PostHeaderIcon Rafa v Roger: The Death of a Rivalry That Never Really Was

Roger Federer serving to Rafa Nadal at the Western & Southern Open (Kevin Ware)

Roger Federer serving to Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open
(Kevin Ware)

Rafa Nadal played Roger Federer at the Australian Open in a semifinal that was billed as the 33rd chapter of a storied rivalry. And as he’s done many times before, Rafa scored an impressive and comprehensive victory over his disheartened Swiss foe, winning in straight-sets 7-6(4) 6-3 6-3.

I take issue with the term “storied rivalry”, which implies a sense of uncertainty and drama about the outcome. The hard truth about their matches is that the outcome is often not in question. Such is the case for this “rivalry” that never really existed.

Google’s search defines “rivalry” as competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. When Rafa and Roger compete for the same objective, or superiority in the same field, there’s little competition.

The head-to-head numbers, a 23 – 10 series lead in favor of Rafa, don’t lie. In fact, one could say that it was never a rivalry from the outset. Rafa won 7 of their first 10 meetings, 5 of which came in finals. More to the point, he won them during a period of time that coincided with Roger’s heyday (2004-2007).

Any real chance at a rivalry was effectively over by 2008, the year that Rafa embarrassed Roger in the French Open final with the loss of only 6 games. He followed that with a defeat Roger on “home” turf at Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It’s one thing to dominate someone on your favorite surface. It’s quite another when you beat them on theirs.

Sentiment wants us to believe that Rafa v Roger is one of the great classic rivalries, but it’s not. Take, for example, this sampling of great rivalries: McEnroe v Borg (7 – 7), McEnroe v Connors (20 – 14), Sampras v Agassi (20 – 14), Navratilova v Evert (43 – 37), and even Lindsay Davenport v Venus Williams (14 – 13).

These are rivalries in the sense that whenever these players faced one another on any given day, either player had an equal chance of winning. Or, as in the case of Sampras v Agassi, the presence of one (Agassi) usually brought out the greatness in the other (Sampras).


Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Aussie Open
(Ben Solomon/Tennis Australia)

With Rafa v Roger, we generally know who’s going to win. Some might argue that they still qualify because Roger’s presence brings out Rafa’s greatness a la Sampras and Agassi. While that’s sometimes been the case, as in the ’08 Wimbledon final, this is simply an incredibly bad match-up. Rafa is Roger’s kryptonite, and there’s not much he can do about it.

In many ways, their rivalry is reminiscent of Serena v Maria (15 – 2). No matter the circumstances, Serena wills herself to win, and there’s little that Maria can do to stop her. Maria hasn’t managed a win over Serena since 2004, and has tried everything to reverse this trend of perpetual losses to no avail.

The same could be said of Rafa v Roger after Melbourne. Roger came into this match pain-free, and feeling confident with his new racquet. Rafa came into the match with talk centering mostly on his badly-blistered hand. It was Roger’s best chance to notch a Slam win over Rafa since their ’07 Wimbledon final. Instead, Roger was beaten in straight sets…again.

Few, if any, believe this is a rivalry that will ever turn in Roger’s favor.

Context also makes a difference when discussing the gravitas of this rivalry. Their earlier matches felt important because they were meeting in the finals of Slams and Master Series. That importance is diminished when they’re meeting in quarterfinals – which happened twice in 2013 at Indian Wells and Cincinnati.

That’s not to say that good hasn’t come from their many encounters, because it has. Rafa’s early losses to Roger inspired him to become a more complete player on all surfaces, not just clay. Conversely, Roger’s losses have kept complacency at bay, forcing him to improve his backhand and competitive resolve.

Roger’s also gained a large dose of humility from his losses to Rafa. Even a player as great as Roger must admit the inherent duality of holding virtually every modern tennis record while being utterly unable to beat his main foe, regardless the surface.

It’s a shame that the Rafa’s rivalry with Novak Djokovic (22 – 17) doesn’t produce the same level of fan passion (and tournament dollars) as that with Roger, because it’s a better example of a true rivalry. It succeeds where Rafa v Roger fails because, on any given day, either of these gladiators could win. This on top of the fact that each has consistently brought out the greatness in the other. It succeeds on both fronts.

Unlike Roger, Novak has the shots to counter Rafa’s game, particularly his two-handed backhand that he can direct down the line to Rafa’s backhand, or angle extremely back as a crosscourt to expose more court even if Rafa manages a defensive response.

Rafa, on the other hand, has the resolve and defensive skills to draw crucial errors from Novak’s game. In the slim margins that separate a Slam victory from a Slam loss, that’s crucial. Who knows what might have been had Novak not touched the net in the fifth set of their incredible ’13 French Open semifinal?

However, none of that matters if it doesn’t excite passions beyond a tennis audience. Rafa v Roger is known to tennis fans and non-tennis fans alike, Rafa v Novak is not. It’s certainly a better rivalry, but not one that I believe will ever be referred to as “storied”.

Maybe the bottom line for most folks is not necessarily the details of Rafa’s rivalry with Roger, but more the fact that they represent intriguing polar opposites in the game of tennis: much like Borg-McEnroe and Sampras-Agassi before them. Also, they keep us on the edge of our seats hoping that, maybe this time, Roger will find a way to vanquish the Spanish thorn in his Swiss paw.

Odds are that won’t be the case. But you never know.

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