By Daniel O’Callaghan
On 13 September, Rafael Nadal Parera became only the seventh player in tennis history to have won all four of the sport’s major tournaments by winning the US Open. At the end of a comprehensive victory over Novak Djokovic, Nadal fell to the ground on the Arthur Ashe centre court as a capacity crowd stood to applaud the Spaniard’s momentous feat. The tennis Nadal played during his two weeks in Flushing Meadows was arguably the best of his career. The first and only set that he dropped in the tournament was in the final. His opponent in the final, Djokovic, had earlier in the tournament knocked out Roger Federer and was producing excellent performances but was powerless to do anything more than watch as Nadal neared perfection. His first unforced error in the final set of the tournament did not come until the seventh game as he completed his lifelong goal in a typically ruthless fashion.
A year earlier the world of tennis was celebrating the achievements of another modern great as Roger Federer completed his career slam by finally winning the French Open. Federer also surpassed the great Pete Sampras by claiming his record breaking fifteenth major at Wimbledon. The media reaction following his achievements proclaimed him as the best player to have ever played the game, the tag line which some have now bestowed on Rafael Nadal. The long running competitive rivalry between Nadal and Federer has now moved onto a new level. The 24-year-old Spaniard and the 29-yearold Swiss are no longer battling for just titles; they are competing to be remembered as the greatest tennis player of all time.
Rivalries in sport are embedded in and created by its own essence, competition. A sporting rivalry is a sustained period of time when the career paths of two athletes cross, each driven by success. Great rivalries are often defined by the characteristics of each man. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier rivalled each other for the world heavyweight crown, a battle which started with the “Fight of the Century” and ended with the “Thrilla in Manila”. The rivalry between the two men was personal with each man giving and receiving slurs. Ali famously said of the “Thrilla in Manila” fight, “It will be a killa… and a chilla… and a thrilla… when I get the gorilla in Manila.” The quip was typical of Ali’s character as an entertainer who built himself up while disregarding his opponent. This went on to define their rivalry as one that lacked respect and there was a genuine dislike between the two men. The Nadal-Federer rivalry, however, is based on a mutual respect. There have been many great sporting duels in the past with a similarly shared respect, such as Arnold Palmer’s rivalry with Jack Nicklaus and Björn Borg versus John McEnroe. The Nadal-Federer rivalry has now reached a new level, putting it alongside these greats.
The two met first in the third round of the Miami Masters in 2004. Federer had won his first two majors and, at the age of 22, was already the number one player in tennis. Nadal, then a 17-year-old unknown quantity, produced a shock result to beat Federer in straight sets. Since then the two men have dominated tennis. From Wimbledon in 2004 to the 2010 US Open at least one of the pair appeared in 24 of the 26 Grand Slams finals, winning 23 of them.
A fascinating component of their duels is the clash of styles between the two players. Federer stands out as a throwback to classic tennis, a game played through craft, skill and elegance, while Nadal is almost like a prototype from the future of the game. The extent of their competition is truly magnified when one imagines what Rafa or Roger could have won if the other had not been around. Federer has amassed 16 Grand Slams by the age of 29. Nadal has just won his ninth slam at the age of 24. The race to catch Federer will be a long one for Nadal. Whoever finishes their career with the most slams will surely go down as the greatest tennis player of all time, but who will it be?
Nadal’s recently defeated opponent Novak Djokovic believes the Spaniard is well placed to win out, “He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever. I think he’s playing the best tennis that I ever seen him play”. Nadal is already ahead, having won more titles than him at the same age, as well as an Olympic gold medal. He also has a winning record against Federer (14-7). However, to be considered the greatest of all time you need consistency and longevity; Roger Federer has undoubtedly shown these qualities. Critics now say that he will find it increasingly difficult to add to his tally of titles but Federer has undoubted mental strength and has the ability to reach his magical best again.
As spectators we can only hope to witness tennis like that played in the famous 2008 Wimbledon final, widely regarded as the greatest match of all time. If Nadal can stay fit (he has suffered from knee tendonitis in the past) and Roger can defy critics and reach top form again then the race to greatness is going to be a photo finish.