We have learned so much about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal over the course of their compelling, decade-long rivalry. Through the all-time classics, colossal letdowns, and every type of match in between, we’ve learned their strengths and weaknesses, seen what makes them jump for joy or shed a tear, and developed connections to both men, as players and people. Roger and Rafa have long been called ambassadors for the sport, a term often associated with an athlete’s actions outside competition. They have rightfully been held in esteem for that. Yet the two have played each other so frequently, and at so many different venues around the world, that their actions on the court somehow speak louder than their charitable words and gestures.
That’s why today’s meeting, in the final of the Swiss Indoors, felt so different. For one, Roger and Rafa hadn’t faced off this season; their last match was nearly two full years ago, at the 2014 Australian Open. In that time, their career paths have crossed in a way few would have predicted. After putting a seemingly disastrous 2013 behind him, Federer has saved some of his best tennis for his golden years. Meanwhile, Nadal, who just two years ago was the undisputed king of the sport (let alone clay) has been overtaken at the top and elsewhere in the rankings, currently No. 7.
Furthermore, this match took place in Switzerland, Federer’s home. It’s one of the few tournaments of note that these two haven’t met in. The biggest omission, of course, is at the U.S. Open, but today’s contest in Basel, with its fast courts and partisan support, may have given us a glimpse of how that match might unfold, if it ever does.