7. Federer breaks Nadal’s 81 match clay court winning streak at Hamburg, 2007
Nadal was carrying an 81 match winning streak on clay into the 2007 Hamburg Masters final. Unsurprisingly, that was – and still is – a standing record for any surface. He had swept the clay swing in 2006, and had won everything up to that point in 2007 – Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. There was no question that he was the favourite heading into the final.
The match started as many would have expected. Nadal eased through the first set 6-2. But Federer wasn’t done yet. What followed was a spectacle. Federer performed at near optimum level for the next 2 sets. It was breathtaking, it was brutal, it was unplayable. It had to require something special to beat Rafa on clay, and this was truly special.
Nadal didn’t let his level dip, but Federer was just too good. Federer owned the second set 6-2. The third set was even more brutal. There was high quality tennis, there were some outstanding points. But through it all, there was no doubt that Federer was the better player. He bagelled Nadal to snap the record winning streak and also notch up his first clay court win over his arch rival.
6. 2009 Australian Open final
The 2009 Australian Open was the first time Nadal reached a hard court major final. And he had done it the hard way, coming through a 5 hour 14 minute marathon against Fernando Verdasco in the semis. His opponent in the final was Federer, which was no surprise at all given that he had now reached 14 of the last 15 major finals. A win for Federer would give him his 14th major title, tying Pete Sampras at the top of the tree.
Nadal had to win it the hard way. For much of the first set which contained 5 breaks of serve, Federer looked the better player, but Nadal stuck with him, eventually getting the decisive break to take it 7-5. Federer eased through the second set 6-3. The third set was a very tight affair that Nadal took in a tiebreak. Federer took the 4th to push the final into a decider. In the final set, Nadal astonishingly looked the stronger of the two, taking it 6-2.
It was a tight, topsy-turvy affair. Both players had their chances. Federer ended up losing despite winning more points. Nadal was just slightly better in the clutch moments.
The presentation ceremony provided some of the most lasting images from that Australian Open. The emotion of losing the match proved too much for Federer, who broke down during his speech. Teary-eyed he exclaimed, “Oh God, it’s killing me!” The organizers had to give him a break before he could resume again.
When it was Nadal’s turn to speak, he told him, “Remember, you’re a great champion. You’re one of the best in history. You’re going to improve the 14 of Sampras, that’s sure!
The shots of Nadal with his arm around Federer after the trophy presentation will live long in the memory.
5. The Christmas exhibition promo shoot
Taking a detour from the high intensity and emotions of the countdown, no. 5 on the list is one of the most fun Fedal moments.
The above video pretty much speaks for itself. It was a promotional for the RF Foundation’s Match For Africa exhibition that was to be held in December 2010. These two great tennis rivals are quite evidently not the most professional actors around. And they clearly enjoyed filming the promo. As fans, it was a joy to watch them too.
Watching them in such a relaxed mood, enjoying each other’s company, and fumbling about trying to act out the script was pure gold. It definitely deserves its spot in our top Fedal moments countdown.
4. The first Fedal meeting back in 2004
This is where it all began. On the 28th of March, 2004, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal faced off for the first time in the 3rd round of the Masters Series event in Miami.
Federer had just reached world no. 1 the previous month. After a couple of years of intense tussle among the incredibly talented young generation comprising the likes of Federer himself, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Nalbandian, it looked like one player had finally set himself decisively apart from the rest. Federer came into the match with a 23-1 win-loss record in 2004, having already won the Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells.
Nadal was a 17 year old teenage sensation who had already broken into the world’s top 40. He had already notched up a few impressive wins that year. But surely the world’s best player would be a bridge too far for the 17 year old? Not quite!
Nadal’s talent was on full display here. He ran like the wind, retrieved and defended like few players on tour could, and hit with a heavy cocktail of power and spin. He was not going to hit through Federer, but he would sure make it brutally difficult for Federer to hit through him. And probably most impressive of all, he showed incredible maturity and character for his age. He had a game plan, and he stuck to it throughout. All these years later, he still sticks to it unflinchingly every time he comes up against his ultimate foe. The essence of the plan was incredibly simple – getting the ball high to Federer’s backhand, both on serve and during rallies. Federer is probably the greatest ever exponent of the art of running around the backhand to hit the forehand. But even with his lightning quick footwork, Nadal’s exaggerated lefty topspin meant he couldn’t do it as successfully as against other players.
Federer had clearly come across a challenge he never had before. And he didn’t seem to have an answer. Nadal won the first set 6-3, then proceeded to take the second by an identical scoreline. The world no. 1 was defeated – quite convincingly – by a 17 year old.
3. The much awaited doubles match
Talks of Fedal playing doubles together seem to have been around for ages. It’s obviously a dream team for any tennis fan. But it only became a reality at last year’s Laver Cup.
Right from the official unveiling of the event, fans started talking about the mouth-watering prospect. The two themselves were repeatedly asked about it at press conferences leading up to the event.
In reality though, the decision of which pairings would take part lay with the team captain, Bjorn Borg. So did he field the dream pairing? Of course he did! Noone would want to be the one to deny the world of this spectacle. The Laver Cup has already featured on our countdown. Now the undoubted flagship moment of the Laver Cup slots in at no. 3 on the list.
The match that everyone had been waiting for was the last match on the second day of the event. They would be up against the formidable doubles pairing of Sam Querrey and Jack Sock. So how would these 2 legends of the singles game fair against their much more experienced doubles opponents?
Fedal got into the thick of things right away. They seemed to have an understanding between them. Later, we had even got to see on YouTube a delicious video of Federer and Nadal discussing tactics with captain, Borg before the match. The first set had it’s fair share of moments of brilliance. Fedal took it 6-4.
The second set would go to team World 6-1, sending the match into a champion’s tiebreak. The tiebreaker was a joy to watch. There’s a reason these two have been so successful throughout their careers. They played some wonderful clutch points under pressure, and won the tie break 10-5 – the perfect end to an eagerly anticipated event!
2. 2008 Wimbledon final
This match has been widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time. The 4th set tiebreak has already featured in our countdown. The match itself grabs the runners up spot.
The 2008 final was always set up to be an epic. Federer had been suffering from mononucleosis for the first half of the season and was experiencing his worst season in years. He had been demolished by Nadal in the French Open final 4 weeks back. Nadal on the other hand, was in rampant form having bulldozed his way through another clay court swing, culminating in him winning the French Open without dropping a set.
But Wimbledon was Federer’s backyard, and having been unbeaten on grass for 6 years, Federer was still considered the favourite by most people. However, no one expected it to be easy. Fedal matches rarely are.
Rain delayed the start of the match by 35 minutes, but once things got underway, we were treated to a spectacle. In the first set, Federer put pressure on the Nadal serve, but Nadal held on. Ultimately it was Nadal who got the decisive break to take the set 6–4. Nadal would again end up taking the second set 6–4. Federer had his chances too, but so far Nadal had done a better job of grabbing his.
Rain stopped play with Federer leading the 3rd set 5–4. The players returned on court after an 80 minute delay. Federer took the 3rd set in a tiebreak. The 4th set was another tight affair, which Federer won via the epic tiebreaker to level the match at 2 sets all.
The momentum was now firmly with Federer. But with the score tied at 2–2 in the final set, another rain delay would prove decisive. When the players came back on court, darkness had started setting in. Nadal emerged the stronger of the two, but Federer fought valiantly to keep up with the Spaniard. Nadal eventually got the decisive break to go up 8–7. In near darkness, Nadal served out the match to end the epic encounter and Federer’s run of dominance at the Championships. Federer had lost a match on grass after 6 years. Nadal won his first Wimbledon title, having finished runners up to Federer the previous 2 years.
In the end, one stat stood out more than any other – Federer had managed to convert only 1 of 13 break point opportunities. Federer had had his chances, but he just didn’t take them as well as his opponent.
1. Australian Open final 2017
The 2017 Australian Open will always have a very special place in the hearts of both Federer and Nadal fans. Both had to cut short their 2016 campaigns due to injury. Federer had won his last major at Wimbledon 2012, Nadal at Roland Garros 2014.
Noone had given these 2 guys a major shot heading in to the tournament. Neither did they consider themselves favourites. Federer had actually stated that reaching the 3rd round would have been a good result after coming back from a 6 month injury layoff. Few would’ve argued with that.
The pre-tournament favourites, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic had both lost early. Come the final Sunday, and Federer and Nadal were the last two standing. Both of them admitted that they were already happy to just be playing in another Grand Slam final. Both of them had to come through brutal 5 set semi finals. Federer, in particular, had come through an especially difficult draw, and he was now bidding to become the first person to win a Slam having beaten 4 top 10 players.
Predictably, there was much hype, anticipation and build up to the first Fedal major final since 2011. The dream final smashed Eurosport’s record for the biggest ever peak audience by almost 50%. The final clearly had a lot to live up to, and it most certainly did so.
It was a very high quality, highly oscillating affair. Federer played a sublime first set and took it 6-4. His level dipped in the second while Nadal raised his. Nadal evened the match, taking it 6-3. Federer raced through the third 6-1, and played a highly erratic 4th set to lose it 6-3.
The tie went into a decider, and Federer looked to be petering out. Nadal broke early in the decider and lead 3-1. Nonetheless, Federer was consistently creating chances on Nadal’s serve. Still, a break down in the final set of a Grand Slam final against Nadal, he would need to dig deep. And he did! In an incredible display of attacking tennis Federer rattled off the last 5 games to seal the final set 6-3. There was drama till the very end. Federer had to save multiple break points while serving for the match, and there was a challenge from Nadal on match point. It went in, Federer jumped up in joy, the commentators went berserk, the crowd went berserk, history was created!
In the presentation ceremony, both players were understandably emotional. Both expressed how grateful they were to be once again competing at their highest levels. Federer summed it all up when he said, “I don’t think either of us thought we’d be in the finals when we were at your academy four or five months ago. I’d just like to thank my team. It’s been a different last six months. I didn’t think I was going to make it here. Tennis is a tough sport, there are no draws. If there were, I would have been happy to accept one and share it with Rafa tonight.”