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The Greatest - Sporting Rivalries: Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal

Some rivalries are built on a spiky animosity, some on a tangible hatred.

Others are merely two all-time greats, sharing a stage, going toe to toe, battling to reach the pinnacle of their discipline.

The latter is true of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, perhaps the two greatest tennis players of all time, whose lives and careers fate permitted to overlap.

Tennis has often found two players at their peak, exchanging blows – McEnroe/Borg, Sampras/Agassi, Navratilova/Evert – but in Federer/Nadal, the sport may have reached its zenith.

Tennis also has a unique ability to almost never have a void at its summit. From the 1970s to the present day, the best player in the world was a true great of the game Traced on a near-continuous timeline from Connors to Borg, to McEnroe, to Lendl, to Becker, to Edberg to Sampras.

There was a brief gap around the turn of the century when the world number 1 spot frequently changed hands, waiting for the game’s next great to take the mantle.

But in 2001, Pete Sampras, the reigning Wimbledon champion, who’d won 56 of his last 57 matches at SW19, was beaten by a 19-year-old Roger Federer, who’d go on to win his first Grand Slam on Centre Court just two years later.

The Swiss would dominate the Slams in a way that hadn’t really been seen in the men’s game.

From 2003 to 2008, Federer would win Wimbledon and the US Open in five straight years, as well as three Australian Opens. Despite winning Wimbledon seven times in eight years, Sampras never managed more than four on the trot, and never managed three Slams in one year – Federer managed the Australian-US-Wimbledon hat-trick three times.

The only one that eluded him was the French Open.

Enter Rafael Nadal.

From 2005 to 2010, Federer and Nadal would win a combined 21 of the 24 available Slams.

It’s easy to look back and wonder ‘what if?’ in sport, but especially so in tennis. Even for Andy Murray, who happened to be blessed and cursed to share the court with three of the greatest to ever do it.

Of the 10 Grand Slam semi-finals and eight Grand Slam finals he lost, 16 were against Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

In the Open Era, only eight men have reached more finals than Murray, and only seven have reached more semi-finals, yet he’ll finish his career with just three Slams.

Then look at Federer and Nadal. In finals alone, Federer and Nadal beat each other nine times, with five more semis thrown in. The ‘Big Three’ have broken virtually every record in tennis between them. Imagine if you removed one from the equation.

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. Federer has four Grand Slam wins heading into the French Open, where his record is a mediocre 9-6. He reached the last four for the first time in his career, where he bumped into a 19-year-old Nadal, celebrating his birthday.

The number 1 seed fell in four sets to the young Spaniard. Two days later, Nadal would win his first Slam.

Federer was clearly the world’s best player on grass and hard courts, but it was clear there was a huge obstacle in his quest to capture the elusive career Grand Slam.

For the next three years he had the good fortune to be drawn on the opposite side to Nadal, meaning he wouldn’t have to face him in the semi-final again.

Of course, he had the misfortune of facing him in three consecutive finals, taking a combined two sets off his opponent.

He did record one final win over Nadal on clay at the 2007 Hamburg Masters, but the French Open remained out of reach.

Nadal had the opposite problem. While he’d dominate clay more than any player in history had dominated any surface, his record in the other Slams didn’t quite measure up at the time.

By the end of 2007, he’d captured a third title in Paris, but hadn’t even made the semis in the United States or Australia.

Nadal was making progress at Wimbledon, however.

The Spaniard had made two finals at SW19 – running into you-know-who both times – with the 2007 final going the distance. Nadal failed to convert four break points across two games in the deciding set, and Federer ran away with the match from there.

So dominant was each man on grass and clay respectively, they contested a ‘Battle of Surfaces’ exhibition match, with one half of the court grass and the other half clay.

Played two weeks prior to Federer’s win over Nadal at the Hamburg Open, the Swiss was on a 48-match winning run on grass, while Nadal was on a 72-match winning run on clay. Nadal won via a tiebreaker in the deciding set. There was virtually nothing between the two men.

But 2008 would change everything.

Federer was no longer odds-on favourite for Wimbledon, entering the tournament at a shade of odds-against, and was set to meet world number 3 Djokovic in the semi-finals.

But the Serb’s shock second-round defeat to Marat Safin opened up the pathway for the two titans to meet in another Grand Slam final.

Nadal dropped one set in the whole tournament; Federer dropped none.

And so to that cloudy afternoon on 6th July 2008 at SW19.

Before Centre Court had a roof, the final would be delayed due to rain. When the two players eventually emerged, they posed at the net for the pre-final photos, with their sartorial choices reflecting the two men’s playing styles.

Federer, all panache, finesse and elegance, looking as suave and stylish as ever in his RF-branded cardigan; Nadal, with his thunderous groundstrokes, donning his sleeveless shirt, showcasing his Michelangelo-sculpted shoulders and biceps.

Nadal started well, taking the first set, with Federer beginning to cut a frustrated figure towards the end of the second set.

The third would see Federer hit his stride, with Nadal forced to save six break points across the set. But the world number 1 was unable to make the breakthrough, and another rain delay at 5-4 saw the contest roll into early evening, with Federer ousting Nadal in the tiebreaker.

The Centre Court crowd rose to its feet, delighted and excited at the prospect of at least one more set at The Championships.

Neither man could break the other’s serve in the fourth – neither man even had a break point. And so to another tiebreaker they went.

An uncharacteristically wayward backhand from Federer meant that if Nadal could win his next two service points, he would be Wimbledon champion.

The first was a double fault. The second was a backhand into the net, and Federer was still alive. The Swiss would win the next two points, and Nadal was now serving to stay in the set.

Two holds from Nadal, and suddenly, for the first time in his life, he had championship point at Wimbledon.

The moment went as soon as it came, with Nadal unable to return Federer’s serve. Nadal would then conjure up one of the shots of the tournament.

Federer would blast a forehand seemingly beyond reach, and Nadal produced the seemingly impossible.

While the 127 other players in the draw would’ve been delighted to have merely cleared the net, Nadal’s passing shot flashed beyond a scrambling Federer, to find himself at match point again – and this time on serve.

But Federer would return the favour. A vintage backhand, down the line, finding a matchbox-sized square of court. 

Anything you can do, Rafa…

Two titans of the game were exchanging haymakers and producing a spectacle you simply could not take your eyes off.

Federer would win the next two points to take the set, and let out a huge roar of relief. He knew he’d gone to the brink of losing his title on his Centre Court, but his opponent had come up short, and they would go to a deciding set with momentum in the champion’s favour.

Federer had struggled to break the arching serve of the left-handed Nadal all afternoon and evening, however; over the first four sets, Federer had 12 break points but only converted once, taking the third and fourth sets via tiebreakers. In the deciding set, to retain his crown, he had to break Nadal.

At 7-7, Federer saved three break points, but couldn’t save a fourth, and the match that had lasted an eternity was finally reaching its climax. Nadal held serve to draw a conclusion to the most epic of Wimbledon finals.

Over the five sets, a whopping 413 points were contested. Federer won 204, Nadal won 209.

Seven hours after the match was due to start, the sun had set on both Centre Court and Roger Federer’s era of dominance at SW19. It was a herculean effort from Nadal to beat a still-only-26 Federer, who at that point, away from the French Open, had contested 12 Grand Slam finals and won them all.

Having contested three straight finals, Federer and Nadal wouldn’t meet in another Wimbledon final, and had to wait until 2019 to meet on Centre Court for the fourth and final time.

Nadal was just 22 with the world at his feet, while Federer had lost what for five years had been his Grand Slam.

Federer would win the US Open the following month, beating Murray in three sets, but he would then endure another five-set marathon with Nadal, only 25 minutes shorter than their Wimbledon epic of the previous year, and would come up short again. After going 12-0 in Grand Slam finals away from France, Federer had lost two in six months to the same man in five sets.

Federer had chances to win the match – as he admitted himself afterwards – but fell short. The fans were still as adoring as ever, no doubt heightening Federer's emotional state as he tried, and failed, to address them. Tears flowed; words didn't, prompting Nadal to step in. 

The champion put his arm around his beaten opponent, and Federer stepped forward once more. He congratulated Nadal and thanked the fans, but had to, in front of millions of people, confront the fact that at 27, his best years may have been behind him, and that there was a new king in town.

The Spaniard went as far as to apologise for his victory; Fededer had beaten Nadal in Grand Slam finals and Nadal knew how much it hurt. It perhaps hurt Federer more to see the younger man best him twice, and see his empire crumbling before him. 

But, after losing in the Australian Open final in five sets to Nadal, the Swiss was granted a reprieve in the summer of 2009.

In perhaps the biggest upset in tennis history, Nadal’s 31-match winning streak at the French Open was halted by Robin Soderling. Federer would grasp the opportunity to win a Nadal-less French Open with both hands, and completed the career Grand Slam.

It was revealed Nadal was suffering with tendinitis in both knees, and would be forced to withdraw from Wimbledon. Naturally, Federer would return to the SW19 summit.

But his era of dominance was over. Federer had won an incredible 15 of his last 25 Slams, but would only win five of his next 39.

Djokovic and Murray, who’d both just turned 22, were making their mark. By the end of 2009, Murray had won four Masters events, while Djokovic had five and a Slam to his name, and the pair were beginning to offer serious competition to the duopoly of Federer-Nadal.

Surprisingly, despite reaching a combined 32 Grand Slam finals from the start of 2010, they would only meet in two of them.

Over their careers, they faced off 40 times in singles matches, 14 times in Grand Slams (nine in finals). They played thousands of points across more than 120 sets.

Like many great rivals, their existence made the other strive to new levels of greatness, and people will forever debate which of the two was better.

But whether you side with Federer or Nadal, we’re all luckier for having witnessed them both.

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