A match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer includes palpable tension, incredible strokeplay and unbridled emotion. They’ve met each other on the court 33 times to make it one of sport’s most captivating rivalries. Nadal is well on top, having won 23 of their encounters. Perhaps their greatest ever battle was at the 2008 Wimbledon final.
Sampras said the rivalry between Federer and Nadal was “one of” the game’s greatest. “You have [Bjorn] Borg and [John] McEnroe, myself and Andre [Agassi]. You have Rafa and Roger. You have [Jimmy] Connors and [Ivan] Lendl.”
The game has moved on since his time, to a point where players are regularly pitched into five-hour slugging matches towards the end of majors, sometimes earlier. And that is the wonder of Federer. He has not only survived in this physically toughest of eras without appearing to break sweat, he has played tennis only a few of his contemporaries have been able to match.
Nobody knows how long he can keep going at the highest level, not even the man himself. But Sampras is sure of one thing: Federer still wants to do it.
All good rivalries are built on contrasts. Both are tanned men with longish hair who possess exceptional tennis skills. That’s where the similarities end. Federer is a lean, elegant player who uses placement and deft hands to crush opponents. Nadal is a ripped speedster who will chase anything down and hits the ball with so much force and spin it’s a wonder the court doesn’t catch ablaze. They may be very different players and people but there’s no disputing their greatness. Every tennis fan eagerly waits for the next time these titans meet.
“I know I can beat him on any surface.”
— Roger Federer, eating some of his ego after losing to Rafael Nadal in the French Open semifinals.