This video clip is the highlights, and there are a lot of them, of Roger Federer hitting the peak of his career and meeting, for the first time, a young Spaniard who would prove to be the first (and really only) player who would consistently challenge Federer at his best. That Spaniard was none other than Rafael Nadal, a beast from the dusty clay courts of Spain who would push smooth Federer on all surfaces, slowly evolving his game until he became and an all court player too.
The rivalry between Federer and Nadal is the most talked about, written about, and watched rivalry of tennis history. They stand amongst other great rivalries such as that of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi that has captivated tennis audiences. While their rivalry may not have spilled over into a war of words like Sampras and Agassi, they have banned together for multiple charity events, the next one in March for Nike’s Clash of Champions.
This match is from the Miami Masters event in 2004 where Roger and Rafa met for the first time, Nadal winning in straight sets, and showing early on that his style of play would always trouble Roger. They played for the first time in the round of 32 and since then they have only ever played each other in tournament semis or finals.
The rivalry has at times tormented both players, most memorably Federer as he became a weeping mess at the 2009 Australian Open. Rafa won their first match and he also leads their head to head 14-8 and it is this record that makes some tennis experts hesitate in calling Roger the greatest of all time.
Mats Wilander has been consistently critical of Roger’s record against Rafa, saying that Roger can’t be considered the GOAT until he really steps it up against Rafa who has no problem going after Roger’s backhand relentlessly.
“I think Roger Federer, today, unfortunately came out with no balls… He should have realised in the second set, surely, after two games, ‘Wow I’m not hitting the ball quite as well, let me try going back to the game plan’, which surely couldn’t have been staying at the baseline as much as he did … So I think he choked from the first point to the last point because I don’t believe that he thinks he can beat Nadal from the baseline. I can’t imagine that. Because if he can’t beat him from the baseline on hardcourts, then he sure as hell can’t beat him from the baseline on clay. That’s crazy.” – Mats Wilander after Nadal beat Federer for the Roland Garros title in 2006
The Nadal V Federer rivalry splits tennis fans and critics right down the middle, some saying Federer is superior because of his seemingly effortless game and Nadal’s physical deterioration at times. Others, amazed by the physical prowess, power, recovery, and relentlessness of the Spaniard say that Nadal is the only one to really challenge Federer, and regularly beat him.
“Everybody says Federer is too good, and he is too good, but they don’t have the balls that Nadal has to say, ‘Listen, if you play like that throughout the whole match, then it’s true, you are the greatest player ever … but if you’re not the greatest player in the world, then you’re not going to be able to keep that up’…
(Federer’s) not the best player ever, by a long shot, yet. You face him against the likes of Jimmy Connors and I don’t know that he’s going to beat Jimmy Connors for two reasons here (Wilander points to groin) …
Sports is about balls and about heart and you don’t find too many champions in any sport in the world without heart or balls. He might have them, but against Nadal they shrink to a very small size and it’s not once, it’s every time.” – Mats Wilander
“I think this victory (Nadal US Open) says we should stop talking about Federer being the greatest player of all time. I truly believe that. We can say that Roger is, but there is no point doing that unitl Nadal is done. It’s already unfair to me to say Roger is, because Rafa is beating him all the time on every surface and in slam finals.” – Mats Wilander