Any sports fan would readily acknowledge that rivalries are a huge part of what makes sports competition so riveting and compelling. Any enticing matchup between two worthy teams or individual competitors is always an event to be anticipated, but when the two combatants have an additional element of a shared history against each other, in addition to a possible deep-rooted dislike of each other, the fan’s interest increases exponentially. That fan knows that he is going to witness the most elemental and genuine variety of competition with those two rivals, and the extra layer of drama in that match-up takes the event to a level of special significance.
There have been and continue to be great rivalries present in all sports. Rivalries between teams, of course, can go on indefinitely even though players come and go, as the team concept, with its geography, history, traditions, and the like, rises above any individual player’s influence. The loss of certain players may soften the edge of a particular rivalry for a time, but the rivalry itself persists. One need only consider Yankees/ Red Sox, Dodgers/Giants, Bears/Packers, or Duke/North Carolina to realize that some rivalries are truly immortal.
Rivalries between individual contestants are a different breed altogether, however. Because athletes’ careers are limited by so many possible factors (injuries, life circumstances, etc.), a great rivalry between two great competitors is something to be cherished and appreciated because it is so transitory in nature. Among individual sports, tennis is perhaps the best at creating enduring rivalries, as top players have many natural opportunities to be matched up against each other by the structure of the tour events. Mental images of Chrissie/Martina, McEnroe/Connors, Sampras/Agassi, or more recently, Nadal/Djokovic, are among a tennis buff’s most cherished remembrances.
Yet, what about Federer/Nadal, that classic modern tennis “rivalry”, one queries. Does the colorful history of 33 meetings (as of this writing) between these two titans truly qualify as a rivalry? It might seem a ridiculous question to even pose, but it does merit examination, as the tenth anniversary of their first meeting in 2004 at Miami arrives.
At first glance, it would seem that all of the qualifying elements are there. There are two contrasting physical forms: Nadal, the thickly muscled, profusely sweaty “brute” who plays each point as though his very life were on the line, and who literally beats his opponent into submission, and Federer, the slender, smooth, and graceful spirit gliding about the court, subtly imposing his will on his opponent with his sheer tennis genius. Each has had well-documented success on the game’s biggest stages. Each has had an event that has clearly defined his career (Nadal: French Open; Federer: Wimbledon). They have played two very memorable Grand Slam finals against each other: the 2008 Wimbledon final, hailed as possibly the greatest match ever played, and the 2009 Australian Open final, more so for what took place during the awards ceremony than the match itself (which was a dramatic 5-set battle). With these qualifications, how could Federer/Nadal be considered anything but a rivalry?
A closer look, though, at the history between the two might suggest that the label of “rivalry” does not quite fit as a description of the body of work produced by each of these men against the other. First and foremost, the head-to-head record stands at 23-10 in favor of the Spaniard, a sizable difference, to say the least. While one would not expect the head-to-head record in any rivalry to be perfectly even, one would anticipate more parity than this. Nadal has such a clear advantage, in fact, that the word “domination” can only come to mind. Roger Federer, who “owned” Andy Roddick to the tune of 21-3 in 24 meetings, and defeated Nicolai Davydenko 19 times in 21 match-ups, would not be considered part of a rivalry with these players in spite of the numerous match-ups. The history is simply too one-sided in favor of the Swiss. (Of course, Nadal is a much more historically significant player than Roddick or Davydenko, which lends far greater credibility to the notion of a rivalry, as he and Federer have met in many more high-profile situations). The final word, though, really comes in the form of an old adage: “It ain’t a rivalry when one team (or player) wins most of the time.”
To continue, breaking down the 33 career meetings to the ones that matter most historically, the Grand Slam meetings, might offer further evidence in favor of the non-rivalry premise. Exactly one-third of those meetings between Federer and Nadal have taken place in the Grand Slam environment at the French Open (5), Wimbledon (3), and the Australian Open (3). (Amazingly, the two have never had opportunity to clash at the U. S. Open.) Federer’s record versus Nadal in these matches is 2-9, including six consecutive losses. The only victories for the Swiss took place early in his history with Nadal, at the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals, and that 2007 final was the last time Federer defeated Nadal in a Grand Slam. It was a match that Federer appeared to have under control, which then became “sweaty” very quickly in the fifth set, but Federer held on. Many who watched the match that day could see that Nadal’s time on a Grand Slam surface other than clay was coming soon, though. What is most significant, however, is the fact that Federer, on clearly his best surface, could barely defeat the young Spaniard whose all-surface game had not even fully evolved yet by that time. Is it really any surprise, then, that Federer has not beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam since? Yes, the 2008 Wimbledon final between the two was possibly the finest, most dramatic display of tennis ever witnessed (and big credit to Federer for coming back when it looked as though Nadal would run him out of Wimbledon on a rail as he did a few weeks earlier in Paris), but the Swiss Master has been simply unable to solve Nadal on tennis’ biggest stages since then. The notion of a “rivalry” simply demands more equity in such high-stakes circumstances than has been the case with these champions since 2007.
The most compelling argument, however, against Federer/Nadal being a true rivalry lies in the fact that Federer has never really taken something “dear” away from Nadal in their competitive history. One of the most basic elements of a rivalry is that rivals will enjoy periodic triumph at the emotional expense of each other. Rivals deny each other victories or achievements that have high emotional value to them. In short, Nadal has taken far more away from Federer than the reverse. One might contend that the only time Federer truly “hurt” Nadal in their history was when he stopped the Spaniard’s incredible 81-match clay winning streak by defeating him in the 2007 Hamburg final. The 2007 Wimbledon final loss was no doubt disappointing to Nadal as well, but Federer was the 4-time defending champ and a heavy favorite, so Nadal likely was not crushed by that victory eluding him. He knew he was getting closer to a title in London. What Federer has not done to Nadal that truly would have left an emotional scar is to take him down in Paris. Denying Nadal the opportunity to rule Roland Garros once again would definitely cause some lasting distress for the Spaniard, but to date, Federer has not only not beaten Nadal at the French, but has not even taken him the distance in any of their five matchups there.
Nadal, conversely, has taken much from Federer that the Swiss has held in high regard. The most prominent example is the aforementioned 2008 Wimbledon final, which denied Federer a sixth consecutive title in England, and ended his remarkable 65-match winning streak on grass. That win was Nadal’s first major incursion into Federer’s “territory”, and effectively “de-throned” Federer as the tour’s Grand Slam despot. The trend only continued into early 2009 when Nadal vanquished Federer in five sets in the final at Melbourne. Those who watched that day remember well Federer’s tearful breakdown during the awards ceremony, and Nadal, in very classy fashion, showing some real empathy to his opponent. Remember also that Nadal is the man responsible for denying Federer the Grand Slam in consecutive years (2006-2007) by defeating him in the French final. Of course, Federer had no way of knowing when he lost the French final those years that he would end up winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but he surely knew at the time that the possibility of a Grand Slam had been lost. There is simply no question that Rafa has exacted far more from Roger than the reverse, and again, a true rivalry would have more balance to it in this regard.
By contrast, consider the history between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, a truly “gritty” rivalry. Rafa and the “Joker” have met 39 times, with no doubt many more to come, as both men are in their primes. Nadal leads 22-17 head-to-head, a far more equitable sharing of riches than Nadal/Federer. Djokovic, though, in stark contrast to Federer, had a period when he was truly “in Nadal’s head”, as he defeated the Spaniard in seven consecutive finals from March, 2011 through January, 2012. The first two were on hard courts at Indian Wells and Miami. The next two wins, most significantly, were on clay in consecutive weeks at Madrid and Rome, something no one had ever accomplished against Nadal. And then, as though Djokovic had not already inflicted enough humility on Nadal, he proceeded to conquer the Spaniard in three consecutive Grand Slam finals (2011 Wimbledon, 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 Australian Open). That Australian Open final was a beyond-epic 5 hours, 53 minutes, the longest Grand Slam final ever, and exacted so much from each player that they were given chairs to sit on during the awards ceremony. Had Djokovic not been “upset” by Federer in the 2011 French semis, one can only wonder if he would have beaten Nadal in Paris that year (which would have given the Serbian a little something called the Grand Slam). This rivalry, perhaps the greatest in tennis history, promises only more delicious results to tennis fans in years to come.
In conclusion, the notion that Nadal/Federer is not a true rivalry may seem to be an absurd notion, as the pairing’s shared history has been referred to in that manner for years now. What might be more plausible, however, is that these court legends are rivals for compiling the all-time greatest tennis resume, given that each has separately forged almost incomparable results on the tour. Their shared history, though, while it is historically significant, cannot be regarded as a rivalry as one defines a classic rivalry. But what true tennis fan does not salivate at the possibility that the two could meet at least one more time in a Grand Slam final?
A rivalry that never was? Perhaps, but still great fun!
Some material courtesy of: Strokes of Genius by L. Jon Wertheim. New York: Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, 2009.
Some statistics courtesy of the ATP website, atpworldtour.com