Why do we love and cherish the Federer vs Nadal rivalry?
Federer and Nadal will play out the 35th chapter of their storied rivalry at the Australian Open final today.
It is in human nature to enjoy contrasts on display simultaneously. Since time immemorial, this dissimilitude has been a fundamental factor for giving any sports rivalry a sky-high popularity. Contrast is what produces battles, captivates fans and becomes the driving force of a rivalry and on it, a certain sport grows and thrives.
Imagine a Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe rivalry or for that matter, the one between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in more modern times. The attack vs defence is the core of their rivalries and so it is for the one that exists between the 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and the 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, fondly known as Fedal.
Would the fabled Fedal rivalry have been able to capture people’s hearts as effectively as it has if the legends had both been masters of the same style of play? The answer is no.
Contrast is the driving force
Nadal’s indefatigable defence perfectly counters Federer’s swift aggression. The Swiss maestro’s silky, smooth, effortless style is neutralized by The Bull’s brute muscular force and that has been essential to making their face-offs so thrilling and exuberant.
They couldn’t be more dissimilar even with their bread-and-butter shots. Federer has been the epitome of artistic magnificence and his lustrous single-handed backhand is very much a painter’s stroke.
The tennis, of course, is the masterpiece.
Nadal, on the other hand, slaps you hard with his lefty forehands.They are savage, vicious, hold his rivals by the scruff of the neck and suck the life out of them.
But it is not just the tennis; the contrast was evident even in their on-court apparel and appearance in the initial days. Federer was always the perfect one – suave with not a hair out of place, replete with that debonair charm that has always had such a magnetic effect on his fans.
In his autobiography, ‘Open’, Andre Agassi likened him to Hollywood legend Cary Grant – and that is an incredibly fitting comparison.
Even under pressure, Federer would never show his simmering tension or his anguish and would hardly even express himself on the court.
Nadal was the exact opposite, always ready for a street fight – the one you could call to settle a drunken brawl in a pub. In pirate pants and sleeveless shirt, the Spaniard with his flowing locks was more a boxer than a tennis player who was always fond of punching blow after blow until he could turn his opponent into an emaciated soul.
And he was always the one who would emote more.
You cannot separate a fistpump from the southpaw, nor can you forget his resounding roars of ‘VAMOS’ reverberating through the stadium whenever he wins a crucial point.
While Federer represented the unsullied and purest form closer to God if there ever could be one in tennis, Nadal was always the voice of the commoner, the sufferer, the tortured. The Spanish matador embodied all those who have never had it easy, all those who fumbled and faltered, yet picked up their tattered selves to fight another day and attain glory.
Even Rafa’s obsessive-compulsive quirks and idiosyncrasies have made him look very real, identifiable, tangible and accessible. After all, aren’t we all creatures of habit and like to keep it going before some of the biggest tests in our lives?
While some fell for the pristine Federer, some others could relate more to the tormented Nadal. There’s no doubt that this variety has been the very essence of their rivalry.
Ask any tennis aficionado to talk about some epic battles or some of the best matches from the sport of tennis and the 2008 Wimbledon final or the 2009 Australian Open final will inevitably crop up. The drama, the fabulous shotmaking, the edge-of-the-seat stuff, the guts and gumption of both the players still remain etched in the minds of Fedal lovers.
They have not only mesmerized fans on the Grand Slam stage but have been involved in some of the most enthralling matches even when the stakes have not been so high.
Consider that 2006 Rome Masters final which has left such an indelible impression. Rafa’s awe-inspiring resilience to save two match points and come back from the jaws of defeat can never be forgotten. Neither can Federer’s stubborn defiance even while trailing two sets to love at the 2005 Miami Masters final.
Their everlasting desire to keep pushing themselves even when their fans have given up and hope has looked bleak has been unmatched. They have continuously inspired each other to elevate their games even higher and that has been so fascinating to watch.
Mutual respect and admiration
Nadal has had the upper hand in this competition, winning 23 of the 34 matches they have contested so far. In Slams too, it has been the Majorcan who leads 9-2.
Federer’s last Major victory over his distinguished foe came way back in 2007. But that has in no way diminished the tremendous respect and admiration that they have for each other. Their continued appreciation for each other and outstanding sportsmanship have been exemplary unlike any other rivalry that we have seen in the past.
Rafa hugging a crestfallen Roger during the 2009 Australian Open final ceremony is ingrained in the minds of every follower of the game. That was one of the most genuine and touching gestures from a champion that anybody has ever seen in any sport. On that day, their already revered rivalry entered rarefied air where only they could belong.
They redefined the term ‘rivalry’ in the sporting world through their humility and grace. That it is possible to be the biggest well-wishers of each other despite both aiming for the same prize is such a massive lesson for not just sport but life in general as well.
Fedal is an emotion
Fedal is very much a priceless experience that evokes the deepest of emotions. They transcend tennis, they are larger than life, and their aura is like no other! For tennis fans of the 2000s, it has been a part and parcel of their lives.
And why not? When the sun set on Sampras’ tennis career in the early 2000s and the world was robbed of the chance to marvel at the famed Sampras-Agassi classic matches, men’s tennis was yearning for new heroes. A new force was needed to infuse life into the waning ATP and the revolution happened in 2003.
A fresh crop of young talents emerged of which Federer’s star would shine the brightest. As the world quickly anointed the Swiss as the best they had ever witnessed and fans started leaning towards Federer, there appeared a teenager on the horizon who had the audacity to make dents into the Federer empire. That he was facing one of history’s best, who was at his peak, did not deter him.
It only made him stronger, hungrier as he set his sights on the biggest trophies of the sport and, in the process, he grew to be Federer’s greatest nemesis. They would motivate each other to weave magic with their racquets which caught the world’s imagination.
Every Major would be in their grasp, no surface would be left for them to conquer.
If Federer would finally get to taste victory in Paris in 2009 and complete the much-coveted Career Slam, Nadal would follow suit the very next year in New York.
Having two Career Slammers ruling the sport at the same time before Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray began their inexorable rise has been, unquestionably, a matter of privilege for tennis enthusiasts.
It divided fans and countless debates would ensue. There would be breathless discussions in the social media and numerous articles would be written extolling their rivalry, putting them on an exalted pedestal.
Federer and Nadal transformed tennis beyond any shred of doubt and they brought more fans into the sport than any rivalry ever possibly could. They have taken tennis to heights not imaginable previously and their impact has been phenomenal not just in the realm of tennis but in the entire sporting domain.
Seeing a 35-year-old Federer and a 30-year-old Nadal return from injuries and turn back the clock when they were not even among the front-runners for the 2017 Australian Open title has been nostalgic for tennis fans to say the least.
Which is why the past two days have seen a catharsis of emotions from the most devoted worshippers of these two icons. That they defied every prediction to get so near to a Grand Slam trophy once again just like they used to in their halcyon days, is what perhaps makes them even greater and their rivalry timeless.
When Federer and Nadal reprise the Fedal magic for the 35th time today on the sport’s grandest stage, it will be more than just a match. For the fans, it will be reliving their childhood and youth all over again when these two gems taught them to romanticise tennis.
Who knows, they might not even get another opportunity to be so fortunate again. And that is why cherishing every moment of today’s final is worth it.