Tennis fans of this generation have grown accustomed to greatness.
6 years ago, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met for the first time in a Grand Slam final, on the clay courts of Roland Garros. Nadal was just 20 years old, and won his second French Open title, denying Federer his chance at holding all four major titles at once. Since then, at least one of those two have been in every Grand Slam final except for two, and a guy named Novak Djokovic won both of those (but we’ll get to him later). 8 of those finals pitted Federer and Nadal against one another. The rivalry between these two was phenomenal, every match seemingly one that would go down as one of the best in history. It was brawn vs beauty, muscle vs finesse when they faced off, and each match was a work of art. But it wasn’t always that way.
This rivalry wasn’t truly special until the 2007 Wimbledon finals. Up to this point, Federer was untouchable on grass, and Nadal was still known as a clay court specialist that hadn’t proven himself on any other surface. Rafa pushed Federer to his absolute limit, just barely losing in 5 sets. Although he won, this was the first time in a long time that anybody made Roger Federer look human at Wimbledon, and the tennis world took notice. That match was the first “classic” between the two of them, and actually the last Slam final that Federer managed to beat Nadal in.
Their encore, the 2008 Wimbledon final, was when Rafa really took over the rivalry. He broke Roger’s 65 match winning streak on grass in a dramatic, 5 set, 4 hour and 48 minute marathon. And after that win, the feel of Federer vs Nadal changed. No longer was Rafa in the shadow of the Swiss Maestro. He proved he could compete on grass as well as the clay that he had already won 4 titles on. How long until he took over as the world’s best player on hard courts?
After 2009, when Nadal was bounced from the French for the first time in his career and missed Wimbledon with injuries, he showed just how dominant he could be when healthy. He won 3 straight majors in 2010 and appeared in 8 of the next 10 Grand Slam finals. Federer, meanwhile, showed that he was on the decline by missing 3 straight finals for the first time since winning his first major in ‘03. Tennis fans may finally have a definitive world #1…
Right, back to that Novak Djokovic guy. He went from third wheel in the Roger-Rafa rivalry to world number one in a little more than a year. Tennis fans barely got a chance to accept Rafa as the new top player in tennis before Nole took the game by storm. He has now appeared in 6 of the last 7 major finals, winning 4 of them. Last guy to do that? Roger Federer, before Rafa’s rise to stardom. Novak did it against the guy who stopped Federer’s dominance of the game. So yeah, he’s pretty good.
Rafa and Novak have now squared off in four straight finals, something that Nadal and Federer never did. Nadal’s game is more similar to Djokovic’s than it is Federer’s, and Novak is one year younger than Rafa, whereas Roger is 4 years older. All of this points to the potential for a rivalry that could come close to, or even surpass, what the tennis world has had the privilege of witnessing over the last 6 years. And if the first year of this new rivalry is a sign of things to come, there will be no shortage of the greatness that fans have come to expect from the game’s best.
*Additional fun fact: Since Rafael Nadal won his first Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2005, either he, Federer, or Djokovic have won EVERY Grand Slam title except for one: the 2009 US Open, when Juan Martin del Potro won his first career title.