Nadal-Federer: can it really be 11 years?

 - Alix Ramsay

We do remember Roland-Garros. But Friday semi-final marks their first grass-court match since 2008.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at Roland-Garros 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Can it really be 11 years? Is it that long since Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer last played each other at Wimbledon?

There have been plenty of matches elsewhere since then – 21 of them, to be precise – but no others on the green, green grass of SW19. Since 2008, Rafa leads the pair’s rivalry 12-9 which should give Rodge a bit of a lift: he is closer to his fellow GOAT than their overall head-to-head would suggest (in every match on every surface, Raf is in out in front with 24 wins to Rodge’s 15).

Vamos Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

There was BRG and ARG...

They first locked horns in Miami way, way back in 2004 BRG (Before Roland Garros). In those days, Rafa had yet to set foot on the Parisian clay but he had been dancing across the red stuff elsewhere and building his reputation.

At the same time, Rodge was newly elevated to the No.1 ranking and was just embarking on his world domination tour. He looked unbeatable; we believed he was unbeatable. And Rafa beat him in straight sets on a hard court.

Popular wisdom had it then that this kid with the long hair, the sleeveless shirt and the headband (this was so far back in history that Rafa hadn’t even got as far the pirate pants era) was quite good. Taking it Rodge like that – the kid from Mallorca has potential.

By the next year, the potential was realised. Rafa won the first of his Roland Garros titles. This was 2005 ARG (After Roland Garros) and the rivalry had been born.

Raf beat Rodge in the semi-finals on the way to that first Grand Slam title, the first of many defeats he would inflict on his Swiss foe in the French capital, and now he was established as the constant threat to Rodge’s every ambition.

Roger Federer slicing a backhand at Wimbledon 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

"Always a unique situation"

These days, though, both men have achieved more than they ever thought possible. They are both comfortable in their own skin, relaxed and confident in their abilities and their lives. They are both as competitive as ever, they work as hard as ever and they are always looking for the tiniest detail that could give them an edge. But they have seen it all before and the thought of one more match together does not faze them.

“Now play against Roger; always is a unique situation,” Rafa said. “Excited to be back on this court against him after 11 years. Means a lot for me and probably for him, too. I know he's playing well. He feels comfortable here. And me, too. I'm playing well, too.”

No sign of pre-match jitters, there then. Not much evidence of them in the Swiss camp either. Rodge was in no mood to play the numbers game – how does your forehand match up to his, how do you beat him on grass, why do you lose to him on clay and all those geeky questions that people ponder when titans collide.

“It doesn't matter anyway,” Rodge said. “Who cares? It's about how has he played so far, how have I played so far. I hope it goes my way. It's going to be tough, you know. Rafa really can hurt anybody on any surface. I mean, he's that good. He's not just a clay court specialist, we know.”


A victory gesture from Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

As much as rivals can be friends

The respect between the two men is obvious and seemingly heartfelt. They get on, these two champions, in as much as rivals can be friends. But something is changing just ever-so-slightly.

Throughout his career, Raf has talked in reverential tones about the Mighty Fed. The phrase he parroted back time and again said it all: “He is the greatest of the history. That is the true.” And for so long, the greatest of the history was streets ahead of the rest in the number of Grand Slam trophies he was collecting.

Yet since Rafa won his 12th (yes, 12th – that is not a typo) Roland Garros title last months, the reverence is still there but there is a little more promotion of his own credentials. Rodge has 20 Grand Slam trophies, Rafa has 18. Rodge has more Wimbledon titles than any man in history (eight) but Rafa has more Roland Garros titles than any other man – or woman, for that matter – has ever won at any Grand Slam anywhere. And 12 is a bigger number than eight.

“I just expect to play against probably the best player of the history on this surface,” Rafa said, “and know that I have to play my best if I want to have chances to try to be in that final, no? That's all.”


Artistic serving Roger Federer at Wimbledon 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Who knows, who cares

Best player of the history… on this surface. Ah, that is rather more specific than before. Rafa knows that he is also part of history, a history that will probably never be rewritten. That is a change from the past.

But what it all boils down to is who plays better on the day. Rafa has been playing eye-balls out since he faced Nick Kyrgios in the second round. His forehand is deadly, his backhand is only marginally less fearsome, he is serving well, volleying (yes, volleying) fabulously and he is reaching peak performance in every match.

Rodge, on the other hand, looked a little patchy in the first week and was in all sorts of trouble in the beginning against Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals. He identified the problem and corrected it in the end (any bloke who travels the world with four young children has to be good at problem solving). By the time he was done, he was playing well. And playing Rafa for a place in the Wimbledon final will sharpen every reflex.

Who knows who will win. In many ways, who cares who will win – this is the 40th chapter in the Roger and Rafa Book of Records. Just sit back and enjoy it – this is the match Wimbledon has waited for for 11, long years.