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A look at Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry: Where it all began

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In 2008, a game of tennis at Wimbledon made the hall of fame. A marathon duel which snapped Swiss Ace Roger Federer’s unprecedented 65-match streak on grass at the hands of Rafael Nadal.

It had been five years over which Fedex had racked up his series of victories on grass and it all came undone in one.

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Over the years, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s have emerged as arguably the greatest rivalry in the game, dwarfing even the one between Borg and McEnroe and the like.

Feisty Spaniard and snow-capped Swiss

Fierce competitors in their own right, the feisty Spaniard and snow-capped Swiss have lit up stands with their nail-baiting matches.

While they have their own contingents, featuring family and friends, for support, their rivalry has won them many non-partisan admirers as well.

Coming to their individual styles of play, the difference is not unlike chalk and cheese. 

While the Swiss Ace is the classic serve and volley player relying on a pistol serve and smashes to reel off games, Nadal is more the kind who prefers staying on the baseline and retrieve. 

Gifted with strong limbs and unrelenting knees, the Spaniard has won many a game, especially on his favourite clay surface, by running his opponent ragged and retrieving balls deemed impossible to return.

However, starkly different as they are, their individual styles of play have brought them immense success, across surfaces, over the years.

Just to cite an illustration of their rivalry, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have faced each other on the professional circuit 40 times, with the former holding 24-14 edge over the latter in head to head clashes.

The differences can’t be more pronounced than Borg and McEnroe, who had largely similar styles of play and yet became one of the greatest rivals in the history of the game.

When Nadal snapped Roger Federer’s streak

The match in question where Federer’s streak snapped was marred by several rain-enforced delays.

However, even as the spectators sat on patiently braving the elements and hoping for a result, the combatants went toe-to-toe for glory.

Federer, as we have seen him through the years he’s been on the professional circuit, is a fairly cool competitor who doesn’t give much away in terms of raw emotion.

Contrast this with the angry outbursts of a McEnroe, Lendl,a Roddick or an Ivanisevic and you will know where I am coming from.

However, those tears did come out in torrents when a match ended in defeat. But rarely has a truer word been spoken than that he was as graceful in defeat as he was when victorious.

The matches that Federer and Nadal have been involved a fair bit on grass and clay.

And it was scarcely believable that the former’s streak should end on grass as it is clearly his favourite surface.

In what was the longest men’s final in Wimbledon history, Nadal outlasted Federer in 4 hour 48 minutes of high attritional battle.

Just two points shy of a win, Federer couldn’t close out a win, falling 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5),6-7(8),9-7. 

As the Spaniard shared hugs and handshakes with his supporters, Roger Federer sat in his chair reflecting on what might have been.

A chance to win a sixth consecutive championship at the Wimbledon had slipped through his fingers. Two points. That’s how close it was.

Visibly tired but basking in the glow of glory, Nadal, like a true sportsman, acknowledged how tough it was for Federer to take the defeat. “I am very happy for me but sorry for him as he deserved to win the title too,”

Rafa said.

As the sky wore a dull grey for the better part of the day, the two players, arguably the finest of their generation, traded shots till Nadal flopped to the ground in his moment of triumph.

Clearly at a loss to summon words when asked to describe his feelings, Federer managed, “It’s my hardest losBorgs, by far.

I mean, it’s not much harder than this right now.”

One of the best games ever played

File:Wimbledon Men's final 2008, Federer serves for 3rd set.jpg ...
(Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

Not since 1927 had anyone come back to win the Wimbledon final from two sets down and reversing a match point.

The match clearly put the spectators on the edge of their seats and was acknowledged as one of the best ones ever played, if not the best.

The first man since Bjorn Borg to win the French Open and the Wimbledon in the same year, Rafa, barely able to hold his emotions, said, “Is impossible to explain what I felt in that moment, no?”.

In the process of his maiden Wimbledon final, Rafa also won Spain its first title at the All England Club since Manolo Santana in 1966. Before then, Federer hadn’t lost a game on grass since 2002.

Speaking of Rafa, he said, “Look, Raga’s a deserving champion. He just played fantastically well.”

It was clearly a game that had to pick a winner in the end. But it was honours even.

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