Hardly another man could get a look-in at the Majors or in the rankings. From Federer’s first Wimbledon title in 2003 until Nadal won the US Open at the end of 2010, they accounted for 25 out of 30 Majors and for most of that span, they shared the top two spots in the rankings, too.
Of course other great names have since broken the Roger-and-Rafa glass ceiling, most impressively the super-Serb Novak Djokovic, who has overtaken Nadal for the number of weeks at No1, tops both Nadal and Federer in Masters titles, and is giving chase in the Majors, up to 12 and counting.
So dominant has Djokovic become that it is now his name which features in the two most played rivalries of all time—45 times against Federer, 49 against Nadal—and both match-ups have certainly captured the imagination for their intensity. Yet for many, the most charismatic rivalry remains the one between Federer and Nadal.
Perhaps it began with their contrasting looks and styles: Federer owning a game that melds elegance and touch with nimble footwork and rapier-like attack; Nadal the fist-pumping powerhouse, drenched in sweat, one of the finest at defence-turned-attack, and owner of a jack-hammer left-handed forehand.
The complementary players on court were then mirrored by the very opposite off court: The Swiss always an assured, confident, multilingual performer in front of the media; the modest Nadal more awkward, less assured, almost uncomfortable with his fame under the media spotlight.
That the teenage Nadal and his plunging forehand proved to be the nemesis of the Swiss, the man who, from their very first meeting in Miami in 2004, had the game to expose Federer’s Achilles heel, his single-handed backhand, made the rivalry all the more compelling. He would deny Federer on the clay of Monte Carlo, Rome, and of course Roland Garros, time and time again.
But what also appealed to the legions of fans that both men came to command was the respect that each had for the other, a respect that grew into friendship.
A more confident Nadal gradually came out of his shell, and by the time they filmed a trailer for their Christmas fundraiser matches in 2010—now a YouTube video that has been viewed more than seven and a half million times—they behaved more like brothers than rivals.
In the video, they were trying to publicise exhibition matches in each other’s countries, and yesterday, that reciprocal support remained fresh in their minds as they joined forces at the inauguration of the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in his hometown of Manacor, Mallorca.
Federer explained why he wanted to support Nadal.
“Of course we had some battles on the court, but at the end of the day, when we walked off the court, the respect was also there, a special kind of friendship that has been created over the years, and that is why I’m here today to show the ultimate respect.
“He’s always going to be my ultimate rival in my career, and he made me a better player… I had never seen anyone with this much power and topspin and intensity all in one package coming to tennis. So when I was practising, I would be thinking, how can I adjust my game and become a better player.
“I think it helped doing a lot of things away from tennis. The Foundations are a huge part in both our lives, and we were able to make joint efforts—in Indian Wells, Australia, or for his Foundation in Madrid or mine in Switzerland. It just made the bond stronger… and that’s why I enjoy that we can go have lunch, have dinner, happy to see each other again.”
The Academy allows young people between 10 and 18 to combine an academic education in an American International School with training to become professional tennis players. It also has a programme for students who do not wish to dedicate their lives to tennis, so they can get scholarships at universities in the US and continue competing. So the campus not only has more than 20 tennis courts, but facilities for football, basketball, cycling and more, along with a museum and hotel.
The Academy opened its doors in June 2016, and the inauguration was watched by the first intake of students who then got a chance to knock with Nadal and Federer.
But did Nadal see himself coaching future generations of players here?
“My future is here. I don’t imagine myself ever living away from Majorca. So I’m going to be here every day, this is part of my future. Sport in general is my passion… Is a place I’m going to be very involved. I don’t know if I’ll be coaching or not, but I’m sure I’m going to be close to the kids, sure I’m going to be hitting with them.”
After the inauguration, Nadal gave Federer a display showing all of their matches, and with a poignant message: “Thank you for your support at the official opening of my Academy. Today is an unforgettable day for me, my family, and my team. You cannot imagine how special is to have you here with us. Roger, this reflects all the moments we had on court. Looking back at them I see all the great memories we shared in our careers… To be continued…”
However these two men, rivals and friends through 34 matches, have played each other just twice in almost three years. Last week, for the first time in almost 13 years, neither was ranked in the top five—though both have been absent from the tour with injury for large stretches of this year.
Federer’s continued absence until the start of next year means that he and Nadal will not even have the chance to replay their most recent match—the first in Federer’s home-town. Their two-hour thriller in Basel last October was Federer’s first win over his rival in six matches dating back to Indian Wells in 2012, and as has so often been the case, it brought the house down.
Once upon a time, as surely as night followed day, Federer and Nadal were guaranteed to face one another across a net. In 2006, they contested five titles in six meetings; in 2007 four titles in five meetings; their next eight meetings were all finals. But until both can climb the rankings again, they are unlikely to contest titles again any time soon.
However, the last word, before he heads to Basel, belongs to Nadal.
“We shared a lot of good moments, very important moments, in our career, always with good relationship and friendship, trying our best on court, fighting for the most important things in tennis, but at the same time always in a good way, and that is something I believe we should be proud of.”
Wherever and whenever their paths do cross again, make the most of it. Rivalries like this one do not come around every day.
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