In August 2006, the New York Times published a now-famous piece by author David Foster Wallace titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”. It was the year when Federer, then in his mid-20s, won 12 ATP titles, three of which were Grand Slams. He was the undisputed No. 1 in men’s singles and, unsurprisingly, went on to be voted Player of the Year. The title to Wallace’s piece was thus not so much of an exaggeration, nor were these lines in the body, “Journalistically speaking, there is no hot news to offer you about Roger Federer. He is, at 25, the best tennis player currently alive. Maybe the best ever.”
There was no stopping Federer at the time. He would go on to win three out of four Majors the following year as well. The statistics and trophy hauls were in fact secondary. It was the grace and artistry in his strokes, especially the one-handed backhand, which he perfected over the years, that made him so watchable, so likeable, so respectable. For some, he had achieved deific status. And he was only 25. He was superhuman. He was the Superman of tennis. But this also meant he had his Kryptonite. And that was Rafael Nadal.
Birth of the rivalry
Their rivalry was born at the 2004 Miami Masters, when a 17-year-old Nadal, ranked 34th in the world, upset the then-recently crowned world No. 1 Federer in straight sets. Federer had gone into the match on the back of his first Australian Open title earlier that year, after winning his first Major at the 2003 Wimbledon Championships. He was expected to win the third-round match easily, but came up against a teenaged Spanish southpaw with long locks, a chiselled physique and, more importantly, someone who knew a thing or two about how to use a tennis racquet.
It would be a full year before Nadal eventually broke out, winning 11 titles in 2005, including his first Major – the 2005 French Open, in which he shocked Federer again in the semi-finals. He beat the world No. 1 again at Roland Garros in the final in 2006 and then again in 2007. His Wimbledon 2007 final loss to Federer, in a five-setter, would turn out to be his last against his great nemesis in a Grand Slam for nearly 10 years.
Nothing seemed to inspire Nadal more than facing Federer on the other side of the court. He has had some great victories against other champions such as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but a clash against Federer took him to the sixth gear. He carved out angles that he never did against other opponents. He always managed that one extra step to reach a ball against Federer and send a cross-court winner that stumped not only his opponent and everyone watching, but perhaps also himself.
In 2008, Nadal did the unthinkable by beating Federer at Wimbledon – in that epic five-set final that went on for four hours and 48 minutes. It was a definitive result in their rivalry. Before then, Nadal was just the clay-court guy, while Federer dominated on grass primarily but also had the upper hand on hard courts. By beating Federer on grass, Nadal had finally turned the tide of their rivalry in his favour. At the 2009 Australian Open, Nadal pipped Federer again in five sets in the final, thereby beating him on all three surfaces in a Major. He was now the Superman, and Federer had no clue where to find the Kryptonite. Two years after Wallace wrote that Federer was “maybe the best ever”, a 22-year-old Spaniard had all but disproved him.
Birth of the GOAT debate
That was the peak of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. “Move over [John] McEnroe and [Bjorn] Borg, this one will run and run in the memory,” wrote Paul Weaver for The Guardian after the 2008 Wimbledon final. Jeff MacGregor, writing for ESPN, asked whether it was the “greatest rivalry of the 21st century?” Spurred on by the media, tennis fans took their sides too, as you could hardly be a neutral. You were either Team Roger or Team Rafa. As Nadal went on accumulating titles and catching up to Federer’s tally, the G.O.A.T, or greatest-of-all-time, debate did not take long to rise. Each side had its own valid points as to why their hero should be considered the greatest to play the game.
Team Roger always had his Major tally as their ace, even more so after Federer went past Pete Sampras’s open-era record of 14, at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships. Team Nadal, on the other hand, always boasted of the Spaniard’s superior head-to-head record against the Swiss (now standing at 23-12 in Rafa’s favour). They also said that Federer had it easy early in his career and won a chunk of his Majors before a real challenger came along in Nadal, while the Spaniard had to battle it out against Federer, Djokovic and Murray at the peak of their careers.
However, as we entered the 2010s, the rivalry took a backseat, with the rise of Djokovic, Murray and, later, Stanislas Wawrinka. Djokovic found his own legion of supporters who claimed he was the greatest of all time after the Serbian held all four Majors at once starting from the 2015 Wimbledon to the 2016 French Open. The way Djokovic was playing, notching up 12 Majors with that title at Roland Garros last year, Federer’s then tally of 17 was not far away. What’s more, the Serb had beaten both Federer and Nadal – and Murray – in Grand Slam finals.
Settling the debate
What happened, then, at the 2017 Australian Open is perhaps the best thing that could happen to settle this debate of who is the GOAT. Murray and Djokovic, who were the top two seeds, were knocked out before the quarter-finals itself. While that happened, Federer and Nadal, both making their comebacks from a long injury layoff, seeded 17th and ninth respectively, slowly made their way through the draw. They were on opposite sides of the draw and it was after Murray’s defeat in the fourth round that the question was first asked: Could it really be? Could we really have a Federer vs Nadal, or Fedal as the term was coined, final?
And then it happened. Both Federer and Nadal defeated opponents at least four years their juniors in five sets in the semis to set up a Fedal final – the first in a Grand Slam since the 2011 French Open. Federer, 35, versus Nadal, 30. But this was more than just about defying age and turning back the clock and all those clichés. It was also about defying doubters and detractors, and there were plenty of them on both sides.
While the 2008 Wimbledon final was one of the best matches in the history of the sport, the 2017 Australian Open final will also go down the annals somewhere. It wasn’t the greatest tennis match ever played, far from it. But it took us back 10 years to when this rivalry was at its peak. It was beautiful. It was scintillating – right up to the very last point. It included some ridiculous shots hit at even more ridiculous angles. It included some exquisite backhand winners from Federer and some jaw-dropping cross-court winners from Nadal. It had mistakes aplenty, with 85 unforced errors between the two, and it was far from perfect. But that’s what made it such a spectacle. It was the perfect definition of where the two players had reached and what they had achieved in their career.
Gone was the pony tail and long locks, and baby faces, from their first meeting 13 years ago. Federer’s youthful charm had been replaced by the furrowed brows of a father of four. Nadal’s long, curly hair had been swapped for a thinner crop with a very visible bald spot. The points were shorter, but for a few exceptions, the breaks in serve were a lot more frequent and none of the five sets went into a tie-breaker. But the two still managed to transport you through time to an era that made so many first-time watchers fall in love with the game. There have been other five-set Grand Slam finals between two different players, but what these two produced on the court on Sunday was simply incomparable. Their level of dominance, as two geniuses on opposite sides of the court, as fierce combatants with dissimilar weaponry, is unlikely to be produced again, at least in this generation. They proved again that they bring out the best in each other. They proved that they make each other great.
The fact that all this is possible when they have nothing but the utmost respect for each other makes their tale even more enchanting. The result of the match was almost secondary to the match itself. That Federer won the match and, thereby, stretched his Major tally to 18, almost seemed unimportant, as he himself admitted in his acceptance speech. “Tennis is a tough sport. There’s no draws but if there was I’d be happy to share it with Rafa tonight. Keep playing, Rafa, please. Tennis needs you. Keep doing everything you do.”
Nadal was equally gracious. “It’s amazing how well he’s playing after being away for so long,” he said of his great rival and friend. “For sure, you have been working a lot to make that happen. I am very happy for you. It was a good month for me, amazing month for me, really enjoyed it. I worked very hard to be where I am today. Probably Roger deserved it a little bit more than me.”
So, who cares about the GOAT debate? Loyal fans on either side, perhaps. The media, because, you know, it makes for an engaging debate. But do Federer and Nadal themselves care? Sunday’s events would prove otherwise.
The 2017 Australian Open final will be treasured in the years to come. It was probably the last time Fedal appeared in a Grand Slam final. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, the Rod Laver Arena needs to beef up its security for Grand Slam finals. It’s unacceptable to have two GOATs enter the arena and run around the court in full public view.