Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal: Icons meet in Wimbledon clash of contrasts
The Swiss won the first two meetings on grass before Nadal triumphed back in 2008 in what is widely considered the greatest match of all-time - on Friday they face off again
The long-time friends and rivals have a history of going out of their way to help each other. Nadal has been happy to support the Laver Cup team event, in which Federer’s management company have a major stake, while the Swiss flew to Mallorca three years ago to help the 12-times French Open champion launch his tennis academy.
As the two men prepare to meet here in Friday’s semi-finals, the talk has been of the huge respect the rivals have for one another, though that has left some critics yearning for the days of men like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, when there was open animosity between the sport’s biggest names, adding spice to their matches.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that the relationship between 37-year-old Federer and 33-year-old Nadal has always been as cosy as it might seem.
Federer has complained in the past about Nadal receiving illegal on-court coaching from his entourage, while the Mallorcan made pointed comments last year in Monte Carlo about his rival’s absence from the clay-court season. Perhaps irked by the fact that he had lost their previous five meetings, all of which had been on surfaces favouring the Swiss, Nadal pointed out that Federer had been talking about wanting to play him again on clay – yet had decided not to play at the Monte Carlo Masters.
Meanwhile at the US Open two summer ago the two men were repeatedly questioned about each other ahead of an anticipated semi-final showdown (which never actually happened thanks to Juan Martin del Potro’s quarter-final defeat of Federer). Nadal eventually baulked at such talk. Asked by a reporter what he most admired about Federer, the Spaniard cut the questioning short. “I don’t want to look like I’m going to be his boyfriend,” Nadal said with a smile.
In many ways the two men are very contrasting characters. Federer, suave and sophisticated, appears to enjoy the high life and exudes self-confidence. No prizes for guessing which player was asked to sit next to the Queen at lunch when she visited Wimbledon nine years ago for the first time in 33 years.
Nadal, in contrast, is almost self-effacing, with a natural humility. Back home in his native Mallorca he enjoys simple pleasures, including fishing and playing golf with family and friends.
The games of the two men are also in stark contrast. Federer has always been an attacking player who looks to shorten points and loves to charge the net. While Nadal has been prepared to take more risks in recent years and has added more aggression to his game, he remains the classic counter-puncher who can turn stonewall defence into thrilling attack at the flick of his wrist.
Their different styles are also emphasised by the way they move around the court. Federer dances across the surface, with his ability to move so quickly into position to play his shots one of his greatest strengths. Nadal, meanwhile, pounds across the ground to chase down shots, his grunts and groans evidence of his unrelenting efforts to chase down every ball.
For both players the forehand is a major weapon. Federer strikes his with super-sweet timing. Opponents struggle to cope with the sheer speed of the shot, particularly when it shoots through on a faster surface. Nadal’s forehand, in contrast, is struck with vicious top spin, making it rear up off the ground. On clay in particular it has been a key weapon against Federer, who can struggle when Nadal’s forehands bite into the surface and force him to hit backhands at shoulder height.
Nadal’s victory over Federer in last month’s French Open semi-finals was a reminder of the hold he has had over him on clay ever since their first meeting on the surface at Roland Garros 14 years ago. Nadal has won 14 of their 16 meetings on clay.
Federer has won 11 of their 20 matches on hard courts and two of their three meetings on grass. Their only meetings on grass have been in Wimbledon finals, Federer having won in 2006 and 2007 and Nadal having won their remarkable encounter in 2008, regarded by many as the greatest match of all time.
Nadal won their very first meeting, on a hard court at the Miami Masters in 2003, when he was just 16. “He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard,” Federer said after that match. “It's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. His forehand is for sure his biggest shot in his game, and his all-court speed. He relies on his fighting spirit.”
Federer’s analysis from 16 years ago remains a neat summary of Nadal’s strengths, though in looking ahead to the 40th meeting of their careers here on Friday the Swiss also noted how much his rival has improved on grass and how much he has modified his game in recent times.
“He's serving way different,” Federer said. “I remember back in the day how he used to serve, and now how much bigger he's serving, how much faster he finishes points.”
Nadal meanwhile described Federer as “probably the best player in history on this surface”. As for his chances of winning on Friday, Nadal, in typical fashion, said only that he would have to be at his best.
Asked if the result might change the relationship between the two players, Nadal said: “I had a lot of defeats. I had a lot of victories. Our relationship never changed. We’ve always had big respect and good friendship, That's all. It probably won’t change whether I win or lose.”