After turning professional in 1998, Roger Federer’s career spanned four decades at the top of the men’s game, during which he took the game to new levels.
In that time, he’s played Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras; taken on the great clay-courters like Gustavo Kuerten and Guillermo Coria; starred down Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt; and, most famously of all, locked horns with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. And he’s beaten the lot.
It is no slight on the others to say that Federer’s career has been defined, in many ways, by his clashes with Nadal and Djokovic. Between them, the trio have dominated men’s tennis, mopping up the Grand Slam titles and leaving very little room for anyone else to get a look-in. Together, they have inspired each other to unrivaled heights.
While Nadal was making his Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer won his first grand slam title, beating Mark Philippoussis in the final to win the first of his eight Wimbledon crowns and 20 slam titles. As he made his way through the draw, unbeknown to him, a man who would become an integral part of the rivalry with Nadal was watching in the stands.
When Federer won his third round match against Mardy Fish in four sets – he dropped the third – Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and coach, was immediately impressed. And not just with the Swiss’s game. “I saw a guy who played really well, who played with unbelievable technique,” he says. “I love tennis and I love how he played. I love not only where the ball goes but how you put the ball there. His hair was very beautiful. But his work also.”
Rafael Nadal, who won his first grand slam title at Roland-Garros in 2005, however spotted the weakness in the Federer game. The Swiss had won three slams in 2004 but on clay, especially, hitting hundreds of one-handed backhands from the baseline was something which, at the time, he was not ready for.
“In the first years, where we put the focus was to put the ball in high over his backhand,” Toni says. “Because we knew, at this time, Federer moved the wrist a little too much to play the backhand and then with the spin [from Nadal]he had more problems.
“Many times when I spoke with Rafael, I said Federer plays not too smart with you. In my opinion, he normally played the return very easy to us. He was not aggressive enough.”
Though Federer maintained his edge on hard courts and on grass for a while, Nadal was coming, fast. After taking a set off him in the 2006 Wimbledon final, Nadal pushed him to five sets in the final the following year and then, in 2008, he ended Federer’s five-year winning streak at Wimbledon by claiming the title for the first time after an epic final, including two rain breaks and which finished in near darkness. For Federer, it was a heartbreaking loss; for Nadal, and Toni, it was a massive breakthrough. “The best memory is Wimbledon 2008,” Toni says.
Federer and Nadal played each other 40 times in all, with Nadal leading 24-16, 14 wins to ten in finals. Nadal leads 10-4 in their slam meetings (6-0 at Roland-Garros) and they met at least twice in the final of three of the four slams, with the US Open the only place they never faced each other. righty v lefty, style v power; their match-up had all the elements people love.
“This rivalry had everything,” Toni says. “It was a player that played with unbelievable technique, very elegant and another with passion, it was different styles. But at the end, there always was a very good respect. It was one of the biggest rivalries in sport history, in my opinion.”
Though Nadal has played more matches against Djokovic than against Federer, and though Federer and Djokovic also met more often, the rivalry between Nadal and Federer seems to hold extra-special status, within the sport and for both players.
Rafael Nadal agrees. “I mean, we shared a lot of important things together, no?” Nadal said, when we asked him at Wimbledon in 2022. “[With] all the things that we achieved, [it is] difficult in some way to think [of] tennis in the last 15, 20 years without thinking about the rivalry that we have because we have been playing in every big stadium – not in New York, that’s the only thing that bothers me a little bit, that we never played in New York – but in the rest of the world, we shared court, fighting for the most important things.”
Tennis has been injured with great rivalries. In the past 40 years alone, we have had Martina Navratilova–Chris Evert, John McEnroe–Björn Borg, Stefan Edberg–Boris Becker, Pete Sampras–Andre Agassi. Without their main rival, they may never have reached the heights they did.
Federer readily admits that Nadal made him change his game. He was the only one whose natural style meant that his own natural game was not always good enough to win. For Toni Nadal, how Federer turned things on their head is what makes him even more impressive.
In the 2017 Australian Open final, Federer, who had been off Tour for six months as he recovered from knee surgery, came from a break down in the final set to win his first Grand Slam title since 2012. “Everything changed in 2017 when Federer started to hit the ball faster on the first ball [the return],’ Toni says. ‘Federer said he didn’t want to be the one to play more rallies. On hard courts, it was very difficult for Rafael to beat him because he played so fast. The worst memory was Australia 2017 because Rafael was winning 3-1 in the fifth set.”
While their style of play is different, in many ways Federer and Nadal are quite similar. “They showed to the people that you can have a very intense rivalry, but at the same time to have a good respect,” Toni Nadal says. “And you can be a friend of your opponent. Normally this doesn’t happen, and with these two guys it happened and that was [special].”
This is an edited extract from The Roger Federer Effect: Rivals, friends, fans and how the maestro changed their lives, published by Pitch on Monday 31 October. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.