The Federer-Nadal rivalry reignited: 2010 season review

roger federer rafael nadal
(Photo: Marianne Bevis)

roger federer rafael nadal

The ATP World Tour Finals in London brought the climax to the 2010 tennis season that most fans dreamed of.

With apologies to the Serbian and French men now summoning up their final reserves of energy for the Davis Cup final, it looks set to be the Roger-and-Rafa show from now until the next Grand Slam in Australia -and beyond.

One or other of them has topped the tennis rankings for the last seven years and, despite a flurry of excitement as Novak Djokovic overtook a Federer finding his way back from illness in early summer, Federer and Nadal have opened clear water of more than 3,000 points between themselves and the following three.

Only right, then, that they should fight it out at the bitter end of 2010 in a bitter-cold London.

The two champions faced off for the WTF title in their 22nd match, their 18th final, but only their fourth contest in almost two years. They hold 21 of the last 23 Grand Slams titles between them, and while the head-to-head odds were in the Spaniard’s favour -14-7 -the Swiss had won both their previous indoor encounters, both of them at the year-end tournament.

Federer did so again, in a nail-biter that swung first his way, then Nadal’s, then back to a Federer playing some of his finest tennis of the year.

It proved to be, in fact, the perfect launch pad to the 2011 season for one of the greatest sporting rivalries of our age: between the man who has dominated the last 12 months and the man who, at his best, is almost unbeatable. And the drama that has surrounded the top two protagonists this year serves merely to whet the appetite for what is to come.

Just a year ago, Nadal had the worst possible end to 2009 with three Round Robin losses at the World Tour Finals. Last week in London, he won all three, then a pulsating semi against Murray and went the distance in his show-stopping final against Federer.

In the interim, Nadal has won the ‘clay slam’, three out of four majors, and claimed a ‘career slam’.

Nadal’s WTF pool was full of intrigue, particularly surrounding the Spaniard himself. He had, just weeks before, withdrawn from Paris with shoulder tendonitis, though many suggested -and he has since not denied it -that he was giving himself the maximum preparation to notch up the last nick on his career bedpost. He was, therefore, more rested than any of the men in London, and everyone hoped for a contrasting performance from his weary 2009 exit.

Against Andy Roddick, though, it initially looked like a 2009 replay. It took the Spaniard a good set and a half to adjust to the slow conditions while Roddick thrived. Down a set and a break, however, Nadal started to motor and took the win.

His match against Djokovic was also a close affair until 5-5 in the first set, but Nadal ran out a convincing straight sets winner, as he did against Tomas Berdych.

The more he played, the better his tennis became, finding his baseline best in an intense three-setter against Murray. Nadal found the challenge of a Federer at the top of his game a step too far, but it marked his best year-end result of his best-ever season.

He finished 2010 head and shoulders above the rest in the rankings, with seven titles from nine finals -three of his wins coming in Slams -and a 71-10 win-loss ratio.

He became the youngest man in the Open era to win the ‘career slam’ and overtook Agassi’s record of Masters titles with his 18th in Madrid. He dropped no sets at Roland Garros and only one at Flushing Meadows. He also ended 2010 in better shape than he has ended any season in years.

He has, however, huge points to defend in 2011, falling short of the quarters only once in the whole of 2010, and that will have to be the main hope for the chasing pack as it pursues the most demanding opponent in the tennis.

Meanwhile, Federer’s year slid from the heights of Grand Slam victory in Melbourne, via a lung infection in the spring, to early exits in three Masters on the bounce to players who had never beaten him before -squandering match points along the way.

He then brought an abrupt end to his record of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semis at Roland Garros, and his fall in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon marked the first time he had failed to reach the final since 2002 and the first time he had dropped to No3 since November 2003.

With illness and a poor early season behind him, however, Federer hit the courts with a vengeance, enjoying renewed fitness, a new coach and, it would seem, unalloyed desire to turn his year around.

After Wimbledon, he won 29 out of 33 matches in seven tournaments. From the final in the Toronto Masters, he went on to claim the Cincinnati Masters title. After a semifinal exit at the US Open, he reached the final of the Shanghai Masters, and won his 64th and 65th titles back-to-back in Stockholm and Basel, and he made the semis in Paris.

By now back to No2, Federer’s match-packed, hard-court six weeks between Shanghai and the London final stacked up 23 matches -and he looked as fast and fluid in beating Djokovic and Nadal in the last event as he had in his opening wins over Djokovic and Robin Soderling in China.

Perhaps that was what he needed. Matches, court-time, and the intensive periods of training that can only come from his longest unbroken period without injury or illness in more than two years.

Hard work, the wily eye of Paul Annacone, a determination to return to old-fashioned attacking tennis, and a missile of a back-hand top-spin drive brought their reward with the WTF title, and make him the man to beat, once again, at the Australian Open. What he also wants, he says, is that No1 ranking.

The gauntlet has therefore been thrown down. And Nadal will, without any doubt, pick it up and take on the Federer challenge again.

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