Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been showered with so many superlatives throughout their careers that in the future their own names might become terms of praise. Do not be surprised if fans and commentators laud their successors for playing Federer or Nadal esque shots. It is more likely, though, that it will be a compound word, encompassing both their names, that will be used, with “Fedal” trumping ‘Naderer’ not only alphabetically but aesthetically, with particularly fine play being described as ‘Fedalian’ or ‘Fedalistic’. Whether this happens or not, though, their names will always be linked together metaphorically, because their rivalry is not only the greatest in tennis history, but the greatest in all of sport.
The Greatest Rivalry in Tennis?
There are still many people who would disagree with that assertion, arguing that Federer-Nadal isn’t even the greatest rivalry in tennis, let alone all of sport, but such arguments simply do not stack up. When one considers all the other great rivalries in the history of tennis, and some of them have been very great indeed, they just do not match up to ‘Fedal’. The obvious comparison in tennis is with the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, which has undoubtedly been the greatest rivalry in men’s tennis for most of the last decade. But the fact is that even Nadal-Djokovic cannot quite match Federer-Nadal, either in longevity or intensity.
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When Federer and Nadal face each other in the Wimbledon semifinal, it will be for the 40th time in total. Nadal has won 24 of the previous and Federer 15, with those matches being played out over 15 years, since their first meeting at the Miami Masters in 2004, which Nadal won. And while it is true that Nadal and Djokovic have met each other more often and that the rivalry has been more competitive, so far their rivalry only goes back 13 years, to their first encounter at the French Open in 2006, which was again won by Nadal.
However, what is far more important than the greater longevity of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is its intensity, because Federer and Nadal are opposites in ways that Nadal and Djokovic simply are not. Nadal and Djokovic are far more similar – in their playing style, their work-rate and above all their defensive ability – than Federer and Nadal are.
As William Skidelsky makes clear in his magisterial book on Federer, Federer and Me, Federer and Nadal are almost polar opposites in their playing style. One obvious difference is in their backhands, with Nadal preferring a two-handed backhand while Federer uses the more classical and elegant one-handed backhand. But far more important than any technical difference is the difference between their styles, with Federer playing far more quickly (especially when serving) and easily than Nadal.
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In addition, and as has often been said, Federer appears to glide across the court, especially if it is a grass court, while Nadal thunders and roars, almost literally. Quite simply, Federer-Nadal is a rivalry between the artist and the animal, between the apparent effortlessness of Federer and the fiercely powerful Nadal. There is arguably just not the same clash of styles, one might almost say philosophies, when Nadal plays Djokovic.
Older tennis fans might point to the most famous rivalry in tennis before Federer-Nadal, which was the Borg-McEnroe rivalry that dominated tennis in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It remains so revered that a film about their rivalry, needing a title no more complicated than ‘Borg McEnroe’ was released in 2017, nearly four decades after they had last faced each other on court.
Temperamentally, there is no doubt that Borg-McEnroe was far more polarised than Federer-Nadal, as the ice-cool Swede provided a direct contrast with the fiery New Yorker. And it was even more potent in terms of playing style, as Borg was a baseliner and McEnroe a serve-volleyer, whereas Federer and Nadal are both essentially baseliners, as the vast majority of tennis players of the modern era are.
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Nevertheless, the Borg-McEnroe rivalry was relatively short-lived, essentially lasting for only about three years between 1978 and 1981, with McEnroe still complaining to this day that he lost a part of himself when Borg retired at the early age of 26. As a result, it cannot really begin to compare to the rivalry between Federer and Nadal, which has already endured for nearly a decade and a half.
So, if Federer-Nadal is the greatest rivalry in tennis history, greater than either the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry that succeeded it or the Borg-McEnroe rivalry that preceded it, how does it compare with great rivalries in other sports? The answer is very favourably indeed.
A Look Beyond Tennis
The obvious comparison with a rivalry from another sport is with the great heavyweight triumvirate of Ali-Frazier-Foreman. They dominated the global sporting imagination in the 1970s in the same way that the great tennis trio of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated it in the early 21st century. Once again, however, as with Borg-McEnroe, boxing’s greatest ever rivalry was ferocious in its intensity, but ultimately only very brief.
It really only lasted for the first half of the 1970s, beginning with the famous ‘Fight of the Century’ between Ali and Frasier early in 1971 and ending just over four years later with the same men contesting ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ in late 1975. So, for all the bravura, braggadocio and brilliance of the original ‘Big Three’, who fought it out for what was then sport’s ultimate prize, their rivalry does not come close to matching that of Federer-Nadal for longevity.
The same is true of golf’s greatest rivalry, between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. As with the great heavyweight contests of the 1970s, the greatest contests between Palmer and Nicklaus all took place in a relatively short period of time, essentially the early 1960s. Thereafter, Nicklaus pulled away from Palmer leaving him in his wake in terms of Major wins, with 18 to Palmer’s seven. Moreover, whereas Nicklaus won all four of golf’s Majors at least three times, Palmer only ever won three of golf’s greatest tournaments, with the US PGA always eluding him. By contrast, Federer and Nadal, and Djokovic for that matter, have all won the career Grand Slam.
Beyond boxing and golf, other individual sports have failed to produce a rivalry that even bears comparison with that of Federer and Nadal. In motor racing, for example, there have been legendary rivalries between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, itself the subject of a film, and between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, which provided the central thread in Asif Kapadia’s stunning 2010 documentary Senna.
However, those two rivalries were also brief. Hunt and Lauda’s clash lasted for just one year, the 1976 Formula One season that Hunt ultimately won, whilst Senna and Prost virtually trading world titles each year in the second half of the 1980s before parting ways. And there is no rivalry in other racket sports, such as squash, or winter sports, such as skiing, that comes close to matching that of Federer-Nadal, besides which none of those sports has anything like the global reach of tennis.
So, finally, it is to team sports that one must turn to try and establish definitively whether Federer-Nadal is the greatest of all sporting rivalries. However, it has to be said at the outset that comparing an individual sport like tennis, and individual sportsmen like Federer and Nadal, with team sports like football, basketball or cricket, and teams like Real Madrid, the Boston Celtics or the Indian cricket team, is to compare apples and oranges.
The whole nature of team sport – the basis on which the support of a team can be sustained over generations or even centuries – is that the individual components of those teams are continually being replaced. So, although Real Madrid-Barcelona, Celtics-Lakers or India-Pakistan are undoubtedly great rivalries, which can, in the case of India-Pakistan, engage nearly a quarter of the world’s population, they cannot really be compared with the intense, utterly personal nature of an individual rivalry like that of Federer-Nadal.
So I rest my case, that Federer-Nadal is indeed the greatest of all sporting rivalries, and not just the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis. And I would add that this greatest of sporting rivalries might just be approaching its endgame, with Federer 38 in less than a month and Nadal faced with injury woes even as he potentially nears another Roland Garros-Wimbledon double. It cannot go on forever. Indeed, this semifinal might just be the last time that it is played out at a Major. And that is what makes it so utterly unmissable, because whatever the result is, it might just be the last glorious act of the greatest rivalry in sporting history.
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