Roger Federer is the best player in the history of tennis, but some days he’s the second-best player on the court. For all his greatness, his victories and accolades, there’s only one player who can claim to being the best player on any given day, and it’s Rafael Nadal. Even in his low moments, when he’s not hitting or seeing the ball well, Nadal can at any time beat anyone on the planet. That’s not true for Federer, or Novak Djokovic, and it’s certainly not true for Andy Murray and the list of fifth-place competitors.
The reason Nadal is so dangerous, so consistently able to compete with anyone in any situation, is that he’s an absolutely unbelievable athlete. Maybe the best tennis has ever seen. He’s strong, he’s ludicrously fast, he has freaky-fast reflexes. He makes plenty of impressive tennis shots, to be sure, but his primary advantage is that he’s simply able to get to shots others watch go by. His skills are athletic, physical rather than mental.
Federer, on the other hand, is pure tennis, possessing an otherworldly tennis sense. He hits angles no one else even sees, never seems to make the wrong decision, and plays nearly flawless tennis in every match he plays. He gets better as matches go on, constantly adapting his game to take advantage of opportunities unique to that particular match. Watching Federer is like watching Larry Bird or Peyton Manning in that he’s always at least one step ahead of everyone else; a number of times a match, everyone in the building seems to be surprised at a play he was able to make. Everyone except Federer, that is. He’s everything that tennis players aspire to, making tennis look at once easy and like the sport of kings.
The Federer/Nadal rivalry pits those two polarizing styles, Federer’s flawless grace and beauty against Nadal’s brute strength and impossible physical gifts. It’s really no contest: Nadal is 17-8 against Federer, most of those when he was #2 to Federer’s long-held #1. They were on opposite sides of the court during the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played, a match Nadal won in five unbelievable sets.
Every time I’ve watched the two play, one thing always sticks out: most of the time, Federer can’t believe he’s not winning. He hits the same shots he always hits, finds the right angles, makes the right decisions, and yet time and time again finds the ball back on his side of the court. Nadal’s unique ability to chase down balls that no one else can chase down throws Federer off his game, forcing him to search for ever more difficult and impossible-to-return shots. Nadal knows he can beat Federer, partly because he’s beaten Federer before but mostly because he knows his gifts provide a natural advantage when pitted against Federer’s.
Andre Agassi, himself a pretty good tennis player, noted during this year’s French Open that the Federer/Nadal rivalry looks a lot like the Agassi/Sampras rivalry, especially during the 2002 US Open:
He (Sampras) was playing not so great. But when he saw me on the other side of the net, nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter, because he was comfortable in our many matches. He knew what he could do. Knew what he would do.
It’s the same for Nadal. He hasn’t been playing that well, his confidence was low the first week of the tournament. But when he sees Roger out there, he’ll feel relaxed, comfortable. They’ve played 24 times and Rafa has won most of them.
Nadal’s athleticism not only allows him to reach balls others couldn’t, but also to make use of shots others would be lucky to poke back over the net. Federer thrives on a single weak shot, pressing and prying until a ball gets popped up or weakly hit. With that chance, he pounces, putting the ball away each and every time. When Federer plays Nadal, though, those shots never present themselves. Where others run for lunging, hopeful pokes just trying to keep the point alive, Nadal seems to just appear at the spot, set up and ready for a knifing left-handed forehand that never gives Federer his chance. Nadal stays alive over and over, and turns defensive shots into offensive ones in a way no one can match. (Serena Williams is Nadal’s equivalent on the women’s tour—so unmatched in her athleticism that when she decides she feels like playing, she’s competitive from moment one. I root against her for the same reason I cheer for Federer against Nadal.)
(Starting at 1:09, a perfect example of just exactly what Nadal can do.)
Federer has re-tooled pieces of his game to compete with Nadal’s singular gifts. His serve is faster and harder than ever, and he’s more patient against Nadal now. That added up to the closest clay match they’ve played in several years, a French Open final that ended in Nadal’s favor after four grueling sets. Federer looked powerful and fast, played smart and consistent. But Nadal hung around in every point, forced Federer to play powerful instead of graceful tennis, and won because of it.
Nadal’s (remarkable) run cheapens tennis, ever so slightly. To look at him, it’s clear he would be a special athlete in any sport he chose, from tennis to basketball to football to curling. Federer, on the other hand, has the aura of a cyborg built to play tennis, as if it were the only thing in the world he could possibly do. Rooting for Federer is rooting for the trained Spartan soldiers to defeat the giant masses of Xerxes’ army, choosing an eyeglass screwdriver over a sledgehammer. Nadal is pure genetics and superior gifts, Roger Federer is pure tennis.
Tennis needn’t go the way of the weightlifter, to the strongest and fastest. Leave that to baseball and basketball. Give me true tennis.