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.

Basel Tov: On home turf, Federer outdoes Nadal in three-set final

Basel Tov: On home turf, Federer outdoes Nadal in three-set final

Advertising

Considering Federer’s faster serve and aggressive mentality, it’s a bit of a surprise that Nadal had won nine of their 15 hard-court matches prior to today. But Nadal, as we know, is no ordinary opponent for Federer. He makes Federer play too aggressively, and remains, as always, a mental obstacle for even the game’s most accomplished champion. Nadal went into this match having won their last five matches and held a 23-10 overall advantage.

Each of these trends, in various ways, played out over the course of the match. It was Federer’s bigger hitting that gave him the opening break, for 3-2, which he collected a bold, down-the-line forehand that grazed the sideline. That break point was earned with a striking crosscourt backhand winner. In the end, it was enough to take the first set, which Federer didn’t even have to serve out, breaking Nadal at love.

If anyone thought Nadal would meekly retreat from these impressive Federer advances—which included the SABR, on occasion—they would have been mistaken. “The rumor that he has forgotten how to play tennis,” said Federer before the match, “is wrong.”

Nadal pressured Federer further in the second set and quelled any insurgences before they became problematic. He held from 15-30 at 2-3, and, after a sequence of holds, took advantage of the only break point he saw at 5-5. On Nadal’s break opportunity, Federer hit a forehand hard enough and deep enough—but it was also hit right at Rafa. He deflected it into the open court and watched as Federer’s reply crashed into the net. Like Federer, Nadal won the set with a love game, punctuated by an overhead smash.

“We haven’t often played on indoor hard,” said Federer before the match. “[I] will have to find the right balance, but it also depends on him.” Indeed, the strengths, weaknesses—and nerves—of both men were on display throughout the final set, in a match that had the feel of something much bigger than an ATP 500-level title.

When Federer earned a break point at 2-1 in the third, only to be passed by a crosscourt backhand, Tennis Channel commentator and Federer’s former coach Paul Annacone said flatly, “That’s the wrong ball to come in on.” The two men kept on serve to 3-3, where, after failing to stick a volley winner, Federer found himself down 15-30. Nadal would fail to make an impact on any of the next three points.

Basel Tov: On home turf, Federer outdoes Nadal in three-set final

Basel Tov: On home turf, Federer outdoes Nadal in three-set final

The unpredictable tide swung one final time with Federer leading 4-3. He took a 0-30 lead on return, then missed a routine forehand pass. (“You can’t miss that pass!” said Annacone.) But Nadal, trailing substantially in the winner count (at this point, Federer led 42 to 17), was making too many errors as well. The two costliest came at deuce in that same game, giving Federer the decisive break of the match. Federer would serve out his seventh win at Basel on his second match point.

“I lost but I was close to winning, very close,” said Nadal. “I hope we can play in finals like this in the future.”

It was the 34th time Federer and Nadal played, and for the 34-year-old, it was clearly worth the wait.

“Six hundred-plus days have gone by a so a lot of things have happened,” Federer said. “Definitely I had the right game plan today.”

“'It was a very special day. 'Probably it was my best victory here in Basel.”