The History of the Fedal Rivalry


Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal share a rivalry which is among the most captivating in all of sport. It spans over 15 years and has produced many epic matches, including arguably the greatest tennis match ever played–at Wimbledon in 2008. Let’s look at the history of the rivalry, as well as the defining moments it has produced.

Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal

The first meeting between the pair took place at the 2004 Miami Open in the quarterfinals. Federer came into the tournament having won two of the last three Grand Slams and was the strong favorite going into the match. He was also the World #1 However the Spaniard produced a mesmerizing performance of aggressive baseline tennis on the courts of Crandon Park and won in straight sets. However, Federer avenged the defeat 12 months later, recovering from two sets down to beat Nadal in the final. This defeat is arguably one of the most painful of Nadal’s career, as he has never won the Miami Open.

The Rivalry on Clay

Unsurprisingly, due to the Spaniard’s dominance on the surface, the head to head between Federer and Nadal is very one-sided. Nadal leads the head-two-head 13-2. Of these meetings, five have been played at Roland Garros, with Nadal winning all five. However, there is some unexpected hope for Federer fans. In four of those five meetings, Federer has taken a set and in 2006, he came agonizingly close to taking Nadal to five sets, losing the fourth set in a tiebreak.

However, the 2008 Roland Garros final was one of the most one-sided Grand Slam finals in history, with Nadal thumping the Swiss 6-1 6-3 6-0. This provided Nadal with the confidence and self belief needed to defeat Federer for the first time at SW19 just a few weeks later. The longest match in history of the rivalry took place on clay in the 2006 Italian Open final, with the Swiss failing to convert two match point to lose in five hours and five minutes in the fifth set tiebreaker. Federer’s only two victories over Nadal on clay took place in Hamburg in 2007 and in Madrid in 2009, the latter providing him a springboard that saw him win both Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the coming months.

The Rivalry on Grass

Federer and Nadal have met three times on grass–in three consecutive Wimbledon finals between 2006 and 2008. The Swiss leads the head-to-head 2-1. Initially, Nadal found grass to be an alienating surface. Because of the fast court surface and the low bounces, the Spaniard wasn’t able to take ass much of a backswing on his groundstrokes. Going into each of these three meetings, Federer had already established himself as one of the greatest grass court players of all time and was chasing down Pete Sampras’ record of seven Wimbledon titles (a record he has since broken). However, each of these finals show a progression of Nadal’s grass court game.

In the first final in 2006, Federer won in four sets. However, after being bagelled in the first set, the Spaniard pushed Federer to two tiebreaks, winning one and losing the other. This gave Nadal confidence and proved he could live with Federer on the surface. In 2007, the match Nadal pushed Federer to five sets winning the second and fourth sets 6-4 and 6-2. Again, there were two tiebreak sets in the match; however, Nadal lost both of them, including an epic first set tiebreak which Federer won 9-7. Despite being in tears after the match, in retrospect, it provided him with even more confidence. Taking two sets of Federer proved that his grass court game was improving.

The 2008 Wimbledon Final is widely considered to be the greatest match ever played. It lasted four hours and forty eight minutes, with Nadal prevailing in five sets surrounded by total darkness on Centre Court. Nadal got off to a flyer of a start taking the first two sets 6-4. However Federer took the next two sets in two tiebreaks. Nadal admitted in his autobiography that it was the most nervous he’s ever felt in a match in his career. He took a tight fifth set 9-7 to win his first of two Wimbledon titles.

The Rivalry on Hard Court

Of their 38 meetings so far, 20 have been played on hard court, the majority of which have been played on outdoor hard courts. Interestingly enough, the pair have never met at the US Open. However, the Australian Open has produced some great matches. In the 2009 Australian Open Final, Nadal recovered from a slow start and the fatigue of his epic five-set semi-final with fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco to beat Federer and win his first Australian Open title. The aftermath of their 2014 semifinal was a turning point in Federer’s career.

The match is best known for the capitulation of Federer’s backhand. During the match, Federer made an unprecedented number of unforced errors on the backhand side. This match was one of the factors that lead to him changing his backhand, making it more of an aggressive shot. This was showcased best at their last meeting in a Grand Slam at the 2017 Australian Open final. Federer beat Nadal in five sets, with his backhand proving to be one of his deadliest weapons. Throughout the beginning of 2017, at a stretch of three tournaments (the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami) Federer was hitting his backhand the best it had ever been hit in his career. He also beat Nadal in the final in Miami in straight sets.

On indoor hard courts, Federer beat Nadal in the 2010 ATP World Tour Finals final. Much like his defeat in the Miami Open final in 2005, this is also one of the most defining losses of Nadal’s career as he has never been able to win that tournament. The last meeting between the pair took place at the 2017 Shanghai final, with Federer winning in straight sets.

Whatever happens on Friday, this rivalry has produced some of the greatest matches in the history of tennis. The match is one of the most anticipated in the game’s history and tennis will be the overall winner.

Main Photo from Getty