Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the two old foes who will contest Sunday’s final, are more than just athletes. They have become archetypes.
Rivalry is what makes individual sport tick. And it helps when your rivalry delivers contrasts. Even the way these giants talk – Federer full of lordly self-possession and easy humour, Nadal projecting humility to the point of insecurity – has polarised the world’s sports fans, so that billions of people know which way their loyalties lie.
Unexpectedly, Nadal and Federer report exactly the same physical dimensions: 6ft 1in and 188lbs. Yet everything else about them is opposite. You have icy northern European against tempestuous Latin. Ethereal volleyer against brutal baseliner. Leftie against rightie.
If nature dealt us a happy hand, then Nike’s designers nurtured the divergence brilliantly. Federer’s regal instincts were set off by those gold-trimmed tuxedos. Nadal’s edginess meshed with his pirate pants/singlet combination, which gave him the look of a tennis-playing Johnny Depp. We are still adjusting to his recent crewcut.
On the court, Federer would clearly have won dozens more titles, particularly on clay, without Nadal’s venomous forehand kicking up at his throat. The effect is not so striking for Nadal, so dominant has he been in their 34-match series. But Nadal has had to play second fiddle in the endorsement market, where Federer’s combination of majesty, glamour and perfect hair is catnip for advertisers.
Judging by Federer’s recent trip to Mallorca, where he attended the opening of the Rafael Nadal Academy, both men know how much they need each other.
A lone overwhelming champion risks boring the public. Look at Michael Schumacher throughout those long years of F1 domination. It was the same with Pete Sampras – at least, until Andre Agassi became a counterweight in the late 1990s.
Tiger Woods did better than most at carrying a sport single-handed, but then he was an exotic bloom amid golf’s arid landscape. And even Woods’s story gained new texture from the emergence of Phil Mickelson.
‘Fedal’, as they are known by millennials, fit so well together: the yin and yang of tennis. Think of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett on the running track, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg on the court, or Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna on the tarmac. A well-formed rivalry, complete with a little animus, becomes bigger than either party on their own.
The only downside to the ‘Fedal’ narrative is its lack of balance. Nadal has won just over two-thirds of their meetings, primarily through the inequality between his gigantic, heavily top-spun forehand and Federer’s beautiful but potentially flaky backhand. Crucially, Federer hits the ball with one arm, and this throws up a physiological asymmetry. The ‘pulling’ muscles behind the shoulder simply are not as strong as the ‘pushing’ muscles that generate the force on a forehand or a two-fisted backhand.
Over the course of the last 13 years, this physical issue has spilled over into a mental block. Federer said this week that “I played him [Nadal] too many times on clay early in my career”. He had his chances to reinvent the pattern during a thrilling five-setter in Rome in 2006. But Federer missed two match points, the second with an attempted forehand winner that slid wide of the line. That may also have been a Sliding Doors moment in their sporting relationship.
Just over a decade later, the gap has stretched to 23-11 in Nadal’s favour. And the margin looks even wider – at 22-6, or almost four wins out of five – when you restrict the calculation to matches played outdoors. The author L Jon Wertheim nailed it when he equated Nadal with Rufus, the Harris hawk introduced to scare pigeons away from the All England Club, because of his unique ability to ruffle Federer’s feathers.
What hope is there for a close battle today? Some believe that Nadal will still be jaded after his 4hr 56min semi-final win over Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-final. But then Nadal is noted for his physical ‘bouncebackability’.
In 2009, he recovered from a 5hr 14min semi-final here to beat Federer in a five-set final. He might be considerably more battle-scarred these days, but he still has a five-year age-gap in his favour. And Federer needed a medical time-out during his own draining semi-final, against Stan Wawrinka, because of an adductor issue. “The injury is not something I am worried about,” said Federer on Saturday, with his customary sang froid. “I feel pretty good. For me
it’s a luxury to have two days off in a tournament like this. I watched the [Nadal] semi-final with my team for the whole five hours. Usually I watch as a fan but I watched it half as a fan, half as an analyst, because I know it could have an influence.”
That last point sounds like an understatement. Nadal v Dimitrov was almost a dress rehearsal of what we can expect on Sunday, because Dimitrov’s style – single-handed backhand, elastic movement, whiplash serve – is so similar to Federer’s own. Nadal will thus come into the final having spent five hours honing his game plan.
Neither will the Federer camp want to spend too long talking about Dimitrov’s electric tennis on Friday night, however. It would just be demoralising. The man they call Baby Fed hit his backhand sweetly up the line, fired down a score of aces, and dashed forward to the net at well-chosen moments. But Nadal seemed to grow in stature with each lung-bursting rally. The sceptics said he was losing his aura, after 2½ years in which he was barely reaching the second week of slams. That canard has now been well and truly busted.
“Rafa is more of a favourite than I am,” said Federer on Saturday.
Nadal’s greatness is not in doubt, whether he wins or loses on Sunday. But this is not about one man. He and Federer, through the richness of their rivalry, have made each other greater still. –The Telegraph