The five ages of Rafa v Roger

 - Ian Chadband

The most famous rivalry in tennis, is being reheated once more in Paris.

From the sight of a 17-year-old in a bandana shocking the world No.1 in Miami to the vision of a 35-year-old dad-of-four shocking the world in Melbourne, the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has become perhaps the most captivating in all of sport.

Two duellists, both alike in dignity, both sharing greatness but both very different in their dazzling styles, have been crossing swords for 15 years, with the ebbs and flows of their epic contests having increasingly transfixed the sporting world.

On Court Philippe-Chatrier on Friday, it will be chapter number 39 of the great saga as the pair meet for the first time in 20 months and for the first time at Roland-Garros since 2011, the playground where Rafa has enjoyed his most prolonged success against Roger.

The 11-time champion will, naturally, start favourite after winning all five of their Roland-Garros clashes, but Federer has won their last five encounters, and nothing can be taken for granted.

Here, looks back at five distinct stages of the pair’s battles for supremacy and asks if we could be about to enter the sixth age of Roger versus Rafa.

First age: 2004-2005…Who’s this guy?

Federer, then the soaring world No.1, was offered a taste of what was to come in March 2004 when, at the third round of the Miami Masters, he was drawn against this much talked about 17-year-old kid from Mallorca in the sleeveless red shirt who had risen rapidly to No.34 in the world. 

The bandana boys’ first-ever contest ended with the Spaniard causing a mini-sensation, winning 6-3, 6-3.

“I did the best game of my life,” boomed young Rafa while the pony-tailed Fed licked his wounds and returned the following year to earn a famous win from two sets down in the Miami final.

Asked about the future of the young pretender, Federer smiled: “Oh no, please! I'd rather not even imagine the progression of this guy here!”

Second age: 2006-2008…Roger’s king, but not against Rafa

In the four-and-a-half year spell between the start of 2004 and the fall of 2008, Federer unquestionably ruled the tennis roost as world No.1, winning 11 Grand Slams. There was only one man able to remotely dent this supremacy; amazingly, over that same period, he played 18 times against Nadal and could only win six.

Okay, so 10 of those matches were on clay - Nadal won nine - where the Spaniard’s topspin bullying and overwhelming mastery seemed to be beginning to infect Federer’s mentality on other surfaces but this still felt like the golden era of their rivalry, which had at its heart their cross-Channel summer battles, with Rafa seemingly invincible at Roland-Garros before Federer would reign on the Wimbledon grass. All until one monumental day on Centre Court that is….

Third age: 2008…One July day for the ages

The Wimbledon men’s final of July 6, 2008 remains enshrined as not just the greatest tennis match ever played, not just the apogee of all Nadal v Federer duels, but also the contest which was to transform the entire dynamic of their rivalry.

Until then, Federer had been just about repelling Nadal’s increasingly impressive incursions into his hard-court and grass domains but, after a 65-match winning streak on the tennis lawns stretching back more than five years, the Spaniard’s relentless improvement climaxed in a match so monumental, so full of “strokes of genius” that it has since spawned a book and a documentary.

After four hours 48 minutes of celestial fare interrupted only by pesky rain breaks, Nadal effectively ushered in a new era, defeating Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 as darkness descended over Centre Court and the Swiss’s reign as best in the world.

It was only one match but it felt like a definitive changing of the guard with Nadal emerging triumphant in what felt like a world heavyweight title bout between two giants who had won 14 of the 16 previous Grand Slams between them.

Fourth age: 2009-2015…Roger’s tears, Rafa the nemesis

With Nadal now the world No.1, the balance of power had changed with that Wimbledon classic and the new era was underlined with the Spaniard wearing Federer down and seemingly breaking his heart and spirit in a deciding set of the final at the 2009 Australian Open. “God, this is killing me,” wailed Roger, before breaking down in tears in the post-match ceremony, moved by the extended standing ovation from the crowd.

Nadal famously consoled his victim that day after this fifth successive victory but his sympathy did not last long and after Federer had earned only his second win on clay in Madrid in their next meeting, a Nadal win in the biggest matches began to prove the rule rather than the rare exception, like the Swiss’s 2011 ATP Finals triumph in London.

With Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray now checking the duopoly, Federer suffered more wounding Grand Slam defeats to Nadal in the 2011 Roland-Garros final - their last meeting here - and two more Australian Open semi-finals in 2012 and 2014. A final triumph for Federer in his home town Swiss Indoors in Basel seemed like a rare consolation - but little did we see what was coming!

Fifth age: 2017-2019 … The reinvented emperor strikes back

When a forlorn Federer was knocked out of Wimbledon 2016 and sat out the rest of the season to rehabilitate from knee surgery he’d undergone earlier in the year, and a lingering back issue, his tennis obituary was beginning to be penned.

Meanwhile, after another year beset by his own injury woes, questions about Nadal’s future were being asked too. How incredible then that the following January, having played no tournaments for six months, the supposedly rusty dad-of-four should roll up and defeat his supposedly washed-up nemesis in one of the great Grand Slam five-set finals at the Australian Open. What a comeback! What a reinvention of the old rivalry.

“I feel young and fresh,” boomed the reinvented Federer, and he’s looked it ever since, beating Nadal with his new liberated, all-out attacking approach three more times on hard courts with the Spaniard not even managing to eke out a set.

Sixth age … Is it about to start here?

Is there going to be a new twist in the tale? For all that Federer is on a five-match winning streak against his friend and foe, he starts as the overwhelming underdog but, having never played Nadal on clay with his bigger racquet and more aggressive post-2017 mindset, he’ll be coming in with an uncluttered approach and all the old clay-court demons banished - at least until Rafa blasts one of those inside-out, careering forehands past him.
“But you just never know,” says Federer. “He might have a problem. He might be sick. You might be playing great or for some reason he's struggling. Maybe there's incredible wind, rain, 10 rain delays. You just don't know….”

Nadal puts it this way: “What I will do is try to do my best, so that the victories I have won on this surface against him count for something. And he will do his utmost to make sure that his latest victories against me have their weight. And so we'll see.

“It's really a particular match. We all know it. But in the end, it's just a tennis match.”

Just a tennis match? We’d have to disagree on that one, Rafa!