Today marks the 14th anniversary of something truly special. On the 28th of March 2004, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal faced each other for the first time in the 3rd round at Miami. This was to be the start of the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis, and some might argue, all of sport.
Since then, the two have gone on to become two of the greatest players of all time. They have compiled unprecedented numbers, taken the sport to newer heights, and have already left an unparalleled legacy on the game of tennis. And along the way, they have shared a rivalry that has transcended the sport.
14 years on, the 36 year old Federer and the 31 year old Nadal are still the top 2 players in the world. And they still appear to be each other’s biggest rivals on tour.
Over the years, they have provided us so many wonderful moments to treasure – and that includes more than just epic tennis matches. They have shared a rivalry filled with rich quality, sportsmanship, massive mutual respect and great camaraderie. To celebrate the 14th anniversary of this great rivalry, we have compiled a list of the 14 greatest Fedal moments. And in an attempt to do justice to the rivalry itself, while tennis is mostly at the forefront of this list, the list is so much more than just tennis.
14. The epic 4th set tiebreak in the Wimbledon final, 2008
You would have probably guessed that the 2008 Wimbledon final would feature somewhere on the list. And it does – in fact, much higher up. But the epic 4th set tiebreak deserves its own special place on the list as well. Nadal was 2 sets to 1 up. Federer had to win the tiebreak to stay in the match and keep alive his hopes of a 6th straight Wimbledon title.
What followed was an extraordinary display of breathtaking tennis. Both players upped their game, producing their very best when it mattered most. The first 10 points were shared 5-5. Nadal brought up Championship point on his serve with a brilliant passing shot. Federer saved it with an even better passing shot of his own to level at 6–6. Nadal brought up a second Championship point, but Federer again saved it, with a big first serve this time. Federer eventually went on to take the breaker 10–8 and level the match at 2 sets all.
There would be more drama to come in that match. More on that later.
13. WTF Final 2010
Nadal was enjoying his best ever season. In 2010, he had won 3 majors en route to completing a career Grand Slam. At the O2 arena in London, he managed to reach the year-end final for the first time. However Federer had won both their previous indoor meetings rather convincingly.
It was Federer who looked the better player right from the off. He took the first set 6-3. Nadal displayed his trademark fighting abilities to stay with Federer through the second set, eventually managing to get the decisive break to take the second set 6-3. Federer had to respond, and he did, racing through the final set 6-1 to claim his 5th year end title.
12. Rome final, 2006
Nadal was heading into the 2006 Italian Open final having won his last 52 matches on clay. But if anyone could stop him, it had to be Federer who was the undisputed no. 1 player in the world at the time. He had lost a sum total of 4 matches in 2005, and so far only 2 matches throughout 2006.
Nadal had already started getting the wood over Federer on clay though, and both of Federer’s losses in 2006 until then had come against Nadal. This would turn out to be arguably their toughest clay court tussle. The first 2 sets were shared via 2 tiebreaks. Federer stormed through the first 7-0. Nadal bounced back edging the second set tiebreak 7-5. He would then go on to take the lead winning the 3rd set 6-4. Federer took the 4th set 6-2 to send the match into a decider. Both players had their chances in the decider, but it ultimately went into another tiebreaker which Nadal edged out 7-5.
Nadal had extended his winning streak to 53 matches. For Federer, it was a third loss of the season to his nemesis, Nadal. The match was truly an epic encounter. Federer had managed to win 5 more points, but it was Nadal who won the match. This would not be the last time in their head to head that this would occur.
11. Laver Cup
In the 2017 Laver Cup, Federer and Nadal teamed up to play for Team Europe. And we got to see how much the two great rivals actually enjoy each other’s company. Social media was filled with Fedal bromance pics throughout the week. It was a pleasure to see two of the greatest competitors of the sport compete together in the same team, both on and off the court.
They clearly had fun with each other, pushed each other on, helped the younger players in the team together – it was just the ultimate dream team! And the pictures of Nadal jumping into Federer’s arms after Roger beat Kyrgios in the all-important tie to clinch the title for Team Europe will live long in the memory of tennis fans.
10. The first Fedal Wimbledon final in 2006
In 2006, Nadal fought his way to his first Wimbledon final. He had gone undefeated throughout the clay court season, including 3 final victories over Federer. Reaching the final in Wimbledon, he showed to the world that he was not just a one-surface pony.
But this was Federer’s turf now. He was the champion in the last 3 Championships, and having reached the final without dropping a set, he was looking to make it 4 in a row. But Nadal’s recent run of victories against him meant people were definitely not considering it a foregone conclusion.
Federer raced off the mark. Having come out second best to Nadal repeatedly on clay, he looked like he had a point to prove. He bagelled Nadal to take the first set. He won the second set in a tiebreak. The third set went to another tiebreak, which Nadal won, thus preventing Federer from winning the tournament without dropping a set. But it was just delaying the inevitable as Federer captured the 4th set 6-3 to lift his 4th Wimbledon title.
9. Nadal’s first victory over Federer at the French Open in 2005
The French Open has always been a major plot point in the Fedal rivalry. They’ve met 5 times at Roland Garros, including 4 straight years from 2005 to 2008. Nadal has come out on top all 5 times.
The first of these meetings was a semi-final (all the other 4 were finals) meeting in 2005. Federer was ruling the tennis world, Nadal was yet to win his first major. They had shared their first 2 meetings, but this would be the first time they would meet on clay. Nadal bullied Federer, repeatedly hitting heavy top spin shots high to the Federer backhand, something that no other player on tour was able to do on a regular basis. It was a pattern that we had seen in their previous 2 meetings, but the effect was magnified on clay. Add to that Nadal’s retrieval abilities on the surface, and he clearly looked to have the matchup advantage in this match. Nadal took the first set. Federer fought back to take the second. Nadal would be just that little bit better though, and he won the match 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-3.
In the final, Nadal would beat Mariano Puerta to lift his first French Open title. He currently has 10.
8. Federer fights back from 2 sets down in Miami
Both Federer and Nadal have always acknowledged how the other has helped make them a better player. And this is one match that Federer talks about in particular.
Federer was the single dominant force on tour. Over the last year and a half, he had decisively overcome every challenger on tour. Hewitt, Roddick, Safin, Nalbandian, Ferrero, Agassi – they had all succumbed to the might of Federer. But in 2004, in the 3rd round of the Masters Series event at Miami, he came across a foe unlike any other he had faced. That day, Rafael Nadal, the Spanish teenage sensation beat him in straight sets.
One year later, he was facing the same opponent on the same court – only this time it was the title round. It started much the same way as the previous match. Nadal took the first 2 sets 6-2 7-6. It looked like Federer had finally met his Kryptonite. The young Spaniard relentlessly attacked the single-handed backhand of Federer, something he was able to find on a regular basis thanks to his natural, exaggerated lefty spin. And even when Federer managed to get an offensive position in the rally, Nadal would run around side to side behind the baseball, chasing down ball after ball after ball.
If Federer had to win, he would have to dig deeper than he’d ever done before. From the middle of the third set, he became more aggressive, using his lightning quick footwork to take the ball even earlier. He managed to take the set in a tiebreaker. Federer was now in the ascendancy and was just about the better player in the 4th set, taking it 6-3. In the fifth set, the resistance from the challenger finally faded away, Federer taking it 6-1.
Federer had done it. He had overcome this incredible young teenager. But there was already no doubt about one thing – we were going to witness many more such epic battles between these two in the years to come. Years later, Federer has spoken about how important this match was for him. Until then, he was mostly overcoming his opponents with consummate ease. He rarely had to dig too deep to get through matches. This match helped him prove to himself and his team that he can also fight to win matches.