Federer v. Nadal: The Five Best Matches
As far as rivalries go, they've done it all. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have played on clay, grass and hard courts. Their matches have decided the game's biggest trophies, and their most memorable affairs have incited Greatest Of All Time debates that will rage on for decades.
Federer and Nadal have faced off 35 times during their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry. Twenty-two of those matches have come with a trophy on the line, and 19 of those 22 have decided a Big Title – a Grand Slam, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event or the ATP Finals.
The buildup and drama has always been primetime-television worthy between the two all-time greats. But which of their battles rise to the top? Which matches have been the very best in one of the sport's all-time greatest rivalries?
Tallying the full impact of history, the quality of the contest and what was on the line, here's our Top 5. Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.
5. 2005 NASDAQ-1OO Open final, Miami, hard, Federer d. Nadal 2-6 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-1
The two had met only once at this point in history, but Nadal had already made it very clear that he would be a talent to be reckoned with in the years ahead and that he would have no problem challenging the Swiss champion. During their first meeting, in Miami in 2004, the Spaniard dismissed Federer 6-3, 6-3, needing only 70 minutes to introduce himself to the right-hander.
A year later, Federer was primed for revenge. He came into Miami with only one loss on the year (to Marat Safin in the semi-finals of the Australian Open) and fresh off a title in Indian Wells (d. Hewitt). Nadal had won three ATP World Tour titles during the past year and was going for his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown.
The balls were flying at Federer from Nadal's exploding topspin groundstrokes, and the Spaniard was running down everything in sight. Before he knew it, Federer was down 3/5 in the third set tie-break, two points from defeat. But he rallied back, stringing together four consecutive points to force a fourth set. During the final two sets, the Swiss wouldn't have to rely on late heroics. He dominated Nadal to come back from two sets to love down and complete the Indian Wells-Miami "Sunshine Double" for the first time in his career.
4. 2009 Australian Open final, Melbourne, hard, Nadal d. Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2
History would be made by the winner. For Federer it was the chance to equal Pete Sampras’ all-time record of 14 Grand Slam championship titles in front of Rod Laver, who completed the calendar year Grand Slam in 1962 and 1969. For World No. 1 Nadal, it was the opportunity to become Spain’s first Australian Open titlist in the event’s 104-year history.
Nadal had prevailed over Spanish compatriot Fernando Verdasco in five hours and 14 minutes – the Australian Open’s longest-ever match – on Friday night, while Federer had a 24-hour head-start to recover from his semi-final. The question was whether Nadal could recover both mentally and physically in time for the final and clinch his first hard-court Grand Slam crown.
Nadal had grabbed a two sets to one lead and had five opportunities to break at 3-2 in the fourth set. But the Spaniard couldn't convert any of them, and Federer evened the final at two sets all. Many spectators assumed the momentum would change, but a mentally fatigued Federer was unable to muster any resistance as Nadal ran through the deciding set for the win.
During the presentation ceremony, a tearful Federer received consolation from Nadal, who encouraged Federer to return to the microphone to share his thoughts with the crowd. Nadal followed, telling the Swiss: “I'm sorry for today. I really know how you feel. But remember – you are one of the best players of the history and you are going to improve the 14 [of Sampras].”
Nadal was the first man since Goran Ivanisevic in 2001 to win a Grand Slam championship title with five-set victories in the semi-finals and final. At 22 years and seven months, Nadal was the second youngest player to win six Grand Slam titles after Bjorn Borg (22 years and one month) at 1978 Wimbledon.
3. 2017 Australian Open final, Melbourne, hard, Federer d. Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3
For years, many tennis observers thought they'd never see this again: Federer and Nadal meeting in a Grand Slam final. The fans and analysts weren't being pessimistic, either. It had been three years since Nadal had won 2014 Roland Garros and almost five years since Federer hoisted the Wimbledon trophy in 2012. But here the all-time greats and friends were, proving the doubters wrong once more.
Federer had surprised even himself by reaching the Melbourne final. He was playing in his first tour-level event in more than six months after taking the second half of 2016 off because of a lingering knee injury. Nadal, too, had missed the last five weeks of the 2016 season to rest his left wrist. But it was like old times again in Melbourne, with the level of tennis high from the start of their final.
During the first four sets, the players peaked at different times, with Federer starting hot but Nadal answering. In the fifth set, though, both legends neared their apex, and it looked like Nadal would take this 35th FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting as he broke to start the decider. The 35-year-old Federer, though, would make his comeback even more special.
The Swiss fell behind 1-3 in the fifth set but reeled off the next five games, including two service breaks, to beat Nadal and claim his fifth Australian Open title and 18th Grand Slam crown in three hours and 38 minutes. The right-hander did it with his serve, 20 aces, and his backhand, which had been solid all tournament long and stood up to Nadal's topspin forehand as best as it ever had. Federer flattened out his one-hander and delivered several cross-court winners against Nadal, which forced the Spaniard to stay home and limited his ability to run around his backhand.
The two have now won a combined 32 Grand Slam titles. At 35 years and 174 days, Federer became the oldest Grand Slam champion since Ken Rosewall, who won three major titles in 1970 and ’71 after celebrating his 35th birthday.
Read & Watch: Federer Captures 18th Major Crown
2. 2006 Internazionali BNL d’Italia final, Rome, clay, Nadal d. Federer 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5)
Only three weeks after their four-set Monte-Carlo final that Nadal won, he and Federer were at it again. Federer rested in the time in between the two tournaments, while Nadal went to Barcelona and won another title (d. Robredo).
The Rome final, which lasted five hours and five minutes, was their best yet. Federer forced the action, successfully approaching the net again and again. But once more Nadal won the big points. Federer had two match points with Nadal serving at 5-6, 15/40 in the final set. But he missed forehands on both opportunities.
With the victory, Nadal tied Guillermo Vilas’ Open Era record of 53 straight match wins on clay. He also lifted his career record in finals to 16-2, the best winning percentage in Open Era history. Even after the defeat, Federer had an incredible 2006 record of 39-3, with all three losses coming to Nadal.
Read & Watch: Rafa vs. Roger - The Match That Cemented Their Rivalry
1. 2008 Wimbledon final, London, grass, Nadal d. Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7
Federer was looking to clinch his 13th career Grand Slam title and sixth straight Wimbledon trophy. Nadal was attempting to become the first man to win the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double since Bjorn Borg in 1980, and also emulate Spanish compatriot Manuel Santana – the 1966 winner at the All England Club.
In one of the most anticipated matches of their rivalry, the two delivered some of their very best tennis. Nadal started out determined, racing to a two sets to love lead and silencing the pro-Federer crowd on Centre Court.
But Federer roared back, taking the third set after a rain delay further built the tension. The right-hander then denied Nadal three championship points in the fourth and fifth sets. But at the fourth time of asking, serving for his first Wimbledon title, Nadal sealed the victory after four hours and 48 minutes and with darkness looming.
It was the longest final in Wimbledon history (since 1877) and was immediately celebrated by analysts and journalists. John McEnroe said, “This is the greatest match I've ever seen.”
Sports Illustrated tennis writer Jon Wertheim later wrote a book that focused on the match titled, “Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played”.