John McEnroe said it best after Roger Federer hung on to beat Stan Wawrinka to advance to his 28th Grand Slam final: “It’s like back to the future.”
Back to the future, indeed. Federer, currently ranked 17th in the world, has responded to all the critics that said he might not ever regain his form after a back injury sidelined him for the final six months of 2016, proving that the most accomplished tennis player of all-time does still have plenty left in the tank, even at the prehistoric age of thirty-five (by tennis standards).
But Federer wasn’t the only player McEnroe was referring to in his post-match analysis. His counterpart in Sunday’s Australian Open final, Rafael Nadal, looked like he too would never reclaim his past glory. If anything, the fourteen-time major winner’s career was in even more dire straits than Federer’s. A spate of injuries held him out of many tournaments over the past two seasons, which largely explains why Nadal went two-and-a-half years without even reaching a Grand Slam semifinal. But all signs are a go now. Nadal, who outlasted Grigor Dimitrov in a terrific five-setter earlier today, looks like he’s rekindled enough of his old magic just in time to face his nemesis.
Of course, it gets even better. Not only will we have the luxury to watch the greatest men’s tennis rivalry of this generation unexpectedly take place, perhaps even for the last time, we’ll witness the women’s equivalent as well. Venus and Serena will face off for a remarkable twenty-eighth time on Saturday (albeit 3:30 am local time), and it will be the first time the two sisters have met in a major final since 2009’s Wimbledon title.
Before getting to who I like to win each of these matches, which rivalry is superior?
I’ll start by addressing the Williams sisters. The importance of the their rivalry will never be questioned. When these two women met for the first time in a major final back in the 2001 U.S. Open, CBS projected such a large television audience that it moved the women’s final into primetime–something that had never been done before. This was risky because it meant that the match would be competing directly with that weekend’s slate of college football games. Nonetheless, nearly 23 million people tuned in, which was far more than expected. The match even outdrew every college football contest that weekend. Granted, that final–given it’s novelty–was certainly an outlier; but matches that the Williams sisters partake in, particularly Serena’s, still continue to draw nearly double the viewing audience of an average Grand Slam telecast.
Their cultural impact stretches even further. Both sisters famously grew up in Compton, miles away from all the privileged tennis academies that foster young talents. Of course, they were so terrific that they both made their professional debuts at the age of fourteen and burst onto the scene before either were in their early-twenties. Their success since then hasn’t just made them tennis icons. They’re sports icons on a par equal to nearly every other active athlete–male or female–today.
However, their sisterly-rivalry is not better than decades-long battle for tennis supremacy between Federer and Nadal.
Before delving into why their rivalry is superior, what constitutes a great rivalry anyway? Close, competitive matches would be a nice place to start. Federer and Nadal have met eleven times in Grand Slam tournaments, and nine of those matches have been decided in least four sets. Meanwhile, the Williams sisters have met in major tournaments fourteen times and only three of those fourteen matches have gone to a third set (remember, women play best two out of three while men play best three out of five). Moreover, we can’t ignore the fact that Federer and Nadal played in what many people say was the greatest tennis match of all-time, that being the 2008 Wimbledon Final. The Williams sisters haven’t yet produced those kind of fireworks.
The differences in match quality might have something to do with each player’s respective playing style. The Williams sisters are one in the same: Both rely often on brute force in order to compensate for their high unforced error totals. Roger and Rafa have more contrasting styles. Federer has always been known as the game’s most “beautiful” player, combining top-notch groundstrokes with grace at the net to produce a terrifyingly complete all-around game. Nadal thrives more on his supreme athleticism and unrelenting tenacity. This isn’t to say Rafa isn’t as skilled as Federer, but his rather unconventional tendencies (e.g. his western forehand grip) and more frantic approach have made for highly entertaining matches between the two legends.
It’s also important for rivalries to have high stakes, and the stakes are typically higher for Federer/Nadal matches. Of their eleven Grand Slam meetings, every one of them has occurred at least in a semi-final. In fact, their twelfth Grand Slam meeting on Sunday will be the eighth time the two have met in a major final. To be fair, the Williams sisters will be meeting in their ninth Grand Slam final as well. But they’ve also met five times in Grand Slams before the semifinals. Those matches didn’t have quite the same intensity.
Yet to further this argument regarding the magnitude of these matches, consider where both Williams sisters reside on many people’s “greatest of all-time” lists compared to where Federer and Nadal both stand. Serena is arguably the greatest women’s tennis player of all-time. Venus, however, has never reached that same level. She still has a case to go down as one of the ten greatest women’s players ever, but she’ll never come close to matching Serena’s dominance. Therefore, the relative historical importance of the Williams sisters matches isn’t quite as high when compared to Federer and Nadal’s rivalry.
However you’d like to arrange it, Roger and Rafa are at least two of the five greatest players ever. Both might even be in the top three. Granted, I’m not quite as familiar with some of the older guys like Bjorn Borg because I wasn’t alive to watch them, so my opinion is by no means definitive. Nonetheless, I believe Federer is the GOAT. He has the most major titles (17) and he’s been ranked the number one player in the world for more weeks than any other player in history. Plus, he’s thirty-five and about to play in his record 28th Grand Slam title. Pretty hard to argue against all of this information, right?
Well, it’s hard to be the greatest player of all-time if you’re not even definitively the greatest player of your generation. After all, Nadal has a 23-11 edge in their match history. Transitive property: If a = b and b = c, then a = c. So if Federer is the greatest of all-time, but Nadal is better than Federer, than Nadal is actually the greatest. At least you could argue that.
But let’s take a break from the algebra review and recap their shared history. Fed was the one who initially burst onto the scene, achieving his first world number one ranking by around the same time Nadal was just emerging on the professional circuit. Rafa didn’t take too long to make a name for himself, though. He surged all the way to number two in the world by the end of 2005 after capturing his first of nine French Open titles at the age of 19.
This was only the beginning of tennis’ greatest head-to-head battle. Over the course of the 2000’s, Federer continued to dominate, breaking the record for most consecutive weeks ranked number one and scooping up Wimbledon trophies like he was browsing through a supermarket selecting snacks. Yet he still couldn’t break through and capture each of the four major titles, or the career Grand Slam. It was Nadal, the greatest clay-court player of all-time, who always stood in his way at Roland Garros. The two soon became known as the defenders of their respective surfaces: Roger the king of grass, Rafa of clay. Then the tide started to shift after Nadal captured his first Wimbledon championships in the aforementioned “greatest match of all-time.” Mighty Roger was no longer invincible. With that win, Nadal became the first player to seriously challenge, and if not overtake, Federer for world tennis supremacy; and you could feel this struggle taking a toll on both competitors. For instance, Federer famously cried after losing yet another major final to Nadal at the 2009 Australian Open.
Over time Federer recovered, securing the career Grand Slam and breaking the all-time record for major championships along the way. But Nadal, even while hitting rough patches at certain points, still remains close behind. A win in this upcoming final would put Rafa within two major titles of Federer; and though I opened this article by referring to Federer as the most accomplished tennis player of all-time, that honor isn’t necessarily set in stone.
For these reasons, the upcoming match between Federer and Nadal, and their fantastic rivalry in general, is more intriguing than the Williams sisters’ clash.
Let’s get to some quick predictions! Ladies first. Serena may only hold a 16-11 edge over her older sister, but many of her losses to Venus came years ago. Serena has won three of their four most recent matches dating back to 2010, and she’s also had the upper hand over her sister in Grand Slam finals (6-2). It’s also worth mentioning that Serena has cruised through this tournament so far, having not lost a set. Venus, meanwhile, has had an impressive run, but most of her matches haven’t come against the stronger players. The highest ranked player she has played so far was ranked 24th. Her younger sister, on the other hand, has already played two players ranked within the top 20 and beaten both in straight sets.
Serena has a tendency to grind out many of her matches, even against players ranked below her. I’ll still take her to win in two close sets over her sister.
The men’s final is tougher to call. Rafa, as mentioned, holds a noted edge over Roger, including a 9-2 advantage in Grand Slam matches. But that’s a tad deceptive, mainly because five of those matches occurred at the French Open, where Nadal dominates.
Federer and Nadal have had their share of impressive performances, as well as hard-fought battles, this tournament. Federer has defeated three top 10 players–Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Tomas Berdych–two of which having come in five sets. Nadal’s defeated two top 10 players (Milos Raonic and Gael Monfils), but he also beat perhaps the hottest player in tennis, 15th ranked Grigor Dimitrov, in the semifinal. Dimitrov was 10-0 in 2017 entering his match with Nadal, and he had not been taken to five sets once in the Australian Open. He even had Nadal on the ropes, as he had two break points in the fifth set to potentially take a commanding 5-3 lead.
I’m conflicted as to how I feel about Nadal’s recent performance. On one hand, he’s proved he can handle a huge-server (Raonic) and a player with exceptional athleticism (Monfils) with relative ease. But I wonder if the nearly five-hour long Dimitrov match, coupled with one-less day of rest compared to Federer, might have negative consequences. Nadal’s stamina usually is beyond reproach, but I noticed that Dimitrov was able to move him around a bit during their match, particularly in the fifth set. This could prove advantageous for the particularly precise Federer.
However, there’s a school of thought that Federer’s nearly six-month long break might make him more prone to error. Federer looked inconsistent at times, particularly on serve, as he squandered a two-set lead to Wawrinka, who then ultimately imploded in the fifth set. Federer’s been terrific leading up to this point, but against his greatest foe, his game will need to be firing on all cylinders in order to win.
There are questions about each player’s durability given their age and respective health issues. Nonetheless, I think the fact that Nadal has played eighteen more games than Federer over the last two rounds (90 vs 74) might play a role in this match. In general, I’d trust Nadal to prevail in a longer battle, particularly since he’s five years younger than Federer. He might not have quite this same advantage on Sunday, though.
Rafa has yet to see a player whose game is as complete as Federer’s this tournament. I wouldn’t be surprised if he jumped to an early lead, but I anticipate Federer capitalizing on his service opportunities and minimizing mistakes. That will be enough to carry him to an 18th major title.