Federer-Nadal: Sport’s greatest rivalry

Joel McInally recaps the mesmerising Australian Open final and reflects on yet another chapter in the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 2017 Australian Open will forever be a part of tennis history. Novak Djokovic fell to Denis Istomin, and then Andy Murray was knocked out by Mischa Zverev. With these two monumental upsets, people began to hope that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would once again play each other in a Major final.

Even without the presence of Murray and Djokovic, the dream final was no guarantee. First, Federer overcame the dangerous Stan Wawrinka in five sets, showing incredible steel to win the fifth. Then, Nadal produced something of a surprise in the quarter final by swiftly dispatching the third seed, Milos Raonic, before defeating a revitalised Grigor Dimitrov in an enthralling match that would have been worthy of the final. From the moment Dimitrov’s final backhand landed out, it was confirmed. For the first time since Roland Garros 2011, the two greatest players ever to hold a tennis racquet would meet in a Grand Slam final.

As expected, the final did not reach the level of some of their previous encounters. At 35, Federer has shown signs of ageing and Nadal has been forced to recover repeatedly from potentially career-ending injuries. Both are entering the twilight of their careers; a fact underscored by Federer’s remark that, due to injury, just a few months earlier the pair was unable to play an exhibition match to open Nadal’s academy. Hence, the fact that they then faced off in the Melbourne final is nothing short of remarkable. Despite their limitations, there were flashes of brilliance from both men as they split the first four sets. This match, however, differed from many of their previous encounters: Federer purposefully shortened points by attempting to hit winners at every opportunity in an effort to combat Nadal’s devastating forehand. This would be counterproductive for most players, as they simply lack the ability to overcome Nadal’s gruelling defensive style, but Federer is no ordinary player. Even for him, it was almost not enough. With Nadal up a break in the fifth set, Federer needed to show the fight of a champion to grind out the victory, eventually defeating Nadal with a perfect trademark forehand to seal a three sets to two win.

The 2017 Australian Open was perhaps the most highly anticipated chapter of the “Fedal” rivalry since they first met in Miami 13 years ago. The interest of tennis fans in this rivalry can be attributed both to their unparalleled talent and to their unique and contrasting styles: Federer’s gracefully elegant attacking play is matched against Nadal’s brutally powerful defensive game. Furthermore, ever since their epic, five-set Wimbledon final in 2008 — hailed by John McEnroe as the greatest match of all time — an aura has been created around the rivalry. From the moment Nadal crashed to his back on Centre Court, the sporting world has been captivated by two men who not only play the game to the highest possible level, but who also conduct themselves in an exemplary manner. Unlike McEnroe or Nick Kyrgios, they provide entertainment without tantrum. They are simply sportsmen playing sport.

However, despite the prospect of another legendary clash between the two giants of the game, there was a sad undertone leading up to the final. As Federer defies the effects of age and Nadal fights his injury-ravaged body with every step he takes, there will come an end to this great rivalry and it is likely that this will be their last meeting in a major final. Furthermore, the early elimination of Murray and Djokovic provided a great chance for the “lost generation” of tennis to finally overthrow the old guard. Instead, players like Raonic and Dimitrov were beaten by a past-his-prime Nadal, creating questions about the future of the men’s game once the “big four” have retired. This drop in quality is perhaps inevitable given that this era has witnessed several of the greatest players of all time. The standard may not be quite as high, but in players such as Alexander Zverev, the future of the men’s game is secure. While Federer and Nadal’s epic battles on the grass of Wimbledon may be a thing of the past, the fans which they attracted are here to stay. These players are the greatest ever, but even they cannot transcend their sport.

The only question that remains is a simple one: “who is greater?” Fans of Federer will point to his record 18 majors, while Nadal’s supporters will highlight his 23-12 dominance in the Head to Head. As such, the question is not one that will ever be conclusively answered. Instead, people should simply appreciate that they have made the sport greater. This has been tennis’s golden era, and for that fans should pay tribute to Federer and Nadal, sport’s greatest ever rivalry.

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