Every sport has its rivalries, whether it be Messi vs Ronaldo, Senna vs Prost or the Yankees vs the Red Sox. However, there is one rivalry that has captivated not just the tennis world, but the whole world of sports like few others. So, ahead of their 39th career meeting tonight in Indian Wells, here is a trip down memory lane looking back at five of their best clashes over the years.
5. 2017 Australian Open Final: Federer beats Nadal 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3
Going into the 2017 Australian Open, nobody had placed any real expectations on Roger Federer. The Swiss had been forced to take a six month break from the game due to injury and it was unclear whether he would ever be able to produce his best tennis again. But the extended break actually proved to be the best thing for Federer’s career. The Swiss Maestro played unbelievable tennis, arguably the best of his career over the fortnight, to reach the final where his old foe, Rafael Nadal, was waiting for him.
Nadal had beaten Federer the last two times they had played on Rod Laver Arena, with Federer’s backhand breaking down completely in a one-sided semifinal in 2014. However, Federer changed his approach and his racquet, becoming more aggressive on the backhand side in the process. Still, Nadal was a formidable opponent and the match was an epic, full of incredible rallies and winners from both men. Every time Federer looked to have the advantage, Nadal fought back. And when in the fifth set Nadal broke first, it looked like the Spaniard was to deny Federer again. Instead, he played truly incredible tennis to come back, breaking the Nadal serve twice and win.
4. 2009 Australian Open Final: Nadal beats Federer 7-5 3-6 7-6 (3) 3-6 6-2
So far, the 2009 Australian Open is the only time the Spaniard has won the title at Melbourne Park. He did it the hard way. After a gruelling five-set semifinal against fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, itself one of the finest matches to have graced the Rod Laver Arena, Nadal was in significant pain. There was also the issue of Federer having had an extra day off after playing his semifinal, a straightforward 6-2 7-5 7-5 win over Andy Roddick, on the Thursday. Thus, things looked bleak indeed for Nadal going into the match.
However, adrenaline helped keep the Spaniard in the contest early on and after edging out a tight opening set, he looked like the usual Nadal, without pain. Merely to have been able to compete at such a high-level, let alone being able to beat a player of Federer’s calibre, in such circumstances was an astonishing achievement. It stands as testament to Nadal’s mental toughness and endurance. Federer threw all he had at Nadal, but ultimately the Spaniard came up with the answers, in surely one of the finest performances of even his glittering career.
3. 2005 Miami Open Final: Federer beats Nadal 2-6 6-7(4) 7-6(5) 6-3 6-1
A match often forgotten about. The 2005 Miami Open final was just the second meeting between Federer and Nadal in a rivalry then in its infancy. Nadal had won their first meeting in Miami the year before in straight sets and the Swiss, then still the unchallenged master of the tennis world, was out for revenge. At the beginning of the match, however, it looked like he was going to have to suffer more frustration. Nadal got off to a terrific start and dominated Federer early on, using his forehand to great effect to draw errors from Federer’s single-hander.
The second was a tighter affair as Federer was finally able to find rhythm on his serve. But when Nadal edged the second set in a tiebreak, his lead looked commanding indeed. However, Federer, for all his flair and panache, has a will of iron. He refused to give up and, after taking a tight third set, the momentum quickly swung in his favour as the teenaged Nadal’s challenge faded in the heat and humidity. Federer swept through the final two sets with relative ease to lift the title. It was a defeat of real significance for Nadal, not only because it was Federer’s first win over him, but also because it arguably represented his best chance to win in Miami, a trophy that eludes him to this day
2. 2006 Italian Open Final: Nadal beats Federer 6-7(0) 7-6(5) 6-4 2-6 7-6(5)
The following year after that epic final in Miami, another thrilling five-setter took place between the pair. Nadal, by 2006 well-established as the man to beat on the terre battue, had beaten Federer in the previous month in the final of Monte Carlo in four sets. He was the strong favourite going into the final, having also won his first Roland Garros final the year before. The opening stanzas of the match felt almost like a five-set match themselves with many high quality, pulsating rallies.
Federer, to stay alive in the contest, produced some of the best tennis he ever played on clay throughout his career. Nonetheless, when Nadal took a two sets to one lead, it looked like the Monte Carlo result would be repeated. However, in the fourth set, Federer managed to gain a stranglehold of the Spaniard’s serve and heading into the decider, the match looked to be hanging in the balance. Fittingly, the match went all the way to a fifth-set tiebreak, and although neither player deserved to lose, Nadal’s confidence on the clay proved decisive as he pulled through the winner. A high-quality match, much like their Miami clash undeservedly overlooked by too many.
1. 2008 Wimbledon Final: Nadal beats Federer 6-4 6-4 6-7(5) 6-7(8) 9-7
There was only one choice when it came to picking the best match between Federer and Nadal. The 2008 Wimbledon final was a defining match for a number of reasons. Not least because was the first time that Federer had been beaten in the final at the All England Club, stooping his run of consecutive Wimbledon titles at five. The match had everything, a rain delay, unbelievable rallies, high drama and a finish in almost complete darkness. Few Wimbledon finals, other than perhaps the 1980 clash between McEnroe and Borg and the 2014 thriller between Federer and Djokovic, can compare to it.
Nadal had come close to beating Federer on the grass courts at the All England Club in 2006 and 2007, losing in the final in four and five sets respectively. But few expected him to come out of the blocks in quite such devastating form. After storming to the first two sets, it looked like Nadal would comfortably beat the Swiss. Federer was rattled and losing confidence in his shots. Rain had delayed the start of the match and it stopped play once again with Federer leading 5-4 in the third set. That gave Federer time to regather himself and broke Nadal’s momentum, and there the match swung. Nadal showed his first signs of being affected by nerves in the third and fourth set tiebreaks, with his serve failing him more than once.
Federer, in contrast, looked entirely unaffected by the enormity of the occasion, playing incredible tennis and saving a championship point with a scintillating backhand pass. Going into the fifth set, he was the favourite and it looked like another painful defeat in SW19 was on the cards for Nadal. Instead, the Spaniard produced a legendary performance in the fifth set to take it 9-7, after four hours and forty eight minutes, with dusk falling quickly over Centre Court. The match is widely considered to be one of the greatest ever played and one that has done much to cement Nadal and Federer’s rivalry as one of the greatest of all time.
But whatever happens in the Californian desert, rivalries should be set aside. Instead, enjoy this clash of the titans for the spectacle alone. For with both players now close to exiting the stage, who knows how many more chances we will get.
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