After Roger Federer’s surprise win at the Australian Open against Rafael Nadal, Hannah Lemass examines the legendary rivalry between the two players.
28 March 2004. A sweltering hot day in Miami, Florida. Two young tennis players face off against each other for the first time. One is the newly ranked number one player in the world, reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion. His opponent is a relatively unknown 17 year old Spaniard, ranked 34th.
The world number one is Swiss-born Roger Federer. A tennis savant – quick and calculating. It looked as though nobody could stop him, he was well on his way to becoming the greatest player that the game had ever seen. However, a slight obstacle revealed itself that day, when Roger met Rafa.
The teen from Manacor, Rafael Nadal, flipped the switch in tennis that day, when he demolished the number one player in the world 6-3 6-3. This showed that perhaps Federer was not the greatest, or at least that he would have to work a little harder for that title. At that moment, one of the most captivating and endearing rivalries in tennis history was born.
Opposites in every way and yet somehow perfectly aligned. A match made in sporting heaven. Swiss vs Spanish, lefty vs righty, precision and finesse vs speed and brawn. Nadal’s rapid topspin was a powerful weapon against Federer’s classic playing style and signature one-armed backhand. Nadal is the one player who could consistently target Federer’s weaknesses.
How could the greatest player in the world lose so regularly to one man? At Monaco in April 2006, Federer lost again to Nadal and even he admitted that he just couldn’t figure out how Nadal kept beating him. Nadal was Federer’s Kryptonite. They played each other 34 times. Federer won only 11 of these matches including their last head to head in Basel in 2015.
Now, 13 years on from their very first match in Miami, and two years since their last meeting in Basel, the men met once again in the Rod Laver Arena on January 28th for the final of the Australian Open.
Federer beat the 30 year old Spanish star in a nail biting five-set battle. At one stage it looked certain that Nadal would be the victor. The Spaniard played well. His signature forehand reaching powerful speeds of up to 146 km/h.
However, Federer came back with his own trademark resilience. Like a long distance runner, Federer has a wealth of endurance and determination. He rallied to take the game, set, match, and tournament. This was his 18th Grand Slam title and a new record in men’s tennis.
It was a final that could not of have been predicted by anyone. The entire tournament had been filled with twists and turns that surprised even casual tennis fans. Most would have assumed that the final would be a showdown between world number one, Andy Murray, and number two, Novak Djokovic. But thanks to Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin’s shock elimination of Djokovic in the second round, and Murray crashing out against Mischa Zverev in the fourth, the “old boys” got their chance for a comeback.
For anyone who has been following tennis for a few years, seeing these two facing off once again was nothing short of a marvel. Not only are they incredible players but they are charming characters that the fans love to see play and win.
Some of the greatest matches in tennis have been played between these two. It was Nadal who broke Federer’s five year Wimbledon winning streak back in 2008. At that time they were the golden boys of tennis. They were largely untouchable to their other opponents.
But Federer had not won a Grand Slam since 2012, and Nadal hasn’t held a major trophy since 2014. They have both struggled with injuries over the last few months – Federer has taken time off with a knee injury and Nadal has had issues with his wrist.
“I don’t think either one of us believed that we were going to be in finals at Australia when we saw each other at your academy four or five months ago”, Federer said to his opponent in front of the euphoric crowd at the Rod Laver Arena on Sunday after his win.
Nadal was clearly disappointed at the loss, but there was a strong sense that they were both just happy to be there and to be there together.
“Tennis is a tough sport. There are no draws, but if it were to draw tonight I would be happy to share it with Rafa. Keep playing Rafa please. Tennis needs you.” Federer said.
A match between these two was exactly what the tennis world needed. A revival of the greats. A final showdown of the gods.
Tennis.com reports that the final had a viewership of up to 4.4 million in Austraila alone, double the number that tuned into the final between Murray and Djokovic the year before. It just goes to show how much the fans have been pining for these guys to come back.
Opinion seems to be divided as to whether this win is Federer’s return to the top or merely a swansong. Many had given up hope that Federer would ever get another Grand Slam title. Even at 35 years old, Federer is already considered over the hill in the tennis world. However, I always saw him as the kind of guy who would still be fighting his way to centre court at Wimbledon at 90 years old – a racket in one hand and a walking stick in the other.
So what are Federer’s chances for a 19th Slam? His best chance will be at Wimbledon in July. Even in his prime Federer struggled on the clay courts of the French Open, and by the end of the season at the US Open his (by then 36 year old) body might be a bit too tired for it.
Minutes after the win in Australia last week he hinted that this season may be his last.
“I hope to see you next year but if not we’ve had a good run here”.
Fans took to social media to voice their dismay at the possibility that someday Federer might not play tennis anymore. He since clarified that he has not made plans to retire just yet. But the truth is, he will have to stop at some point. Who knows when that might be. Ken Roswell was the oldest Grand Slam winner at 37. So if Federer wins at 38, that’s just one more record he can crush before he retires for good.
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