On Friday, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will meet for the 39th time–this time in the French Open semifinals. This reality seemed impractical, unrealistic. In a sport like tennis, where being young enables stamina and endurance, Federer and Nadal are still going strong at 37 and 33, respectively.
As they will square off on the illustrious Court Philippe Chatrier, the landscape will serve as a relapse. A throwback to two tennis giants going toe-to-toe. The graceful maestro versus the powerful fighter.
But has time moved forward? Or are we still in that golden age? It’s difficult to say. But what is certain is amidst the adversity and physical concerns that may present inexorable challenges, Federer and Nadal have defied what is possible.
And tennis followers should embrace this moment that may never come around again.
Federer Continuing to Shine…Even on Clay
When Roger Federer announced he would be playing the clay court season, eyebrows were raised. The 20-time Grand Slam champion had skipped Roland Garros the past three years to be extra ready for the grass court swing. With concerns about his physical conditioning declining as age catches up with him, it was astonishing for Federer to compete on clay, the most gruelling of tennis’ three surfaces.
But this is Roger Federer. Arguably the greatest player of all time. Exhibiting dubiousness of Federer’s chances to compete at clay court tournaments is at your own risk. Because more often than not, the Swiss maestro will prove the doubters wrong.
Playing in Madrid and Rome en route to Paris, Federer would bow out in the quarterfinals at both. It was the necessary preparation that the superstar player needed in order to have success at Roland Garros. An amphitheater filled with memories and nostalgia for the 37-year-old.
The French Open was the first Grand Slam that Federer competed at as a newcomer on the ATP Tour. It was also the site where he would be etched into the annals of tennis history by completing the career Grand Slam. With the conclusion of his career on the horizon, Federer was eager to have a deep run in Paris.
“I think for me the first goal has been reached by getting this deep into the tournament, and knowing where the game’s at, knowing where the fitness is, the mind,” stated Federer.
Rafael Nadal Juggling Conditioning and Expectations at French Open
While Roger Federer has exceeded expectations, Rafael Nadal is trying to maintain them. The King of Clay, who has won 11 times at Roland Garros, has been on the signature mission to keep a stranglehold of dominance on the red sand.
But this clay court season has felt different for Rafa. Not the easy breeze to championships. More the sobering reminder that age and physical conditioning is starting to catch up with the Spaniard.
In the coliseums of Monte Carlo and Barcelona, where Nadal has exemplified dominance his entire career, he would lose in the semifinals consecutively. Fabio Fognini and Dominic Thiem are solid clay court players. But Nadal had beaten them both before, and losing in straight sets in the two semifinals was as surprising as it was alarming. Was the Master of Clay losing his edge?
One person was not concerned. Rafael Nadal. He never lost his confidence and believed his form was close. In his run to a record ninth Italian Open title, Nadal exuded the shot-making and movement that has made him a perennial force on clay. Not even Novak Djokovic, the World No. 1 could be able to match Rafa’s ability to hit piercing ground strokes and move to the net. For Nadal, coming to Paris playing well and in good health was all that mattered.
“As I said every day, winning titles is important but the most important thing is feeling competitive and feeling healthy,” Nadal stated. “I’m very happy for the victory, I played well.”
Years Have Gone By but Federer/Nadal Rivalry Still Loved and Endeared
The Federer vs Nadal rivalry has a different connotation in the present day. It is not the same as a decade ago, when both were at the top of the rankings and in the prime of their careers. But as time has passed, the rivalry is viewed as a coronation of two of the greatest tennis players to ever play.
This decade has seen Federer and Nadal reach the lowest depths due to respective injuries. When very few believed they could ever climb back up the mountain of greatness. But when the Swiss and Spaniard each won two Grand Slams in 2017, their aura of greatness was accelerated to pedestal levels. Redefining what is possible during the twilight of a tennis career.
Going into the semifinals of Roland Garros, each of Federer and Nadal have dropped one set. But both have displayed the qualities that make each transcendent. Federer’s tranquil movement; Nadal’s overpowering, inside/out forehands.
These attributes will be on display Friday, along with history on the line. The last time Federer beat Nadal on clay was in 2009 at Madrid. But he has never defeated Nadal in his house in Paris, where the Spaniard has only lost twice in his career. Federer will need to be aggressive and go for winners. Nadal will look to take away the angles with his defense. The ultimate battle of contrasts.
“When I was 18, thinking that I could still be here at the age of 33, is incredible and impossible to think about,” says Nadal.
It is no secret that Federer and Nadal respect and admire each other. They recognize their place in the grand scope of tennis history. And how their rivalry elevates the impact of individual greatness and excellence.
Not many believed they would ever meet again after the 2017 Australian Open. But here they are, for a duel on the smooth red clay, once again blessing tennis fans around the world with their gifts. Friday’s match won’t just be another page in their historical narratives. But a profound reverence towards two all-time greats, who beat the odds to still perform at their very best.
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