The year 2009 changed men’s tennis in such an emphatic manner that the effects are still being felt more than a decade later.
More specifically, the four men’s singles Grand Slam finals that year substantiated one of most unique experiences in modern sport – the ‘Fedal’ phenomenon – where the exciting race and the polarising ‘GOAT’ debate involving Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal reached its peak.
We may not have realised the impact it would have on the future then; how could anyone when a 22-year-old Rafael Nadal was shredding record books while Roger Federer, at 26, had gone past Pete Sampras’ Grand Slam tally. But the four Grand Slams that year transformed the legacies of two of the greatest players the game has seen and the sport they played.
At the Australian Open, Nadal beat Federer in a five-setter to win his only title in Melbourne. Federer then won his only French Open trophy, after Nadal was stunned by Robin Sodering. Wimbledon saw the excruciating final between Federer and Andy Roddick that went to 16-14 in the fifth set. The US Open saw a new champion emerge in Juan Martin del Potro.
If either one of the four finals had gone the other way, the landscape of men’s tennis would have been different.
Who knows if Federer would have had another chance to win Roland Garros? Who can say if Nadal would have finished his Career Slam the following year without that lone Australian Open title? Would Roddick’s career have turned out differently if he could beat his Swiss nemesis in a Major final? Could the GOAT debate still be around in 2020 if they hadn’t won all four Slams at least once?
With Novak Djokovic breaking through a little over a year later and the GOAT debate became a three-way race, it can be safely said that had it not been for the rollercoaster Majors of 2009, we could have seen a very different outcome to the question of who is the Greatest (male tennis player) of all time.
Australian Open, Nadal beat Federer 7–5, 3–6, 7–6 (3), 3–6, 6–2
This was Nadal’s first hard-court final and sixth Grand Slam title at 22 as he delayed the Swiss star’s quest to match Sampras, two days after one of his best matches – the five-hour semi-final win over Fernando Verdasco.
But the enduring image from this final for many is not young Nadal with the trophy, but of the Spaniard consoling a weeping Federer on the podium. Some context is necessary here. When Nadal sensationally beat Federer in the final of 2008 Wimbledon, many had called it the end of his era. So when Nadal beat him in yet another brutal Grand Slam final, Federer had said the now (in)famous ‘God, it’s killing me’ line.
For Nadal though, the tear-stained presentation ceremony was another victory – that of his sporting spirit. That he could lift his rival along with the trophy after a long final showed what kind of person he was even in his early 20s.
In hindsight, the 2009 final was the most crucial of all his matches against his Swiss opponent. He went on to lose tough finals in Melbourne to Djokovic, Wawrinka and Federer again, and without that win may not have had a chance at a Career Slam.
Interestingly, Djokovic was the defending champion but had to retire mid-match in the quarters due to his health issues. This eventually led to a change in lifestyle for him, which has now made him one of the strongest players in the game.
French Open, Federer beat Soderling 6–1, 7–6 (1), 6–4
Of the four Majors, this was the only final that didn’t go to five sets. Soderling, who in the fourth round had somehow handed Nadal his first-ever defeat at the French Open, couldn’t keep up in the final, which is better remembered for Federer’s emotional victory.
The Swiss player had lost the last three finals on the red clay to Nadal but with a different opponent, he showed that he indeed did have the game for clay even if it didn’t appear against the Spaniard. To complete his career Slam while equaling his hero Sampras on clay a year after being dethroned on grass was a huge moment in his career.
Of course, the bigger match for the Swiss was fourth round five-setter against Tommy Haas. A day after the defending champion has been knocked out by Soderling and he finally had a shot at the elusive title, he stumbled badly against a player he could normally beat easily. Maybe it was the pressure that so often got to him, but in the end, he fought from two sets down to ensure that clay no longer blemished his record. He reached just one more final in Paris, after spectacularly ending Djokovic’s streak in 2011, but went down to Nadal again.
Wimbledon, Federer beats Roddick 5–7, 7–6 (6), 7–6 (5), 3–6, 16–14
A first-ever French Open gave Federer a chance at a first-ever Channel Slam. Defending champion Nadal had been forced to withdraw due to injury.
But a year after losing a grueling five-set final, Federer was back in the fifth set against a dogged Roddick. The American had lost the last three Grand Slam finals he had played against Federer without going to the fifth, but this was different. It was then the longest men’s singles final in terms of games played with 77 games played and the fifth alone lasting 95 minutes.
The most striking figure from the four-hour-17-minute-match was this: Federer’s managed to break Roddick’s serve only once, in the very last game of the match. The victory made the Swiss the new men’s record holder for most number of Grand Slams, one he still holds with the tally now at 20.
US Open, del Potro beat Federer 3–6, 7–6 (5), 4–6, 7–6 (4), 6–2
Del Potro, a 20-year-old from Argentina, was playing his first Grand Slam final against the five-time defending champion in New York. The result, to many, seemed pre-ordained. But a Grand Slam year so fraught with drama had one more card left to play – a first time champion, who would be the last young Major winner for a long time to come.
The youngster fought back from a set down two times in the match to lift his first Major and raise hopes of a new beginning in tennis as the decade came to an end. Sadly, the Argentine’s career has been derailed by frequent injuries and surgeries.
On a side note, the four finals of 2009 can also be seen as a microcosm of Federer’s career. He reached the final of all four Majors, lost the first to regular nemesis Nadal and the last to a young upstart del Potro and completed a Channel and Calendar Slam in between. More than 10 years later, Federer’s trajectory follows a similar pattern: new records, losses to long-time rivals and shock defeats to youngsters.
That year ended with Federer at the top of the ranking with over 10,000 points a year after many saw the writing on the wall for him. The top four players in the year-end rankings were Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray – a precursor to what would be the golden generation of men’s tennis between the only four active world No 1 players.
Tennis in 2020 has changed a lot, but as hindsight tells us, it was that 2009 season that planted the seeds of it all.