Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will square off for the 35th time in the Australian Open final on Sunday. In anticipation of their duel in Melbourne, we look back at the most significant matches they ever played. Here are the Top 10.
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The Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer story, as told in 10 classic contests
Great rivalries are about great matches. Here is the best of the
Published Jan 27, 2017
Going into their first meeting, Federer was No. 1 in the world and Nadal was a 17-year-old unknown upstart. Yet it was Federer who left not only with a straight-set loss, but with a presciently ominous sense of how their rivalry would turn out. “I tried to get out of it, but kind of couldn’t,” he said of Nadal’s heavy lefty topspin, which bounced high to his backhand. Federer, who was recovering from the flu, recognized trouble when he saw it, but even he probably didn’t anticipate that he would spend the next decade trying, and mostly failing, to “get out of it” against Rafa.
The tennis world could hardly wait for Federer and Nadal to meet at a major. They didn’t make us wait long, as both men advanced to the semifinals of Roland Garros. The match was played on Nadal’s 19th birthday, and he celebrated with a four-set win; as expected, his heavy topspin was even tougher for Federer to handle on clay than it had been on hard courts. Play began in a drizzle at 6:30 p.m., and Federer tried to get it postponed. “It was a good sign,” Nadal later said. “He said it was the rain that was getting to him, but I knew my game was, too.”
“I’ve had better backhand days, and he’s had better forehand days than today,” Federer said, sounding like the aging champion he is, after beating Nadal at his hometown tournament. “But the match was high quality, and it was entertaining and exciting for both of us as well.” It was Federer’s first win over Nadal in six tries, and the first time the two legends had faced off in 21 months. They may not have been, as Federer implied, what they once were, but the spectacular shot-making by Federer, the cussed comeback by Nadal and the subtle strategic shifts by both men were still very much evident. Eleven years after their first meeting, the two still put on the most well-loved show in tennis; the stage may not have been quite as big, but the magic was still there. This was a sign, perhaps, that there was still more of it to come.
If the Rome final in 2006 was Ali–Frazier, Shanghai later that year was Hagler–Hearns: the tennis equivalent of a short slugfest in which both players threw nothing but haymakers. On a quick indoor court, Federer, rather than trying to mix things up, went right at Nadal. Nadal, rather than try to grind and defend, went right back at Federer. While this wasn’t their closest match, it was their most kinetic. When Federer's final punch landed for a winner, he dropped to the court in joy and relief. After so many struggles against Rafa, The New York Times speculated that Federer had given “a hint to his closest pursuer that something fundamental had changed between them.” It hadn’t, but Federer’s exultation on this night was well-earned.
By now, the epic five-set finals were a thing of the past, as both Nadal and Federer had been passed by Djokovic in the rankings the previous year. But they weren’t an oldies act quite yet. In this much-anticipated semifinal, Rafa and Roger showed they could still bring out the best tennis in each other, before Rafa again showed why he has typically been better in the end. “Chess on wheels,” was how
TENNIS described this contest, which mixed stunningly athletic shot-making with strategic moves and counter-moves. As in their last match in Melbourne, the key was the third-set tiebreaker. From 1–6 down, Federer saved four set points to make it 5–6. “Please win the point, that’s all,” Nadal thought to himself as he took the ball to serve, with the match suddenly hanging in the balance. He did.
After their trial run in Key Biscayne the previous year, Federer and Nadal showed the U.S. tennis audience what their rivalry was all about in this nationally-televised final on the same court. Federer won the match, but his fist-pumping, pirata-wearing 18-year-old opponent became a star in defeat. Nadal led Federer by two sets and 4–1 in the third before the world No. 1 turned it around. In the process, Federer enhanced his reputation in a new way. “It wasn’t until I showed more grit when the going got tough that they started to respect me,” the Swiss would say years later. That new respect started here.
“It’s killing me,” Federer said as he accepted the runner-up trophy in a darkened Rod Laver Arena after another five-set loss to Nadal. What happened next would forever link these two opponents, and make them more than merely on-court rivals. Federer broke down in tears and had to cut his speech short, until Nadal threw his arm around him and urged him to continue. This moment of high sporting drama overshadowed what had been another high-quality, seesaw match between the two. Again, Nadal won the points that mattered—especially in the crucial third-set tiebreaker—and was steadier down the stretch. “You think you’re getting closer,” Federer said in despair afterward, “but you only see that you’re further away.”
By Wimbledon 2007, the rivalry had reached peak altitude. Federer and Nadal had spent three seasons defending their respective turf—Rafa won on clay in Paris, Roger won on grass in London. This marked the first time that either had marched deep into enemy territory. As the fifth set started, a free-swinging Nadal had the momentum, but he let two early break points slip past and never recovered. Most memorable was the level of play. Centre Court, for all of its history, had never seen a display of power, skill and speed quite like it. Nadal cried for his lost opportunities afterward, while Federer was grateful to escape him one more time. “I’m happy with every one I get before he takes them all,” Federer said. He didn’t know how prescient he was: Federer hasn’t beaten Nadal at a major since. Will that change this weekend?
The New York Times compared it to an Ali-Frazier fight, and for once the hype was justified: This is the match that launched the ATP Golden Age, which is still going 11 years later. Unfortunately for Federer, it also set the tone for their future five-setters. He led 4-2 in the fifth, and squandered two match points with forehand errors. The two players ran each other over the Campo Centrale clay for five hours. By this point, Nadal’s stubborn refusal to knuckle under to him had gotten under Federer’s skin. In one of their few moments of tension, Federer accused Nadal’s uncle Toni of illegal coaching, and Rafa responded by telling Federer that he needed “to learn to be a gentleman when he loses.”
The summit. Rarely has a match been as highly anticipated as this final between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2. And never has a match exceeded those expectations as spectacularly. After one of the great displays in Centre Court history a year earlier, Federer and Nadal pushed each other to even greater heights in 2008. From the first 14-shot rally to the final, drama-filled game in near-darkness more than seven hours later, the two rivals performed a tennis high-wire act—together they hit 70 more winners than errors. For the first two sets, the longest final in Wimbledon history looked as if it were going to be a rout by the challenger. Over the next three, it slowly turned, through two rain delays and two tense tiebreakers, into a painstaking comeback by the champion. When Federer saved two match points in the fourth set, no one, including Nadal’s coach, expected Rafa to recover. Except Rafa himself. At 8–7 in the fifth, he served and volleyed for the first time all day, and when a Federer forehand found the net, he took home his first title at the tournament he had always wanted most. In the process, Nadal completed the first men’s French Open–Wimbledon double in 28 years.