When it comes to tennis rivalries there’s no doubt the one you hear about most is Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal. Whether it’s mentioned during TV coverage, in articles, or by those on social media, you never hear the end of it. But despite all this, is it really the best?
The truth is, probably not. The 2008 Wimbledon final is what really kicked its popularity into overdrive; so much so that you may have heard about a certain documentary called Strokes of Genius this past fortnight. While it was no doubt a great match, it simply painted a false picture into the heads of many people of what the rivalry is really like.
On the other hand, one of this year’s Wimbledon semifinals is Novak Djokovic taking on Nadal. If you’re a tennis fan, you would know just how big this rivalry is as well. I mean, they’ve played each other 51 times for a reason. Unfortunately, to the common eye, it’s hidden in the shadow of Nadal vs Federer. Either way, here’s two big reasons why the Serbian vs the Spaniard is a far better rivalry than the Swiss against the Spaniard.
It’s More Competitive
From all the hype behind Federer vs Nadal, you would think it was at least relatively competitive. Spoiler alert: It’s not.
Here are some statistics on the rivalry number wise:
As you can see from the table, the rivalry is uncompetitive in many ways, starting with Rafael Nadal leading the overall H2H 23-15, and that’s taking into account that Roger Federer has won their last five meetings and has claimed to have seemingly figured his younger rival out, even at 36 years old. Remember, when the media was making this rivalry out to be the second coming of Christ, at one stage Nadal led 23-10. Let that sink in, Nadal was winning almost 70% of their matches yet the rivalry still gained insane popularity.
When it comes to Nadal vs Djokovic I won’t deny there are periods of utter dominance from one player. After three years, the Spaniard led 14-4. A few years later, after the epic six-hour 2012 Australian Open final which the Serb won, the King of Clay only led 16-14. Now, going into their Wimbledon semifinal, Djokovic leads 26-25 but with Nadal having won their last two matches.
It’s these fluctuations which have made the rivalry so great. Each player doing their utmost best to figure the other one out and in doing so dominating for a while until the other responds. It’s constantly been a battle of both pushing the other to the new limits again and again. Which brings me onto my next point, the matchup.
The reason the Nadal vs Federer rivalry was so dominant in the 17-time Grand Slam champion’s favor was because of one shot: Roger Federer’s backhand. Many have claimed the “contrast in styles” only enhanced the rivalry, but the truth it is only made their matches worse. The Spaniard used to constantly pepper the Swiss’ backhand from the get go, whether it be on the return or with the serve. The lefty slice out wide always caused havoc, not only did it inhibit Federer’s ability to hit aggressive returns but it also opened up the court significantly on the ad-court for easy put aways. In their Miami 2011 semifinal, the then-24-year-old was hitting an astonishing 95% of serves to his older rival’s backhand with no effective reply. In rallies it was more of the same, Nadal’s high loop forehand to the Federer backhand, in which the 20-time Grand Slam champion struggled to attack given the height and spin, something all one-handed backhand players have struggled with. Rinse and repeat, it was constantly the same tactic used by the 11-time Roland Garros champion to get the wins. Sure, there were some exceptions, but overall that one tactic made for relatively boring repetitive matches.
Looking at the Serbian’s rivalry with Nadal, it’s not even similar. A lot of this is perhaps down to not having the “classic” and “dated” gamestyle of Federer. His backhand being two-handed and the best in the world has made Nadal’s gamestyle when playing Federer not only ineffective against Djokovic, but one that backfires. The three-time Wimbledon champion can not only handle Nadal’s best serve and get it back, but can with both depth and power, reducing the amount of free points the World #1 can attain.
In rallies it is more or less the same; with neither having a truly weak wing it’s always a battle for one to get the other out of position and open up the court. Over the years, the two have tried to achieve this through power, placement, and angles, tactics which often have to be altered once the other develops a response. Just one of the reasons we’re almost always treated to insanely high quality matches from both, especially when Nadal’s forehand cross court collides with Djokovic’s backhand in the same direction, two of the best shots ever seen in tennis going head-to-head with one another. It just makes for a mesmerizing spectacle.
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