Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: A classic rivalry
By Christopher Clarey
Published: August 26, 2007
What is striking as you attempt to put Roger Federer's deepening rivalry with Rafael Nadal into historical perspective is how few great rivalries tennis has had to choose from of late.
For the men in the last 15 years, there was only Pete Sampras versus Andre Agassi, which wasn't all that grand in the Grand Slam tournaments, where Sampras usually prevailed.
For the women, the last matchup that grabbed sports fans (not just tennis fans) by the remote control and pushed the right buttons was Steffi Graf versus Monica Seles, which was never all it should have been after a deranged Graf fan stabbed Seles in the back in 1993.
But tennis is clearly onto something transcendent again with Federer and Nadal, or perhaps it's fairer to say "Nadal and Federer" in light of Nadal's career edge over the world's long-standing No. 1 player.
They played a classic, five-set match on clay at last year's Masters Series final in Rome. They played a classic five-set match on grass in the final at Wimbledon this year.
Now, with the U.S. Open set to begin Monday, it seems the right time for a classic match on an American hard court.
"I think they have laid a good foundation," said Paul Annacone, Sampras's longtime coach. "Wimby this year was a very, very good one, but we need another couple like that to raise it up with the best rivalries. But they are on their way."
So it would seem for the two men who have shared the last 10 Grand Slam singles titles. Thirteen matches might not sound like much to those who followed the changing fortunes and hairstyles of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert over their 80-match series from 1973 to 1988. It might not sound like much to Robert Geist, the Austrian tennis historian, who has made a labor-intensive attempt to track down every match Rod Laver played against fellow Australian luminary Ken Rosewall during a gentlemanly rivalry that began on the poorly documented professional barnstorming circuit and extended into the Open era.
Best current thinking on a final score: 75-66 for Laver.
But 13 matches is just one shy of the magic number where John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg came to rest in 1981 a little more than a year after they played what is widely considered the greatest match of all time at Wimbledon.
Borg won that five-set epic in the 1980 final, and their rivalry would finish in a 7-7 tie, not counting their senior-tour revivals in recent years. For the moment, Nadal leads Federer 8-5. They remain on unusually friendly terms despite the intensity of their duels.
"I think Federer-Nadal is building terrifically," said Bud Collins, the tennis historian and broadcaster. "They've faced off in four major finals already."
That is one more than Ivan Lendl and McEnroe played against each other in the mid-1980s. It is also one more than the next archrivals, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, could produce.
McEnroe and Borg played four Grand Slam finals, as did Connors and Borg, who had a fire-and-ice rivalry of their own. And it might surprise nostalgic U.S. fans that Sampras and Agassi played no more than five major finals over their 13-year series, with Agassi's only victory coming in the 1995 Australian Open.
"For us jingoistic Americans, a rivalry without Pete, Andre, Mac or Connors isn't as delicious," Collins said. "But the tremendous appeal of Federer and Nadal may change that, particularly if they have a U.S. Open shootout."
Darren Cahill, Agassi's former coach, thinks Nadal needs to win that shootout for the rivalry to match up with the best.
"He needs to beat Federer in the U.S.," Cahill said. "He has shown us that not even the grass at Wimbledon is an overly safe haven for Federer anymore. Bring that same European success across to the U.S. and knock Roger off in the Open final and this rivalry takes on a whole new perspective."
Nadal and Federer have actually split their four hard-court matches, but the Spaniard's two victories came in Miami in 2004 and Dubai in 2006, not during the North American summer swing with its emphasis on a quick, relatively low-bouncing surface.
Nadal and Federer have yet to play each other at the U.S. Open, and Larry Stefanki, the Californian who once coached McEnroe, is far from convinced that it will happen soon.
"This is always going to be Nadal's worst surface, because it takes his time away, and you can only go so far back in the court," Stefanki said.
"I really think these U.S. Open series tournaments are a bit too fast for Nadal, and he will struggle to advance to any U.S. Open finals. Borg actually played a bit better than Nadal on the hard courts."
But what already separates Nadal-Federer from some of its precursors is that the two men are truly competitive with each other on grass, clay and hard courts. McEnroe never played Borg on clay and has conceded that it would not have been much of a match if he had. Sampras and Agassi reserved their best two-man shows for hard courts, including four matches at the U.S. Open, all won by Sampras, and two at the Australian Open, all won by Agassi.
Sampras finished with a 20-14 edge, but he never beat Agassi at the French Open. Agassi never threatened Sampras on grass after pushing him to five sets in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1993 before Sampras hit full stride at the All England Club.
Nadal has already pushed Federer hard in consecutive Wimbledon finals. Though Federer has yet to push Nadal to five sets at the French Open, where the Spaniard has won the last three titles, Federer did put an end to Nadal's record 81-match winning streak on clay in the Hamburg final in May.
"This rivalry is more total than the ones of Sampras-Agassi, or Connors- McEnroe, because they share the four Grand Slams together," said Philippe Bouin, the longtime lead tennis writer for France's sports newspaper L'Equipe. "The only modern rivalry of the same caliber that I see is the one between McEnroe and Borg, even if neither won in Australia. The only thing Federer-Nadal is missing is the length of time. Three years is still a little short."
Yet McEnroe-Borg lasted only four years, and there should still be time for this rivalry to build, even if a third party like Novak Djokovic of Serbia forces himself into the mix after beating them both in Montreal this month.
At 26, Federer is one year older than Borg was when he took early retirement, but there are no hints of burnout from the Swiss, who keeps hiring young left-handed sparring partners to deepen his understanding of Nadal's game. Nadal, who recently turned 21, has been injury-prone but radiates nothing but positive energy when healthy.
"They don't remind me of any previous rivalries, because the game has changed so much," Collins said. "Roger is the artist against the house wrecker. He makes it look so simple amid the grinders, almost a throwback to a graceful stylist like Rosewall. Nadal, with his power and speed, is a new and most menacing user of devastating topspin. In trying to solve formidable extremes, they're made for each other and lovers of the game, and they're both so young."