Federer and Nadal. Nadal and Federer. You can hardly mention one name without the other. There may never be a day that tennis fans don’t debate which player has had the better career.
But, trophies, records, feats, and accomplishments aside, let’s take a moment not to debate which player is better, or to debate which one is more deserving of the title of “G.O.A.T”.
For the next 10 minutes, forget about all of those things and just allow yourself to appreciate the greatness that is Fedal. Join me as we take a journey back to where the rivalry started and all of the way back to where it stands today.
Alright, so you’ve decided to join me as we look into what is globally considered one of the greatest tennis — and sports — rivalries of all-time. But, as you were promised, this isn’t a debate.
I’m not here to persuade you on who the better player is head-to-head, who the “G.O.A.T” is, or cause a stir because you believe neither is.
Instead, I’d like to take this time to do an in-depth look at their first three head-to-head meetings compared to their three most recent head-to-head meetings. I know that a lot of great, awe-inspiring matches were played between the two of them during their primes, but I think comparing their earlies matches to their most recent ones provides a unique disposition to their rivalry.
So, we’ll begin with some information to catch you up on the situation surrounding the two players entering their first meeting, then move on to their earliest three meetings. In another article, we will then analyze their three most recent meetings, and end with an evaluation of the evolution of their respective playing styles and head-to-head matchups.
Now that we have a firm understanding of the direction of this article, let’s begin with a little expositional information.
Prior to entering the 2004 Miami Masters 1000 tournament, Roger Federer had 14 ATP titles to his name, with 7 of those coming in 2003 alone. The most impressive of these wins included a Masters 1000 trophy at the Hamburg Open in ’02, a Wimbledon title — his first Grand Slam — in ’03, a Tennis Masters Cup title in ’03 as well, and Australian Open and Indian Wells trophies in ’04.
Federer hadn’t quite yet ascended to the level of domination he would achieve a few years later, but by 2004 he was the man to beat. Coming into the match, Federer was only 22 years old and the World No. 1.
He was 23-1 on the season, with his only loss coming to World No. 11 Tim Henman in Rotterdam. But, nevertheless, he would get his revenge by defeating Henman in the Indian Wells championship in straight sets.
On the other side of the net was Rafael Nadal Parera. In contrast to Federer, Nadal had no tour-level singles titles to his name entering the match.
He was 13-7 on the season, with two of those losses coming to the 102nd and 107th ranked players. Still, many saw potential in the 17-year-old from Mallorca.
Enough talking about expositional information, let’s get into the matchups. We’ll begin at one of the most prestigious tournaments on the tour, the Miami Masters.
After reading the circumstances above regarding coming into Federer and Nadal’s first meeting in ’04, you can probably easily put yourself into most peoples’ mindset at the time. Nadal had shown promise, but Federer was already beginning to look like a generational player.
Yet, if you watched the match, it might not be hard to convince you that Federer was the inexperienced talent and Nadal was the generational player.
Was Federer sick? Yes, it is likely that he was suffering from a slight illness at the time. Still, what would happen during that match would surprise tennis fans around the world.
Throughout the match, Nadal would flaunt his raw athleticism, effortless power, and exceptional tennis IQ. Nadal wouldn’t face a single break point all match, while Federer faced 7, saving 4.
However, when it came to flashy play, Federer would manage to hit 19 winners to Nadal’s 14. But, with that came 20 unforced errors to Nadal’s 16. Ten of Nadal’s unforced errors would come on the backhand side, with seven of them coming in the first set alone.
In addition to these statistics, another interesting one I thought would be nice to explore was the percentage of points won in rallies of 6 or fewer shots compared to that of rallies of 7 or more shots.
In rallies of 6 or fewer shots, Nadal would manage to win 53.7% (82/104) of the time, while winning 63.6% of rallies of 7 or more shots (22/104).
But, statistics aside, Nadal would end the match on a high note — with a smash — to claim the 6-3, 6-3 victory, and a 1-0 head-to-head record.
Little did either player know that their hearty embrace at the net would be the first of many.
Following the match, Nadal would lose to the World No. 22, Fernando Gonzalez, 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 2-6. He would also have to miss the clay season due to an injury but would win his first ATP title at Sopot in August.
As for Federer, the loss would have little to no effect on him as he would continue to build his trophy collection, adding titles in Hamburg, Halle, Wimbledon, Gstaad, Toronto, US Open, Bangkok, & The Tennis Cup Masters. In total, Federer would claim 11 titles over the entirety of the ’04 season.
Something that will make the comparison of their first two matches easier is that Nadal and Federer would next meet a year later at the ’05 Miami Masters.
This time, coming into the match, Federer was 31-1 with his only loss coming in a grueling five-setter against Marat Safin in the Australian Open finals. He was World No. 1 at the time and had defeated the likes of Tim Henman and Andre Agassi earlier in the tournament to make it to the championship.
This wasn’t unusual territory for Federer by any stretch of the imagination. He had already won titles in Doha, Rotterdam, Dubai, and Indian Wells earlier in the year.
Still, he would be facing a much more polished Nadal in this meeting compared to their last. Nadal was 22-4 coming into the match with losses against the World No. 8 and 22, a retired match, and a loss to the World No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt.
In addition to this, Nadal had more “big-match” experience coming into this match, picking up his 2nd and 3rd ATP titles in Costa do Sauipe and Acapulco.
Nadal would come out aggressive as always to start the match, breaking Federer’s serve in the first game. From there, Nadal would only need to break again in the seventh game to go up 5-2 before taking the opening set 6-2.
As if his beautiful passing shots and return game in the first set alone weren’t enough, Nadal would open the second set with yet another break of Federer’s serve.
But, nevertheless, Federer would come to life in the next game, breaking Nadal’s serve with a return winner before getting a hold-break-hold sequence to go up 4-1.
Then, after three straight holds combined, Nadal would rip a return winner of his own to break Federer’s serve and pull the set closer to 4-5. After Nadal got ahold of a backhand crosscourt winner to tie the set at 5, the set would go to an inevitable tiebreak.
In the tiebreak, Nadal would increase his level once again, taking the set 7-6 (7-4) and a commanding 2-0 set lead that all but made the match his to lose.
To start the third set, Nadal would capitalize on his position, holding twice and breaking once to take a 3-1 lead. But, much like the previous set, eventually, it would become clear that the two were headed to a tiebreak.
In the tiebreak, Nadal would take a 5-4 lead. But, let’s not forget who we’re talking about here. It wasn’t just any tennis player on the other side of the net, it was Roger Federer.
Federer would manage to hit back-to-back winners, and an unforced error from Nadal would give Federer the set 7-6 (7-5) and keep his championship hopes alive.
The fourth set would be much less eventful, with Federer only need a single break, in the fourth game, to take the set 6-3 and force a decisive fifth set.
In the fifth set, each player would hold their first service game before Federer would pass Nadal with a bit of a banana shot of his own in the third game to break Nadal’s serve.
Following this, Federer would hold his own serve and break Nadal’s serve again to put himself firmly in the driver’s seat up 4-1. From that point on, it was only a matter of time before the zoned in Federer would get yet another hold-break sequence to take the set 6-1.
With this, Federer would complete his comeback victory — his first victory over Nadal — with a score of 2-6, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-1. And, as if defeating this rising star wasn’t enough, he would get a Masters 1000 trophy to go with it.
When the dust settled from this grueling five-setter, Federer would end up with 24 more winners (60, 36) than Nadal, but also 21 more unforced errors (71, 50).
Now, let’s look once again at our interesting stat of points won by rally length. In this match, in rallies of 6 or fewer shots (232/307), Federer would win 52.2% of rallies. In rallies of 7 or more shots (75/307), Nadal would manage to win 52% of rallies.
Comparing these stats to their first meeting, we can see that Federer would win 5.9% more of the 6 or fewer shot rallies and an astonishing 11.6% more of the 7 or more shot rallies.
This match would tie their head-to-head record at 1, but wouldn’t be the last time they would meet in 2005.
Here we are now, we have arrived at the last of Federer and Nadal’s first three meetings. And, there probably isn’t a better one to examine than their first Grand Slam meeting. Not to add that their head-to-head was tied at one match apiece.
Obviously, as time would tell, Nadal would have a stark advantage over Federer on clay, but coming into the match, Federer had proven that he had the attrition to defeat Nadal.
In the only five-setter they had played — in the ’05 Miami Masters 1000 championship — Federer mounted a comeback after falling behind two sets to win the match.
Since that match, Federer had only lost one match — against World No. 101 Richard Gasquet in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals. Still, much like recent history, Federer would avenge that loss by defeating Gasquet in the finals of Hamburg, the next tournament.
Federer was still the World No. 1 coming into this meeting against Nadal in the French Open semifinals.
Much like Federer, Nadal had only lost one match since their previous meeting — his against World No. 47 Igor Andreev.
Leading up to the tournament, he won 3 straight titles, in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, and was the World No. 5.
As he had shown he could do like no one else on the tour at the time, Nadal would immediately put pressure on Federer’s serve to start their 2005 French Open semifinal match.
He would get a convincing break of Federer’s serve at 15 before holding a tough service game of his own to go up 2-0.
Then, after a hold apiece, Nadal would rip a forehand inside-out winner to break Federer’s serve once again and blow the set open at 4-1. And, although Federer would break Nadal’s serve in the next game, with a beautiful backhand crosscourt passing shot at deuce and a forehand error by Federer in ad, Nadal would break right back.
Still, Federer would manage to break Nadal’s serve in the following game after a couple of deuce exchanges and two set points for Nadal. Nevertheless, to finish a set with an absurd amount of breaks for each player, Nadal would break Federer’s serve to take it in 43 minutes, 6-3.
It seemed like nothing could slow down Nadal at this point, but mother nature would have a go at it anyways. Between sets, it would rain for a brief amount of time, but both players were back on the court before long.
With the set tied at one, it would be Federer striking first this time, breaking Nadal’s serve at 30, holding his own, and breaking again to take a commanding 4-1 lead. From there, despite a break from Nadal in the eighth game, Federer would take the set in 41 minutes, 6-4, to tie the match at a set apiece.
In the crucial third set, the first five games would be held by the server with relative ease. But, up 3-2, Nadal would break Federer’s serve with a volley winner in ad to go up 4-2.
In spite of this, Federer would break Nadal’s serve at 15 to get the set back on serve. In the ninth game of the set, after forcing double set point, Nadal would eventually break in ad with a huge down-the-line, swinging forehand volley to punctuate a 6-4 set victory.
Now, with his first Grand Slam championship match in sight, Nadal would fall behind 1-2 early in the fourth set due to a sloppy third game. Nevertheless, he would quickly recover, breaking Federer’s serve in the sixth game to tie the set at three.
Following this, he would hold his own serve and break Federer’s at 30 to get a chance to serve for the match at 5-3.
In the final game, Nadal would stay strong, and despite an intense rally to end the match, a slightly deep forehand by Federer would be all Nadal needed to win the match 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 and his punch his ticket to the finals.
With this win, he would become one of only four players to defeat Federer that year (Safin, Gasquet, & Nalbandian). In addition to this, he would become the 2nd male player ever to win the French Open on his first attempt (Wilander ’82). And, he would become the first teenager since Pete Sampras to win a Grand Slam (US Open ’90).
Nadal would go on to defeat World No. 37 Mariano Puerta 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 in the championship to claim his first Grand Slam title.
In terms of statistics, Federer would have 39 winners to 66 unforced errors and Nadal would have 23 winners to 38 unforced errors. 21 of Federer’s 66 unforced errors would come in the first set alone.
Finally, let’s look at the percentage of points won by rally length. In rallies of 6 or fewer shots (173/238), Nadal would win 50.9% of the time, and in rallies of 7 or more shots (65/238), Nadal would win 55.4% of the time.
Although the percentage of 6 or fewer shot rallies won was easily the narrowest margin we had seen yet, Nadal’s continued ability to win longer rallies helped him prevail.
A passing of the torch. The end. Honestly, if this was May of 2005, it wouldn’t be hard to sit here and say that Federer had a good run, but that Nadal would soon be the new face of tennis.
It wasn’t common for players at the time to continue playing at the level Federer was for very long. So, with Nadal just turning 19, and Federer soon to turn 24, it seemed as if it would be Nadal’s turn to reign.
That’s not to say that Federer wasn’t a better player than Nadal or more capable of winning, but rather that Nadal seemed to have a slight edge over Federer in head-to-head matches, especially physically.
But, it would be a bit of an injustice to leave it at that. In their first three matches, using the advantage of hindsight, it would be illogical to think that Nadal wouldn’t win two of them.
Nadal won a match in Miami, Federer prevailed in the finals a year later, and Nadal defeated Federer on clay. Would Nadal have won their third meeting if it was at Wimbledon? You’d be a fool to answer yes to that question seriously.
Still, despite a slight surface disadvantage for Federer, the two would show their elite prowess in ways never seen before.
In the three matches, Federer would hit 118 winners to Nadal’s 73, but that would come with 157 unforced errors to Nadal’s 104. This would give Federer approximately a 75 winners to 100 unforced errors ratio and Nadal a 70 winners to 100 unforced errors ratio.
Stats aside though, it was obvious that both players were destined for greatness. The only question left to answer was “Which one would end up on top?”.
If you have any thoughts or feedback, feel free to comment below.
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