INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Rafa and Roger: They’re opposites, we’ve been told. Or at least very, very different people. This is what makes them such great rivals. And it’s true, they are about as different as any two men can be who are both in their 20s, were born and currently live in Western Europe, do the same thing for a living, are represented by the same agency (IMG), are sponsored by the same global monolith (Nike), and who have gradually learned to trim their once wild and woolly locks down to a manageable and maybe even stylish length. If these two are opposites, then everyone on earth is diametrically opposed to everyone else. Which may actually be the case.
So how different are they, really? Or do we just need them to be for our purposes as fans? Or is it just because one is left-handed and the other is right-handed? Tonight, in an all-star evening session here, we got a rare chance to see Nadal and Federer back to back. Neither was all that hot, and both struggled more than most of us thought they would in winning surprisingly close straights-setters. In fact, each lost exactly nine games. See, they’re not so different, are they? Let’s take a look at some common conceptions about their opposite-ness and see how they hold up.
Federer is aging; Nadal is entering his prime
Presumably, both are aging at the same rate; the point here is that Federer is 29 and Nadal 24. Today, though, let me report that my friend and fellow Tennis.com writer Tom Tebbutt stated, while we were watching Nadal, that Rafa was starting to “look older.” It wasn't just the bald spot. He walked around the court in between points much more slowly than usual. I would have laughed this comment off if earlier in the day I hadn’t looked at a poster of Rafa that hangs in the dining area here. It’s from Indian Wells in 2006, and it shows a wiry Nadal, sleeveless, launching himself into a shot with an abandon that even he doesn’t play with anymore. Rafa’s getting older, too.
Nadal is a physical player, Federer a beautiful one
There are many forms of beauty, of course, one for every beholder. If we constrain this category somewhat to, say, elegance, there’s no question that Federer wins on the serve and backhand—Nadal has improved his serve immensely, and I like his motion now, but he’ll never match Federer’s absolute smoothness. The forehand, to me, is a draw. Federer’s is more classical and correct; he leans forward more and still has that vaunted, seemingly effortless across the body liquid-whip swing, where the head remains uncannily still.
But it’s not all that different from Nadal’s. Both use the open stance and swing with a lot of weight on their back legs. Nadal’s is more arm than Federer’s, and his swing is over in a hurry; it often starts around his hip and ends up near his head without crossing his body. But there’s beauty in that short snap. Rather than a liquid whip, it moves so fast that it creates, at least from 20 rows back at Indian Wells, a fan-like effect—you can see the strings blurred and suspended in motion to the left side of his head. There’s also a beauty to what happens to the ball when it comes off Nadal’s racquet. The arc and the dip, and the accuracy to both corners, are unlike anyone else’s.
As far as the physical aspect, when you see Nadal live you realize that he isn’t physical in the sense that del Potro or Soderling are—his shots don’t go boom. What strikes you most is the ridiculous control he has over the ball with the spin he puts on it. That and his feet. Backwards and forwards, they’re always skittering and lightly scratching their way across the court. Meanwhile, Federer is a very physically imposing player in his own right. His explosiveness still allows him to get on top of most rallies and dominate from there—that’s athleticism, not elegance.
Federer has variety; Nadal is a tenacious grinder
It’s true that Federer is the better classical volleyer and hits a lot more of them. He also has a more natural slice with his one-handed backhand. But it’s Nadal who mixes in the drop shot more often—on the forehand side, it’s a lovely shot that he takes high and hits with an easy carve downward. He also has the best overhead in history for a clay-court lover.
As for Federer, while he’ll never be as consistent as Nadal, he wins with defense almost as often. Federer won the first point of the tiebreaker against Ryan Harrison tonight with a backhand stab get that very few of his younger colleagues could have made. Harrison, seemingly in control of the point a second earlier, dumped the next volley in the net.
Nadal is fiery; Federer is Mr. Calm
It’s true that I’ve never seen Federer kick his leg high to juice up a fist-pump. But from point to point tonight, and on many nights, it’s Federer who is the more agitated and talkative—i.e., grumbly—player. Up close, he shows off more tics and expressions and nerves, more of an edge, than you might think from far away. Tonight, while Nadal exhorted himself a few times, the most we got from point to point was an eye roll or a look to the sky in anguish after a close miss. We know there's anger inside Federer; Nadal plays with very little.
Federer is a genius; Nadal is a specimen
Genius, like beauty, comes in many forms, and each of these guys show some off every time they play. Three examples from tonight: Nadal came to the net and had to hit a low forehand volley. He reached down, and with no backswing or any sort of extraneous motion whatsoever, flipped it to the exact spot where his opponent couldn’t get it; he didn’t try to hit it any better than that. The accuracy, the intelligence, the lack of wasted motion, the casual way with technique: That was a moment of genius. Federer had two of his own. In the middle of the first set, he and Harrison both ended up at the net. Harrison lofted a lob that, for half a second, appeared to be going over Federer’s head. Not so fast. Federer leaped and hit a perfect no-look backhand overhead that Harrison couldn’t handle. A moment of athletic genius that turned a lost point completely around. Later in the set, Harrison approached the net to Federer’s backhand. Harrison’s approach hit the tape and sat up. Federer set up to swing at a backhand, but then let it drop another inch (it’s called “holding the ball on the racquet,” for some reason) before finally hitting it. Harrison had moved just enough in that inch that he couldn’t recover.
Nadal is humble; Federer is vain
Federer will watch himself on the big screen during changeovers at times, and he did on a few occasions tonight. Maybe Rafa is learning from him, because he was out there checking himself out, too. Still, it might have been an act of penance rather than vanity. Afterward, Nadal said that he had been “terrible.”
So there we may have a difference: Federer takes confidence from his greatness; Rafa learns from his screw-ups. And there we may have the final similarity: Both of them have learned what they've learned very well.