hit big on his serve and made regular forays to the net.

Does this remind you of a certain someone?

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His route was different, but over the years Rafael Nadal has replicated the style and greatness of Roger Federer

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal have won 40 Slams between them
Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal have won 40 Slams between them

Perhaps Rafael Nadal realized right then that the goals he was seeking were the same as Roger Federer's. He wanted to be the undisputed greatest of all time and the universal favorite of the tennis world, just like his charismatic rival. It was just that the means to get there would have to be different for him.

Roger Federer had a certain ageless beauty to his game, and Rafael Nadal was forced to bring out an overwhelming sense of chaos to counteract that. The aim, however, was straightforward: to replace Federer, and to be Federer.

It was right back in 2008 when Rafael Nadal, in broken words, famously said: "I... want to be Roger."

Nadal was talking about playing as Roger Federer in a video game, but little did the Spaniard know that he would end up being Federer-like in the years to come. Through his rivalry with Federer, Nadal got the opportunity to push himself beyond his limits - both in terms of being a sportsperson and a global icon.

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Today, Rafael Nadal is almost as aggressive in his playing style on quick courts as Roger Federer used to be back in 2008. The Spaniard has learned how to shorten the rallies, how to win cheap points off his serve, how to put away volleys at the slightest hint of a short ball. And he's incorporated all these things into his game because he knew he had to prolong his career if he hoped to match Federer's numbers.

In the earlier years, Roger Federer was considered the prototypical hero of tennis and Rafael Nadal the classic rival rubbing their scales and waiting for the king to fall. But by defeating the man himself, that too on his own turf, Nadal proved that he was a hero in his own right.

Sure, Rafael Nadal would probably have put together an all-time great career even if Roger Federer had never existed. But the transfixing power of Federer, who revolutionized tennis like no other player in history, ensured that Nadal would be looked at through the same lens in the coming years.

To twist an old adage, to beat the man you gotta be the man.

What does Roger Federer's final chapter have in store?

Roger Federer looks on at the 2020 Australian Open
Roger Federer looks on at the 2020 Australian Open
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As age caught up to Roger Federer, he eventually became the third wheel to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The Swiss' two rivals have now won more big titles than him, and have a winning record against him at the Slams too. But Federer's aura in the tennis world will always remain unmatched, and that's coming from a Nadal fan.

So what if Roger Federer is no longer primed to end his career with the most Slams in men's tennis? There is an argument to be made that titles should not be the only factor in determining greatness levels.

Roger Federer rescued tennis from the boring, post-Pete Sampras transition era in 2003. And that had as much to do with his Major triumphs as it did with his contribution to how the game was played.

Believe it or not, even the proudest of Nadal fans talk in hushed tones about how they wish the Spaniard had Federer's ability to get out of jail with his serve, or his relentlessly aggressive intent. That kind of admiration will never really go away, even if 20 is made to look smaller than 21 (or 22 or 23).

Over the last decade or so, Roger Federer has not won tournaments at the rate he once used to. But the Swiss' ability to connect with the viewer's soul through his playing style has remained intact. And in his return from a double arthroscopic surgery, he will be inviting the fans - yes, even the Rafael Nadal fans - to once again share in the wonder of his game.

Roger Federer's comeback will see him bring back his beautiful chops and drops to the pro tour. It will see him try to turn back the clock in Doha, using his racquet like a wand and his feet like ballet shoes.

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As Roger Federer gradually climbs down the glorious hill that his career has been, the entire tennis community will join hands to see him off. But Federer will continue to be revered by everyone even after he hangs up his racquet; that's the kind of impression he has created on the minds of the fans.

Yes, even the Nadal fans.

Published 06 Mar 2021, 02:00 IST
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