First off, let me clarify that yes, this article is biased. I am a huge Roger Federer fan. I despise all things Rafael Nadal. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me begin.
As I watched Rafael Nadal deliver a resounding 6-4 6-2 beat-down to Roger Federer at the 2013 BNP Paribas Open, I was not angry. I wasn’t even disappointed. I was sad. I was not sad because Federer was losing. I was sad because I was thinking about a post-Federer world.
The Federer-Nadal rivalry is, in my opinion, the greatest head-to-head rivalry in the history of all sports, not just tennis. All of this has been said before. The contrasting styles, the contrasting personalities…. we get it. If you’re a serious sports fan, you’ve probably seen Federer and Nadal play each other at some point. There are points from the 2008 Wimbledon final that are permanently burned into my memory. Their matches used to make me so nervous that I would pace around in the front of the TV during big points.
As an avid tennis player myself, I have enormous respect for Rafael Nadal. He is incredible. His forehand is ridiculous. His movement is scary. On the other hand, Roger Federer represents everything that a serious tennis player wants to be. He can do it all. At the height of his game, from, 2004-2006, Federer’s forehand was probably the single greatest shot in the history of the game. His ability to force every opponent to play on his terms was mind-boggling. He literally invented shots that have become a necessary part of a successful pro’s arsenal. Watching him play so far beneath his ceiling last night, largely due to a sore back that limited every aspect of his game, I accepted that the best days of this rivalry are probably behind us. There’s a good chance that Federer will beat Nadal again, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t be in a Grand Slam final. Rafael Nadal, at 26, is still close to his physical peak, even with his wobbly knees. Federer, at 31, is clearly not. Last night’s back injury was part of a larger pattern that has emerged over the last two or three years. He now plays most of his evening matches wearing an undershirt to apply pressure to his back and keep it warm. His feet are starting to slow down. He only hit a sprinkling of forehand winners last night, compared to what felt like a billion errors.
This rivalry was a huge part of why I fell in love with tennis. As it begins to wind down, I think we should all take a moment to think about how lucky we are to have seen these two guys play. The Djokovic-Murray rivalry is alright, but they play virtually the same brand of tennis, and their matches all come down to who executes just a little bit better on that given day. Federer-Nadal was different. It just was. I’m going to miss it.