Such has been their longevity – from Federer especially, given the five-year age difference – that conjecture about which player was better was even an incessant theme from another decade, and not the one that finished barely three weeks ago! Between 2005 and 2009 the two shared the top two placings in tennis for 211 consecutive weeks. During that time, their rivalry was the thing in tennis.
Now, in the embryonic days of the 2020s – and with Federer turning 39 this year – not much has changed. Nadal is the world No.1, reaching the year-end top spot for a fifth time, and Federer is unmoved from the world’s top three. The debate rages, although another player has a GOAT nomination. The influence of Novak Djokovic can’t be ignored, for he’s intertwined in this question.
When looking at Roger v Rafa, the debate is fundamentally about two numbers: 20 versus 19 – the current count of major wins. Remember that Federer already had 15 slams by midway through 2009, so the other members of the big three have been coming for him for some time. The Spanish maestro, after banking the French Open in 2019 and going all the way at the US Open, has never been closer. Solely on the major titles criteria, Federer is clinging on by a fingernail, and he thinks he will be surpassed in terms of numbers.
“I think the way it’s going, obviously, Rafa and Novak will win more,” Federer said matter-of-factly ahead of the Australian Open.
“Because they’re that good. And the season they had [in 2019], again, shows that there is more to come for them.
“Now, at the end, if somebody else would pass you, I mean, I guess it’s OK, because that’s what sports is all about. It’s a lot about numbers. It’s a lot about records.
Roger v Rafa: The story in numbers
- Major titles – Federer: 20. Nadal 19
- Head-to-head – Federer 16. Nadal 24
- On hard courts – Federer 11. Nadal 9
- On clay courts – Federer 2. Nadal 14
- On grass – Federer 3. Nadal 1
- Career titles – Federer 103. Nadal 84
- Turned pro – Federer: 1998. Nadal 2001
- Career prize money – Federer: $129,231,891. Nadal: $120,222,286
“I honestly think it’s going to be quite exciting to see how much longer can they go. How much more can they win? They might have some more incredible years ahead of them. That’s my assumption,” Federer said.
“It’s a bit of a golden time for tennis right now, no doubt.”
For a professional sport played across several surfaces – and played both inside and outside – there are many ways to fashion this debate: the straight up head-to-head record, performances in finals against each other (and there have been plenty), adjusted head-to-head records based on removing clay from the equation and, probably to a lesser extent, overall career titles. We could go on.
HEAD TO HEAD
This is where those in the Rafa camp get smug. And they do have a strong point. The argument always goes a little like this: how can you claim someone is the Greatest Of All Time – yes, even ahead of Rod Laver, Don Budge, Ken Rosewall, et al – when they have a losing record against one of their greatest rivals? Nadal leads Federer handsomely 24-16 and, at times, the figure has been even more stark.
This time 11 years ago, after Nadal eclipsed Federer in a five-set Australian Open final, the Spaniard had a decisive 13-6 lead. They had played nearly half their matches in a memorable five-year span, which started on the hardcourts of Miami in early 2004. That era also included a run where, between them, they won an astonishing 11 consecutive majors starting with Nadal’s first French Open in 2005.
Essentially, Federer and Nadal have halved their contests in the last decade or so. And here’s a twist: Nadal has only beaten Federer once – yes once! – in the past six years. That’s a phase where 33-year-old Nadal has probably been at the peak for a tennis player. Federer, meanwhile, has simply been going on and on and on.
The memorable time between 2006 and 2008 – just as upstart Nadal emerged on the tour to provide a reality check to the Federer phenomenon – was when the rivalry was at its zenith. They faced each other in every Wimbledon and French Open final in that time. Famously Nadal had his measure three times in a row at Roland Garros, monstering him 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, in the final instalment of the “Fedal” – the phrase coined to describe the Federer-Nadal phenomenon – trilogy on clay. But, heck, who actually beats Nadal on the red stuff anyway?
The 2008 season is integral to this discussion. Only weeks after that humbling on clay, and moving onto the grass, Wimbledon is remembered for that final. Nadal, then 22, eclipsed Federer after a near-five-hour tussle in London, which was decided after 9pm after they pushed through two rain delays with the Spaniard triumphant 9-7 in the fifth set. Nadal had his first major on grass and his first major away from Roland Garros.
“I’m sure I took something away from it, but mostly positive, even though the moment was pretty hard,” Federer once reflected to ESPN. “It was a great match for many reasons. It also made me more human, potentially.”
Fascinatingly, that win remains Nadal’s only victory over his foe on grass as, remarkably, the pair have only ventured onto Federer’s dominant surface four times.
“I don’t think you can separate them really at the moment,” says former Australian Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald.
“I think at the end of the day you go by numbers. The easiest thing is to go by numbers of majors, as everyone thinks.”
The question of whether that also gives them GOAT status is more complex. Laver did extraordinary things in completely different times, but his career criss-crossed the professional and amateur divide.
- They won 11 consecutive majors (the 2005 French Open to the 2007 US Open)
- Twice have won six consecutive majors (including quite recently – the 2017 Australian Open until the 2018 French Open)
- Despite nine US Open titles between them, they have never faced each other at Flushing Meadows
“They’re two of the best three players we’ve ever seen,” Fitzgerald says.
“And I say that with respect to the older generations. Rod [Laver] is in that conversation, too, obviously.”
Here’s a truism in tennis: Federer rules on grass, but Rafa grinds and soars on clay. The Spaniard, winner of 12 titles at Roland Garros – surely one of the most ridiculously absurd records in world sport – has a distinct 14-2 advantage on the red stuff.
Federer can point to a three-set victory in Hamburg, Germany, back in 2007 and a win on clay at the Madrid Masters two years later, but really it’s Nadal all the way.
His brutal authority is also heightened where clay is most renowned, Roland Garros in Paris. In their six meetings, Federer has taken one set off Rafa four times.
Removing clay substantially reframes the equation. Now it’s Federer with his nose in front.
There’s an argument the Swiss could have rightfully found himself one of the greats on clay in a Nadal-free world.
“I thought Bjorn Borg was the best. Then this guy’s doubled the number of French Opens he’s won,” Fitzgerald says of Nadal.
“You have to say he’s the best clay-courter of all time. But if he hadn’t have been around – and it’s a big if – Roger might have been one of the best clay-courters in history.”
Federer is far from the only top-shelf player to fall victim to leftie Nadal’s vicious and notorious forehand topspin.
“He just couldn’t beat Rafa on that court … the topspin was just too advantageous to Rafa and Roger got belted on that court once or twice,” Fitzgerald says.
THE NOVAK DJOKOVIC FACTOR
In the elusive search for an answer, we might just be missing the whole point. Both Federer and Nadal might be simply biding their time and waiting for Djokovic. The Serbian world No.2, now with 16 majors after winning two more in 2019, is a complete player but, like Federer, he has won the French just once. Aged 32, he does have time on his side.
After winning his seventh Australian Open a year ago, Djokovic said: “I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall wellbeing that I have – mental, physical, emotional – so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come, and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record.”
All of this brings us to Wimbledon last year. Djokovic triumphed over the Fed after a momentous five-setter in which the Swiss was unable to convert two championship points. Victory would have given Federer a three-major lead on Nadal and a six-major advantage over Djokovic.
“I’m sure it hurt Federer big time, that one,” Fitzgerald says.
“It would have taken him to 21, keeping him a bit clear on top a bit longer. But you know, I think the biggest question is how long do Roger and Rafa – to a lesser extent – how long do they last?
“If they go [from the game] the door is wide open for Novak then to play lesser players.
“They’re not the only two that can beat Novak, but they certainly have a better chance than a lot of the younger generation coming up.
“If they go it’s going to be simpler for Djokovic to win, you know, over the course of the next three years.”
Federer is acutely aware of the omnipresence of tennis records in tennis, as his earlier comments show, but he reflected on the magnitude of the moment when he equalled and then overtook Pete Sampras’ record of 14 grand slam wins.
“At the time [in 2009] it was a big deal for me to equal Pete’s record and then maybe of course break it,” Federer said.
“Ever since, it’s been about trying to add what I can to the tally. But I enjoy playing tennis. I love it. I hope I can still play for a little longer.
“I can add more grand slams, that’s great, but it’s not [about] trying to fend off the others – if they pass me that’s OK.”
QUIRKS AND ODDITIES
Given they have only played 40 times, compared to a record 55 contests between Nadal and Djokovic and 49 matches for Federer versus Djokovic, there’s remarkably still an element of uncertainty about their rivalry. With just four matches on grass, the sample size is affected.
Nadal and Federer have often been the first and second seeds at tournaments. In those cases they could only clash in a final. Of their 40 matches, 25 have been finals, including a record nine major finals – and a remarkable 12 ATP Tour Masters 1000 finals, the tier directly below grand slam level.
The 2017 Australian Open final, featuring these two, was a special occasion for tennis fans. In many ways it was a throwback to the glory days. Coming quite out of the blue, the match – in which Federer won to inch back ground on the head-to-head record – meant if their career rivalry represented a sumptuous multi-course meal, this was a glorious dessert.
At that point three years ago in Melbourne, Federer hadn’t won a major since Wimbledon in 2012 and was seeded just 17th for the Open. Anticipation grew during the tournament as the prospect of another finals showdown between the two – maybe the last one ever? – started to emerge.
Truth be told, the match wasn’t one of their greatest, but it was impressive nonetheless. Federer looked down and out early in the final set but reeled off five straight games to pull off a popular victory. It was his first victory over Nadal at any of the majors in 10 years.
They played three other times that year, with Federer winning each of those matches – all played on hardcourts.
Weirdly, “Fedal” have never played at the US Open. It would have to be one of the more unusual statistics in tennis given that Federer has ruled the roost in New York five times (five times in a row up until 2008 but not once since) while Nadal has four Flushing Meadows titles.
Federer’s NY titles came against Lleyton Hewitt (2004), Andre Agassi (2005), Andy Roddick (2006), Novak Djokovic (2007) and Andy Murray (2008).
No one knows for sure when Federer will drift away into the sunset, but time is running out for them to take a bite into the Big Apple and perhaps settle the argument once and for all. But let’s enjoy this golden era while we can.
Scott Spits is a sports reporter for The Age