Number Eighteen and an Unrivaled Rivalry

At long last, he’s done it! On Sunday, Roger Federer conquered some personal demons, downing Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 to claim his eighteenth major tournament trophy. Whether you were in Australia, woke up at 3am on the East Coast, or merely stayed up through the night on the Pacific Coast, it is unlikely that you regret the decision to tune in. The match hyped as the most significant in tennis history lived up to its billing and – at least for this fan – left us wanting for more.

Over the years, Federer and Nadal have treated fans to superlative tennis. They have won numerous ATP titles (including now a combined 32 major championships), dominating opponents season after season. To say that these two are the two best ever isn’t hyperbole; it’s fact.

Each player has his own style of play. For Nadal, he toils on the court, able to track down any ball and unwilling to concede a single easy point. He wears down his opponents with relentless power and agility and forces them to play near perfect tennis in order to wins points, games, sets, and matches. Nadal prefers to play on thick, red clay where play is slower, balls bounce higher, and he can run down anything. Federer, on the other hand, is more subtle. He glides across the court with pristine footwork as if not to disturb to court surface to greatly. The calculated precision with which he places his blistering forehands and smooth, one-handed backhands is deft but no less deadly. He prefers faster conditions, and his style is most suited to the grass lawns of Wimbledon where balls bounce so low and fast that one has little time to react. These two players are yin and yang, perfect counterbalances to one another in almost all facets of the game.

Yet when it comes to their head-to-head clashes, the winner two-thirds of the time has been Nadal. Federer, who by and large is viewed as the greatest player of all-time, has always had trouble finding a way through Nadal’s defenses. While true that most of their matches have been on clay (Nadal leads 13-2), Federer hasn’t been quite as dominant on courts better suited to his style of play (Nadal leads 9-8 on hard and Federer 2-1 on grass). At major tournaments, Federer’s record against Nadal (3-9 after Sunday’s win) is not good, either, even if five of those losses came at the French Open where Nadal is the undisputed king.

Suffice it to say, after Federer clinched his spot in the final with a five-set win over compatriot Stan Wawrinka, I admit that I pulled for Grigor Dimitrov to earn the second spot with a win over Nadal, believing the young Bulgarian to be the “easier” opponent and more likely to give way to Number 18. I grimaced as Nadal finished off their five-set affair with two break points saved at 4-4 in fifth set, a break of Dimitrov’s serve, and a hold to close it out. Even though both Federer and Nadal are different (re. older) versions of their former selves, I began my emotional preparations for another heartbreaking loss and the ensuing articles covering Nadal’s sustained success against Federer. Furthermore, this would not have been just another loss; another loss to Nadal in a major final on a court better suited to Federer’s game would have meant another strike against Federer’s claim as G.O.A.T. And it would have meant another for Nadal in the opposite direction.

All of the pomp and circumstance aside, this wasn’t your typical Federer-Nadal match. The two produced gripping tennis as anticipated, but seldom did both play at their absolute best simultaneously. There were unbelievable points and tense games played, but the match wasn’t a copy of the championship final the two contested on the same court back in 2009, nor was it that epic 2008 Wimbledon final. Instead, it was a match of punches and counterpunches, ebbs and flows. When one player was up, the other was on the ropes and had to scrap to get back into the fight. During the match, there were only 14 games played (out of a total 44) during which play was on serve. Service breaks came early in each set, and excluding the dramatic fifth set, those leads held up.

Yet it was captivating tennis; there was still tension. This is, of course, coming from a Federer fanatic who watched the entire match live, living and dying with every point won and lost and yelling “Come on!” and “Allez!” throughout the match. Grain(s) of salt provided, if you haven’t yet watched a replay of the match, I encourage you to do so. Here’s the abbreviated highlights of the match’s biggest points, and if you have the time, here’s the full match (complete with Russian commentators).

I must now concede that, even with their history and Federer’s subpar record against Nadal (now 12-23), Federer needed his opponent to be none other than the Mallorcan. For the sake of legacy, he needed a victory against Nadal in a big match, in a tight match. A win against Dimitrov in the final would still have counted toward Fed’s career totals, of course, but the match would’ve lacked a key element: prestige.

As for the G.O.A.T. discussion in men’s tennis, I still think there is much tennis left to be played. Federer willed himself to a much needed win over his longtime rival, and 18 majors is going to be a tough total to match or surpass, but Nadal (and Djokovic, for that matter) does still have some time left, and I am surprised to say, there seem to be yet some miles left in those achy knees and legs and forehands and backhands in those troublesome wrists. I am fascinated to see what a rejuvenated Nadal can do with some restored confidence – and perhaps a clean bill of health – in his toolkit. If he can remain healthy, it’s hard to bet against his chances at Roland Garros in May.

For the fans, pundits, and likely Roger and Rafa themselves, it is hard to predict how the success of these two great champions will be defined in the months and years to come. What is clear for all of us is that we do not want this to be it for the rivalry that was and is this generation’s Sampras-Agassi or Borg-McEnroe. I can hardly believe I am saying it, but I do hope they play again this year and next and the year after that. Though, if that is the last final they ever play, what an end it would be.

Cover photo by Brett Marlow via Flickr

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