High school, iPhones and Fedal – there really was a lot to like about growing up in the 2000s and 2010s. This is how an unmatched rivalry shaped a generation of tennis lovers.
News of Roger Federer’s retirement triggered an outpouring of emotion, and bittersweet celebration. Tributes from players, fans and the media alike came thick and fast as they shared what Federer meant to them.
It’s tough to know where to begin when celebrating Federer’s career, such is the treasure trove of memories the now 41-year-old created.
This author being a mid-to-late 20-something tennis tragic, Federer’s peak was part of growing up. The majesty and awe with which Federer played was all supplementary learning to mid-week tennis lessons, and scrubbing up to junior competition on a Saturday morning.
Federer’s enduring rivalry with Rafael Nadal – or Fedal as it’s become affectionately known – was a staple, and perhaps the most fondly remembered feature of that time. We were lucky to experience it right in the middle of our formative years and beyond, just as you start to shape an identity.
While the ever-durable Nadal continues to kick on at 36, it’s an apt time to reflect as Federer retires. Both champions are to be thanked – their unique rivalry showed us all what sporting rivalries should be, known not just for the sheer quality of play, but for the sportsmanship, friendship, and challenging one another to constantly improve.
Between their first meeting in 2004 in Miami to the last one at Wimbledon in 2019, the Swiss and the Spaniard met a combined 40 times over 18 years with Nadal leading the head-to-head 24-16. The world around them evolved so often in that time.
The rivalry ebbed and flowed, and the two met in 24 finals at both tour and grand slam level. They seemed to trade rankings between world number one and two before the likes of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic rose to prominence to create the Big Four.
If there was one thing that remained a constant at the height of Fedal, it was Nadal’s stranglehold on the clay circuit, and his French Open dominance. Federer could never quite get that French Open he wanted, such was the Nadal-sized roadblock – that was until Federer defeated Robin Soderling in the 2009 final, the man that toppled the king of clay.
There came a point last decade, maybe 2016, when we thought Fedal may never reach those heights again.
How wrong we were.
It went through a revival at the 2017 Australian Open, culminating in a memorable five-set Federer final win. Whether you were there or watching on TV, that was a special night. There was something nostalgic about watching these two ageing foes lock horns so long after their first slam final meeting at Roland Garros in 2005.
That night just proved that old dogs can learn new tricks. Federer added a new bow to his game, the Sneak Attack by Roger, or SABR, inspired by his then coach, Stefan Edberg. Nadal, meanwhile, continued to find ways to put more and more top spin on the ball – his famous forehand a constant thorn in Federer’s side.
Federer and Nadal met three more times that year, two of those were finals in Miami and Shanghai. For Federer, that year was the kind of renaissance Nadal has just experienced in 2022, five years down the line.
But no matter the time or circumstance, respect and humility was the foundation of this great rivalry. Just look at Nadal’s tear-jerking tweet paying tribute to Federer, or Federer’s congratulatory message to Nadal after his landmark Australian Open championship earlier this year, or one getting involved in the other’s philanthropic ventures.
Even though Federer and Nadal won’t clash on court again, the Fedal rivalry will live on in the hearts and minds of fans for some time, if not ever. Fans will continue to debate just who the men’s GOAT is – Federer, Nadal or Djokovic.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a rivalry quite like this one in sport again, let alone in tennis. If Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner’s five-hour US Open quarter-final epic is anything to go by, then maybe these two young stars of the next gen will go close.
It’s fitting that Federer’s final event will be the Laver Cup at London’s O2, an event his management team had a hand in founding.
But more importantly, he’ll have the chance to represent Team Europe and pair up with Nadal in the doubles. It’s the fairy-tale final chapter for a rivalry that inspired and entertained so many, and will likely never be equalled.
Rivals, friends – together.