By now, as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer approach their 39th meeting on Saturday, tennis fans can find whatever they want in the head-to-head history between these two legends to justify picking one or the other to win.
Federer has won their last five meetings, but Nadal won the five before that. Federer leads 11-9 on hard courts, but Nadal leads 8-5 on hard-court matches played outdoors. Federer won their last meeting at Indian Wells, 6-2, 6-3; Nadal won the one before that, 6-4, 6-2; Federer won the one before that, 6-3, 6-4. Nadal has beaten Federer 23 times, but that number hasn’t budged in five years.
Leaving that ambiguous history behind and returning to the match at hand, the first thing we have to consider is Nadal’s right knee. In his quarterfinal against Karen Khachanov, Rafa’s patellar tendinitis flared again, and he played the second set with his right leg taped. There were moments when it appeared as if he would have to retire, but as the set progressed, his movement improved. While he couldn’t run down a couple of drop shots, he was well enough to dominate the second-set tiebreaker. At last year’s US Open, Nadal also played his third-round match with Khachanov with the same leg taped. He would survive two more rounds—including a five-set classic against Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals—before having to retire in the semifinals.
For now, all we can do is wait to see how that knee feels on Saturday. If there’s any problem with Nadal’s movement, Federer becomes a heavy favorite. He’s on a nine-match win streak, is coming off a title run in Dubai, and hasn’t dropped a set or been seriously challenged in Indian Wells. While he hasn’t faced Rafa since 2017, Federer had his number on hard courts by the end of that year. He had added a newly free-flowing drive backhand to his repertoire, and Rafa hadn’t found a way to counter it.
But if Nadal is healthy tomorrow, he may finally have an answer. In the year and a half since they met, Rafa has added a newly aggressive element to his own game, in the form of a more powerful and varied first serve. After starting the year well in Australia, he has looked just as sharp as Federer in Indian Wells. Nadal also hasn’t dropped a set, and when he was challenged, by Khachanov, he rose to it. It’s also possible that Nadal’s injury will help him psychologically. If it makes him feel as if he has nothing to lose (or a little less to lose, anyway), he might hit with more freedom and aggression—never a bad thing, especially with Rafa.
Let’s hope Nadal is at full strength; a meeting between these two is always welcome, and we’ve seen over the last two years how hard it can be to come by. If Nadal’s knee allows, it should also be an opportunity to see Roger and Rafa compete against each other at a moment when they’re both at their late-career peaks. How many more times will we have that chance?