A classic rivalry

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer... a rivalry without acrimony.-AP

As the truism goes, nothing can go on forever. Roger Federer’s age and Rafael Nadal’s knees have both led us into questioning the durability of this great rivalry, writes N. Sudarshan.

March 14, 2013. At the unofficially dubbed ‘Fifth Slam,’ the Indian Wells Masters, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, once ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, were about to spar in what was their 29th career meeting.

But the stage was one of the unlikeliest. The two were now No. 2 and No. 5 in the world. Nadal was on a comeback trail after a knee injury that had kept him out for more than seven months and Federer was on the lookout for his first title of the year. The most telling of facts was that it was the quarterfinals — the earliest the duo had met since their first ever meeting nine years ago.

“In the past, this match used to be a final,” said Federer on the eve of the tie. “Now it’s a quarterfinal,” he added. Nadal went on to beat Federer in two lopsided sets — 6-4, 6-2 — and later clinched the title too.

Yet, this match, one which pales into significance when compared to all the rip-roaring treats the duo had dished out over the past decade, might well prove to be the turning point in the Nadal-Federer rivalry which has characterised much of the current era. An indication that, riding on the exploits of the other half of the ‘Big Four’ — Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic — the world of tennis might after all move past theirs.

A cursory look at the stats would prompt one to term this rivalry as cock-eyed. Nadal has won 20 matches to Federer’s 10, 13 matches to two on clay and one match to two on grass. The most vital of platforms on which success is measured, the Grand Slam finals, Nadal has beaten Federer in six of the eight they have contested in. Still, how is it that the two shaped, defined and built the kind of narrative that left a lump in one’s throat every time it unfolded?

“Variety is the spice of life,” said the legendary commentator John Barrett. “Diversity is what makes tennis such a wonderful sport.” A sneak peek into history will add credence to this. The Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi rivalry was the one that defined the 1990s. Yet, Sampras had a 20-14 overall advantage and was 6-3 in the Grand Slams. But it was the difference in playing styles, serve and volley versus baseline tennis, that made it engrossing — the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal, which was decided in favour of Sampras after four tie-breaker sets, standing as a testimony. Similarly with Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe — ice and fire — the 1980 and 1981 Wimbledon finals being the epitome of their contests.

It was this contrast, a pre-requisite to make any sport enchanting and captivating, that made the rivalries great. Also, the spectacle of great match-ups irrespective of skewed numbers added lustre. With Nadal and Federer, this started when the former, aged just 17, stunned Federer 6-3, 6-3 on a Miami hardcourt way back in 2004 and has been memorable since then.

Both have thrilled people, albeit differently. One so elegant and fluid that his best tennis looked so effortless even while making the seemingly impossible possible and the other all muscles and explosive, whose best tennis looked not like a gift, but a product of an endless reservoir of self-confidence and will. One’s delightful one-handed backhand versus the other’s double-fisted bullet. One even reduced to tears by the other, not once but twice.

The duo’s rollicking contests in turn developed an insatiable hunger in the fans for more. That they could cater to this set of audience for the good part of a decade was in itself extremely impressive. The 2006 Rome Masters final, a five-hour, five-set marathon that forced both players to pull out of the tournament that followed in Hamburg and led the ATP to reduce all Masters finals to best-of-three sets, the five-set 2007 Wimbledon final, the marathon Australian Open semifinal in 2012 all contributed to the glorious ebb and flow of the games between the two — be it on clay, grass or hard courts.

What made this rivalry even better was the sense of purpose that both players attached to it. While one was described, in many quarters, as the greatest player of all-time and was constantly on the prowl to prove the same, the other was in continuous pursuit of becoming the most complete player. The glorious 2008 Wimbledon final, a match described by many as the greatest ever, which ended in semi-darkness after Nadal outclassed Federer over five sets, was the quintessence of the Nadal-Federer double act.

The secret of the level of competitiveness between the two reaching such dizzying heights was in the way each fed off the other. Would Federer have had the motivation to go beyond the magic number of 14 majors but for Nadal? Would he still aspire to put the record straight on clay even after winning the French Open? Would Nadal have been so focussed on becoming the complete player that he has become but for Federer? In effect each was the measuring stick for the other; a kind of gold standard that each became for the other, a clear case of one lifting the other.

But as the truism goes, nothing can go on forever. Federer’s age and Nadal’s knees have both led us into questioning the durability of this great rivalry. Federer’s defeat in the second-round at Wimbledon, breaking a streak of 36 Grand Slam quarterfinals on the trot, and Nadal’s first round exit, a first for him, have raised pertinent questions on its mortality.

Rivalries can sure be revived. Chris Evert led Martina Navratilova 20-4 from 1973 to 1978, but from 1982 to 1985 Navratilova won 13 matches in a row. The two met again in the French Open finals of 1985 and 1986 with Evert winning both. But Evert was just two years older than Navratilova. Come August, Federer will be five years elder to Nadal and the latter’s dodgy knees will make it equally daunting for him.

After this Wimbledon, Federer will move out of the top 10 for the first time in over a decade and Nadal will slot into the top four. They may never be ranked one and two again. A look at their past will no doubt provide enough evidence to suggest how enduring their excellence has been till now, but at this late stage it’s highly doubtful if fans can ever relive the tension of a Grand Slam final between the two. They might still meet, may be not as finalists but just as contenders a round or two earlier.

* * * Great match-ups

John McEnroe vs. Bjorn Borg – Their 14 meetings occurred from 1978 to 1981. The years 1980 and 1981 were particularly memorable as they met in four finals — two each at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Borg escaped in five sets in the 1980 Wimbledon final, but McEnroe won the next three.

Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi – In perhaps the greatest of all American rivalries, Sampras got the better of Agassi in 20 of their 34 meetings, stretching from 1989 to 2002. The two met in five Grand Slam finals, with Sampras winning four. Their last meeting was at the 2002 U.S. Open final which Sampras won for his 14th Grand Slam title.

Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert – The two played a staggering 80 times including 22 times in Grand Slams stretching from 1975 to 1988. Fourteen of those matches were finals, with Navratilova taking the title 10 times.

John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors – They clashed 34 times, with McEnroe holding a 20-14 edge. In majors, McEnroe held a 4-3 edge with six of those meetings coming in semifinals. Their lone meeting in a Grand Slam final was at the 1982 Wimbledon final, with Connors winning in five sets.

Boris Becker vs. Stefan Edberg – Out of 35 meetings, Becker won 25 but lost three of their four Grand Slam matches. The two contested three finals at Wimbledon from 1988-90 with Edberg winning two (1988 and 1990).

Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe – They met in an Open Era record 36 times. Ten of those were in a Grand Slam, out of which three were finals. Lendl held 21-15, 7-3 and 2-1 advantages respectively. Their most memorable match was the 1984 French Open final in which Lendl rallied from two sets down to win.

Steffi Graf vs. Monica Seles – Of the 15 matches they played, Graf won 10. They split the six Grand Slam finals that they contested. In 1991 and 1992, Seles won the Australian, French and U.S. Open titles. Only Graf’s victories at Wimbledon prevented Seles from winning back-to-back Grand Slams. The great rivalry was brutally cut short when a self-professed fan of Graf stabbed Seles on court in 1993.