It's the magical Maestro vs the brutal Bull, the scintillating shot-maker vs the relentless retriever, the beautiful one handed backhand vs the effective two handed backhand, the most graceful glider vs the alpha athlete; it's the suave Roger Federer vs the rugged Rafael Nadal once again...!
Federer and Nadal
As a teenager from Swiss mountains, Roger Federer was touted as the next big thing. In 2001 when he ousted the then Grand Slam leader Pete Sampras at his dominant Wimbledon grass, tennis pundits all around were speaking how good he is and how better he can be. Yet Federer made these people doubt themselves and took another two years to get his act together. Though once he arrived, he arrived like no other. He dominated the sport like no other. His style and elegance of movement was like no other. On grass and hard he was unbeatable, but on clay too he was no rookie like his famous predecessors. He was second best only to a bullish left hander from Spain. Federer is an artist at work and this artwork has taken him to a mightily dominant GS streak of 23 consecutive semi-finals and 36 consecutive quarter finals. At over 32 now, he is the Grand Slam leader with 17 titles, a 6 time year end championship winner and is widely considered the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) by many fans, pundits and players alike. Moreover, he isn't done.
While Federer was ascending, a child prodigy from the beaches of Majorca, Spain was also making waves. Rafael Nadal, coached by his uncle, a right hander playing with left, with an unorthodox whiplash of a forehand exposing bulging biceps and consequently raising eyebrows, was running around like a battery powered bunny beating players much more experienced than him. At 17, he beat Federer in their first meeting. At 19 Rafa was the French Open champion, in his first attempt and the first player ever to do so. In his heydays Rafa was considered by many as a clay court specialist and wasn't given much contention on hard courts and grass. Yet Nadal defies odds like no other. After years of being second best to Federer, he dethroned Federer from his beloved Wimbledon crown and the World No. 1 ranking. He went on to win all the Grand Slams initially thought to be beyond him. Still his brutal style of defensive retrieval is quite extreme and as a consequence his career has been marred with injuries. Yet at 27 yrs, he is a 13 time GS champion, almost God-like on Clay with 8 French Open Crowns (another first), already in the GOAT debate and has many years to add to it.
Roger and Rafa are five years apart in age. Technically in Tennis terms, that should not even be considered a rivalry. That's almost a next generation with a little bit of overlap between the two. Yet, Roger's late bloom and Rafa's early arrival has brought them together and gripped the tennis fans worldwide. Though there are other great match-ups in Djokovic-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, Djokovic-Murray, Murray-Federer and Murray-Rafa but none like Roger and Rafa. Their contrasting demeanor's on court, contrasting styles of play and epic battles have captured imaginations beyond the usual. Statistically, it's lopsided. In past 32 meetings, Rafael Nadal came on top in 22. Nadal fans would say, "Rafa practically owns Federer." Federer hasn't defeated Nadal in Grand Slams since 2007 Wimbledon.
This is a clear tactical advantage that Nadal holds. Match-ups have nothing to do with the debate of Who is a better player. Some match-ups suit one player more, some are headaches for several reasons. Nadal's play of bludgeoning heavy forehands to Federer's one handed backhand is one ploy that almost never fails to work on surface that have high bounce. It works on most of the courts around these days except for indoors and a handful of fast hard courts. To Roger's Superman, Rafa Nadal is a Kryptonite. Federer may fight no matter how strongly, he hasn't been able to solve this puzzle. Nadal is relentless in his ploy of forehand to backhand, Federer is a craftier who gets bored out of lack of options. Mentally, Nadal has a slight edge over Roger for the simple reason of H2H advantage build early on. If you win against someone touted as GOAT, and you beat him two times out of three, well confidence is a natural then. Yet head to head only gives the result of when two players played against each other (not how many times the one fails to meet the other), not the surfaces, conditions of play, levels of fitness/form of players, age of players, style and is therefore not the most objective indicator.
What's the hype all about when Nadal wins mostly?
Well, logically not much sense. Yet, Tennis matches are not won or lost on logic. Otherwise, Novak Djokovic would have been waiting in Finals and not a eighth seed Stanislas Wawrinka.
Even when Rafael Nadal is as solid as possible since his return from injury last year, has won 2 slams out of 3 since his return last year, has never lost to Federer at the Australian Open; when Roger is now old in tennis terms, only World No. 6, has had a dismal 2013, has lost last 5 meetings to Nadal; still all hope of a great match is not lost. Federer but looks rejuvenated. He is serving well and moving well. He has traversed a tough draw. Yet, he has done so before and fallen to Nadal in Grand Slams.
Speculations can go either ways but it is the heart with which Champions fight is to be wished for and watched. Even after Nadal threatening to take Federer's place in the history, Federer has not left the game after losing close matches (a la Bjorn Borg). He knows he is way past his prime but loves playing and wants to fight. He comes back again and again to reach the stages where the two can contest. It might hurt Federer a lot to lose against Nadal but he keeps on doing what best he can do, bounce back and fight again. Taking out clay from equation, even the H2H does not look lopsided. It's almost even. Even footing against a five years younger opponent who is a bad match-up and who himself is one of the Greatest Ever, is to take a lot of heart from. And some inspiration can be drawn from the history this match is going to make for future records.
Today, one of them will stop the other from more glory but not without some serious resistance. This is legends fighting once again, this one is for ages and this one is not to to be missed!