After Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal in a five-set Australian Open final in January, I wrote an article proclaiming their rivalry the greatest in sport. Said piece was not only intended to praise the pair’s rivalry, but it was also meant to be a tribute to what the majority of the tennis world assumed could be the end of the “Fedal” era. How wrong we were. Eight months and three grand slams later, Federer and Nadal have shared tennis’s showpiece events for 2017 equally, increasing their grand slam totals to 19 and 16 respectively, further cementing their positions as the greatest players in tennis history. Their resurgence and rediscovered dominance has been simply astonishing given their combined age of 67 and their injury struggles.
The 2017 Roger-Rafa renaissance began in the blistering heat of Melbourne, with Nadal and Federer both taking advantage of their rivals’ shock defeats, somewhat easy draws, as well as tennis’s so-called “lost generation” continuing to flounder, paving the way for an unexpected final. Most saw this as an aberration — a fitting swansong to their careers, something to which the five-set final added; it was a competition that matched their previous epics in drama if not in quality. It felt like a one-off special of an iconic television show as opposed to the start of a new series. However, the two legends were not yet ready to retreat into retirement in favour of younger generations.
Nadal, aided by the coaching addition of former world number one Carlos Moya, demonstrated that he had left his defeat in Australia behind him by storming to three titles on the European clay. This included claiming incredible 10th titles in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, winning in Madrid, and reaching the quarterfinals in Rome. In such form it was difficult to envisage anyone else lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires, especially after Federer’s decision to skip Roland Garros in order to preserve his aging body for Wimbledon. Nadal duly lived up to his billing as the heavy favourite by breezing to the title without losing a set and for the loss of just 35 games. Nadal’s superlative defying run was underlined by his 6-0-6-1 6-0 destruction of Nikoloz Basilashvili, as well as his third set bagel against the talented young Austrian Dominic Thiem in the semi-final. In the final, Nadal faced the former champion and three-time grand slam winner Stan Wawrinka, who defeated Andy Murray in the semi-final. Nadal dismantled the dangerous Swiss 6-2 6-3 6-1 with such ease that he appeared less as the Spaniard’s opponent and more just the best-placed spectator, helpless against Nadal’s skill and power. It seemed a relief to Wawrinka when the match finally ended with Nadal claiming a record-breaking 10th French Open title and completing “La Decima.” The fact that Nadal is the only singles player in the Open Era to win a grand slam on 10 occasions is testament to his greatness.
Not to be outdone by his rival, Federer returned from his period of rest during the clay court season to win his eighth Wimbledon title and 19th grand slam at a canter, winning every match in straight sets. Admittedly, the Swiss was aided by Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray all crashing out early, leaving former US Open champion Marin Cilic as his main threat. However, the big serving Croat succumbed to Federer 6-3 6-1 6-4 in a one-sided final. Given that Federer had lost in the final at Wimbledon in both 2014 and 2015, the sight of him lifting the trophy was as heart-warming as they come in sport. Arguably, the final itself was emblematic of the sport in recent years, as it served to highlight the massive gulf in class between those dubbed the “big five” and the rest, as even when some of them falter, the rest of the field lacks the talent to offer a sustained challenge to the golden generation. It is becoming increasingly likely now that only their retirement will pave the way for the younger players to win the major tournaments consistently, while the older also-rans, such as Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer enter into the debate of the best players never to win a major. However, one only has to witness Federer at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros to realise that this is not due to their own failures, just their misfortune to share their playing years with the greatest generation in tennis history, as well as with its two greatest players.
The final major of the year was unusual in that it was lacking many star names, as Djokovic, Murray, Raonic, Nishikori, and Wawrinka all missed the US Open due to injuries. With Nadal and Federer on the same side of the draw, fans and pundits alike were left wondering who would emerge from the other half, many viewing it as the most open draw in years. This was heightened by the shock early defeats of Alexander Zverev and Marin Cilic, as well as Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey who disappointed on home soil. The fact that all four semi-finalists in the women’s draw were American highlights how women’s tennis is far ahead of men’s in the United States right now. Unfortunately, fans were denied Federer and Nadal’s first meeting at the tournament, with a jaded Federer being overpowered by the talented, yet injury prone Juan Martin Del Potro, who was subsequently dispatched in four sets by Nadal in the next round. In the final, Nadal encountered the big serving Kevin Anderson, whose unlikely run to the final made Goran Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon triumph look a safe bet. Given that Anderson had celebrated his semi-final victory of Pablo Carreno Busta by jumping into his player’s box, an act usually saved for the champion, it was clear that the South African saw the final as something to enjoy, rather than a genuine opportunity for him to emerge victorious. The final proved to be a procession for Nadal, with him winning 6-3 6-3 6-4. Nadal’s superiority over his opponent was demonstrated by the fact that he only lost 15 points on serve all match, won all 16 points at the net, and did not face a single break point.
2017’s grand slams proved to be a throwback in men’s tennis, however, as the season has progressed, it feels less like an anomaly and more like the future. With Murray struggling through an injury and Djokovic seemingly having lost his passion for the game, it is likely that Federer and Nadal will continue to dominate the slams next year too. This is made more probable by the lack of a challenge from the rest of the tour, as evidenced by the US Open. Despite being 31 and 36, Nadal and Federer are playing as well as ever, and tennis is far richer for it.