by Isaiah Buse

April 8, 2021   

This is part two of a two-part series, reviewing the first three, and last three head-to-head matches between Federer and Nadal, including an in-depth analysis of those matches. Read part one here.

If you’d like to read this part now, let me catch you up.

So, Federer — who was beginning to reach the top of his game at the time — would face a 17-year-old talent in Rafael Nadal for the first time in 2004 in the third round of the Miami Masters. In their first match, Nadal would outplay Federer in almost every facet of the game and would go up 1-0 in their head-to-head.

But, just a year later, in the same tournament, Federer would get his revenge in the finals where he would complete a comeback victory to level their head-to-head record at one.

In the culmination of their first three meetings, Federer and Nadal would battle for a spot in the 2005 French Open Championship. Although we didn’t know it at the time, in what would seem run-of-the-mill today, Nadal would defeat Federer on the clay and go on to win his first Roland Garros.

A Brief Overview of Federer, Nadal, & the ATP Between 2005 & 2017

Although it’s a very novel idea to compare Federer and Nadal’s early matchups to their recent ones, it would be an injustice to negligently skip over a decade plus of groundbreaking tennis history.

After their first three matchups, each player hit their stride, winning countless titles, several Grand Slams, and playing some more epic head-to-head matches.

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal - 2008 Wimbledon Championships
An iconic picture of Federer and Nadal following their epic showdown at the 2008 Wimbledon Championships. (Photo Credit: Scroll)

Additionally, tennis phenomena Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would burst onto the scene, many records would be surpassed, and coming into the 2017 season Federer would have 17 Grand Slam titles to Nadal’s 14.

The Combined Comeback Story of Federer & Nadal That Leads us to the 2017 Shanghai Masters

In 2016, Federer was forced to withdraw from most of the season due to a nagging knee injury that would finally require surgery. So, coming into the 2017 Australian Open, Federer would be ranked No. 17, his lowest ranking in over 15 years.

Nevertheless, Federer would surprise the entire tennis world by winning the 2017 AO championship, against none other than Nadal, to claim his first Grand Slam title since the 2012 Wimbledon.

Roger Federer - 2017 Australian Open Singles Champion
Roger Federer smiling with his trophy following the 2017 Australian Open. (Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal)

He wouldn’t stop there though, he would follow up that amazing performance by winning Indian Wells, Miami, Halle, and Wimbledon.

Finally, after a few more tournaments and a quarterfinals finish at the US Open, Federer would defeat Diego Schwartzman, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Richard Gasquet, and Juan Martin del Potro to meet Nadal in the Shanghai Masters finals.

As for Nadal, he would also have a rough 2016 season. It would be his first year since 2004 that he failed to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, he played poorly in most tournaments and ended his season prematurely to nurse a wrist injury.

But, much like Federer, he would revive his career in 2017. As mentioned before, he would lose to Federer in the AO championship. On top of this, he would win in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Roland Garros, the US Open, and Beijing.

Rafael Nadal - 2017 French Open Singles Champion
Rafael Nadal raising his 2017 French Open trophy. (Photo Credit: Men’s Journal)

He would defeat Jared Donaldson, Fabio Fognini, Grigor Dimitrov, and Marin Cilic on his way to the Shanghai Masters finals.

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Federer & Nadal Clash in the 2017 Shanghai Masters Championship

In the opening game of the opening set, Federer would immediately put Nadal’s back against the ropes. But, Nadal would manage to fight back from 15-40 to take the game to a deuce exchange.

Nevertheless, Federer would hit a blistering backhand down-the-line passing winner in ad to take the break. In the next game, Federer would consolidate the break by holding his serve to go up 2-0.

Each player would then manage to hold their serve to go to 3-1. Following this, Nadal would hold his serve, and then Federer would serve a spectacular game.

In the sixth game, Federer would hit four straight aces taking the game in fifty seconds and sending the crowd into a frenzy as he went up 4-2. The two would then hold to 5-4 and Federer would hit an ace up 40-0 in the tenth game to cruise to a 6-4 set victory.

To start the second set, each player would hold their service games to 2-2. In the fifth game, Federer would come up with some brilliant groundstrokes, an amazing touch volley in deuce, and would eventually get the break and hold his serve to put himself firmly in the driver’s seat up a set and 4-2.

Nadal would manage to hold the next game, but a couple of aces and sound overall play would be all that Federer needed to go up 5-3.

In the ninth game, Federer got that look in his eye that makes you pity his opponent and went up 40-0 quickly before going on to take the set 6-3.

With this, Federer would secure a 6-4, 6-3 championship victory, his 3rd title in Shanghai.

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal - 2017 Shanghai Masters Championship
Federer and Nadal with their trophies following the 2017 Shanghai Masters Championship. (Photo Credit: Scroll)

During the match, Federer would hit 26 winners to Nadal’s 10 and only 11 unforced errors to Nadal’s 20.

Now, as we did in part one, we will take a look at points won by rally length. Keep in mind that the rallies of 6 or fewer shots are much more frequent than those of 7 or more shots.

In rallies of 6 or fewer shots, Federer would win 60% of the time (53/89), while in rallies of 7 or more shots, each player would manage to win 50% of the time (8/16).

Following his victory, Federer would play in his hometown of Basel where he would defeat Juan del Potro in the championship. But, in the Nitto ATP Finals, he would fall to David Goffin in the semifinals.

As for Nadal, he would play in the Paris Masters, losing to Filip Krajinovic in the quarterfinals before having to withdraw from the Nitto ATP Finals after one match (against Goffin) due to a knee injury.

In spite of the way their seasons ended, nobody would disagree that 2017 was a revival year for both Federer and Nadal’s careers.

Federer & Nadal Meet on Nadal’s Favorite Surface at the 2019 French Open Semifinals

Following their impressive 2017 seasons, Federer and Nadal would each have another good season in 2018.

Federer would manage to win 4 titles, at the Australian Open, Rotterdam, Stuttgart, and Basel. Nadal would win 5, in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Roland Garros, and Canada.

In 2019, Nadal would manage to reach the Australian Open final again, this time losing Novak Djokovic. He would then go on a tough run where he would lose in the round of 16 at Acapulco, the semifinals of Indian Wells, the semifinals of Monte Carlo, the semifinals of Barcelona, and the semifinals of Madrid.

But, his luck would take a turn for the better when he would top Djokovic in the Rome final leading up to the French Open.

In the French Open, he would defeat Yannick Hanfmann, Yannick Maden, David Goffin, Juan Ignacio Londero, and Kei Nishikori en route to his semifinals match against Federer.

Federer’s start to 2019 would include a round of 16 loss at the Australian Open, a Dubai championship, a loss in the Indian Wells finals, a Miami championship, a loss in the Madrid quarterfinals, and a loss in the Rome quarterfinals.

At the French Open, he would defeat Lorenzo Sonego, Oscar Otte, Casper Ruud, Leonardo Mayer, and Stan Wawrinka to set up a semifinal meeting with Nadal.

Fighting for a spot in the finals of Roland Garros, Nadal would come out strong holding his serve and breaking Federer’s — both in deuce exchanges — to go up 2-0 early.

Nadal would follow this with another hold, but Federer would show off some massive groundstrokes as he held his own serve and broke Nadal’s to get back on serve.

But, the peace wouldn’t last long as Nadal would immediately break back before eventually taking the opening set 6-3.

In the second set, it would be Federer getting off to a hot start as he would get a hold-break combo to go up 2-0. In the third game, down 15-40 on his own serve, Federer would manage to battle back to several deuce exchanges.

Still, with a break point, Nadal would rock a forehand down-the-line off of an overhead from Federer to gain the break back.

In the ninth game, with the set tied at four, Nadal would break Federer in yet another deuce exchange before holding his serve to take the set 6-4 and an authoritative two-set lead.

From the start of the third set, you could see that Nadal looked much better than Federer physically. Due to this, he would immediately break Federer’s serve and consolidate the break with a hold to go up 2-0.

Federer would manage to hold his next service game, but in Nadal’s service game he would get a hold with some incredible play. Following that, he would secure another break with a nice drop shot and volley combination to go up 4-1.

From there, Federer would hardly put up a fight and an out-wide slice service winner would seal the deal for Nadal.

The final score of the match was 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, setting Nadal up for a championship match against Dominic Thiem.

Rafael Nadal & Roger Federer - 2019 French Open Singles Semifinals
Nadal and Federer embracing at the net following Nadal’s semifinals victory at the 2019 French Open. (Photo Credit: Eurosport)

In the match, Nadal hit 32 winners to Federer’s 23 and only 27 unforced errors to Federer’s 35.

In rallies of 6 or fewer shots, Nadal would manage to win 53% of the time (71/134), while in rallies of 7 or more shots, he would win 66% of the time (31/47).

Nadal would go on to win the French Open that year, defeating Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.

The Most Recent Meeting: Federer & Nadal Battle in the 2019 Wimbledon Semifinals

Between their previous meeting and our final destination of this two-part analysis, not much would happen considering the French Open was played from May – June, and Wimbledon in July.

Nevertheless, Federer would manage to win the only tournament he played between the two, Halle, defeating David Goffin. En route to his semifinals meeting against Nadal at the 2019 Wimbledon Championships, Federer would defeat Lloyd Harris, Jay Clarke, Lucas Pouille, Matteo Berrettini, and Kei Nishikori.

As for Nadal, following his French Open victory, he would take a break before coming to the Wimbledon Championships. On his way to the semifinals, he would defeat Yuichi Sugita, Nick Kyrgios, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Joao Sousa, and Sam Querrey.

Each player would start the match serving well, holding the first seven games with ease as Federer took a 4-3 lead.

But, in the eighth game, Nadal would play his first loose game of the match, yet Federer wasn’t quite able to capitalize and Nadal would hold to take the match to 4-all.

From that point on, both players would continue their clinical serving performances en route to an almost inevitable tiebreak. To start the tiebreak, each player would get a mini-break before Nadal would hold his serve point to go up 2-1.

Following this, Federer would split his next two service points before taking both of Nadal’s to go up 4-3. He would consolidate that lead by holding both of his service points to go up 6-3.

And, in the next point, a beautiful short crosscourt forehand punctuated by a blistering forehand down-the-line winner would secure the opening set at 7-6 (7-3) for Federer.

Down 0-1 after Nadal held his first service game, Federer would get tested, going down a break point at 30-40. Still, Federer would hit a huge forehand approach shot and would put away the overhead to go to deuce. He would lose the next point, but after saving another break point he would eventually hold to take the set to 1-all.

Despite this valiant effort from Federer, in his next service game, Nadal would get a break to go up 3-1. Nadal would get another hold following this and a very loose game from Federer would give Nadal a commanding 5-1 lead. Then, he would hold his serve to take the set 6-1 and tie the match at a set apiece.

In the third set, Federer would come out with a vengeance, holding his serve at love before eventually breaking Nadal’s serve in the fourth game to go up 3-1.

Nadal would test Federer in the next game, going up 40-15, but Federer would hold strong to go up 4-1. Federer would finish the set at 6-3 to take a 2-1 set lead heading into the fourth set.

Federer wouldn’t give Nadal any room to breathe in the fourth set, breaking his serve in the third game before going up 3-1.

After two holds from each player, the set would go to 5-3 with Federer firmly in the driver’s seat. Following several ad points for both players on Nadal’s serve in the next game, Nadal would manage to hold to take the match to 5-4.

At 30-30 in the next game, serving for the match, Federer would shank an overhead to give Nadal a break point.

Still, after several deuce exchanges, Nadal would miss a backhand deep to give Federer the set 6-4.

With this, Federer would win the match 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 and set up a championship match with the other third of the Big 3, Novak Djokovic.

Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal - 2019 Wimbledon Singles Semifinals
Federer and Nadal embracing after their second straight Grand Slam semifinals meeting. (Photo Credit: DNA)

In the match, Federer hit 49 winners to Nadal’s 27, but managed to hit 36 unforced errors to Nadal’s 32.

In rallies of 6 or fewer shots, Federer would manage to win 51% of the time (107/209), while in rallies of 7 or more shots, he would win 56% of the time (19/34).

In the championship match, Djokovic would defeat Federer 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3) in one of the greatest matches in Wimbledon history.

Lessons From The Latter Days of the Greatest Rivalry in Tennis

Even in the latter stage of his career, Federer was dominant on fast surfaces and proved it in these matches against Nadal.

But, although he would lose 2/3 of these matches, Nadal would continue his own dominance at the French Open, which he would go on to win.

Head-to-head records aside though, just the mere fact that these two players were still performing at an elite level about a decade and a half later is unreal. The story of these most recent three matches is less about who got the better of who and more about just appreciating their continued greatness.

If you’ve learned anything from these three matches, Federer is one of the best of all-time on fast surfaces, Nadal is the best of all-time on clay, and both players were born to play tennis.

Federer vs. Nadal: Comparing The Past To The Present

The first three meetings were much more physical, each player was much more driven to prove themselves, and neither player fully understood the other’s game.

In the most recent three, the matches were much more tactical, both players were hungry to prove who is the best, and each player had a scary understanding of the other’s game.

When it comes to comparing shorter rallies to longer ones as we did several times, Nadal dominated longer rallies on slower surfaces but Federer would generally win the shorter rallies.

Out of these six matches, each player would win three times, with Federer winning 2/2 championship matches. Really, these six matches are very indicative of their careers. Nadal dominates on clay, both players are nearly equally as good, and Federer wins when it matters.

In my opinion, Federer got the best of Nadal in these matches. The only match Nadal won that wasn’t at the French Open was against a Federer battling illness. But, Federer pulled off a huge comeback to win the Miami Open ’05 Championship, dominated Nadal to win the Shanghai Masters Championship, and put on a masterful performance at Wimbledon.

In reality, it’s not exactly clear-cut who came out on top. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that we are all very fortunate to have — and have had — these two players ever grace a tennis court, especially on opposite sides of the net.

Isaiah Buse

About the author

Isaiah Buse is a tennis enthusiast who currently plays at the NAIA level in Missouri. He has covered the top tennis stories and tournaments for over 2 years now and has enjoyed every second of it. In addition to writing, he enjoys teaching the younger generation of tennis players.

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