Borg-McEnroe. Evert-Navratilova. Sampras-Agassi. Federer-Nadal. They’re the kind of rivalries that transcend the sport; rare, epic narratives forged over decades on tennis courts from Queens Club to Queens, New York.
They highlight contrasts in personality, in style, sometimes both. They play out like racquet-dueling sagas: baseliner vs. serve-and-volleyer, girl-next-door vs. Eastern Bloc defector, tennis whites vs. jean shorts. Chrissie and Martina built an unlikely friendship over some 80 head-to-heads. The Sampragassian Wars famously spilled over onto the streets of rush-hour San Francisco, the Nike-orchestrated ‘Guerilla Tennis’ spot setting off a Muni-bus logjam. Super Brat vs. Ice Man became fodder for book deals and Hollywood scripts.
“I think we’re very different personalities, maybe also player types,” said Federer after his quarterfinal win over newcomer Hubert Hurkacz at the BNP Paribas Open, a match that set the stage for Fedal XXXIX. “The way we go about it is very different, yet we both find a way to excel. The way he came up was very clay-court based, and I was apparently very grass-court based, and we both found our ways on other surfaces.”
“It’s the combination of two different styles that makes these matches really special,” said Nadal before their title clash five-setter at the 2017 Australian Open. “They’re different ways to play tennis. Both of us have had a lot of success with these two different styles. I feel that this rivalry is not only in the tennis world — people from outside tennis also talk about it, and that’s good for our sport.”
All along, it’s been a veritable Mutual Admiration Society. Unlike the antagonism between, say, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who as Davis Cup teammates once refused to stay in the same hotel, these frequent foes are quick to praise each other’s accomplishments. They recognize the history-book significance, that they might not be where they are had the other not been there to push him.
“When he came up, I was already World No. 1,” said Federer, who’s closed the gap on career head-to-heads with five straight wins, but still trails, 23-15. “Clearly, that adds to it — him trying to figure things out and getting there himself while I was at the top. I think it all adds to the cool rivalry that we’ve had. And then you add all the foundation stuff, promotional things we’ve done for the tour, political things, whatever it’s been, it’s been quite a journey with Rafa side by side.”
The tricenarians — Federer is now 37, Nadal 32 — continue to play for the record books. Federer, the all-time Slam king with 20, recently hit the 100-title mark and is chasing an unmatched sixth trophy in Indian Wells. For his part, Nadal, winner of 17 majors, is pursuing an industry-best 34th ATP Masters 1000 title.
Saturday’s semifinal will be their 20th Masters 1000 encounter, which includes three right here in the Coachella Valley. Federer won two of those matches, the most recent a 6-2, 6-3 Round-of-16 decision in 2017. It’s been more than a year since they last faced each other, and you get the feeling fans are savoring each occasion more than ever when they do line up in the draw. As Federer and Nadal edge closer to the end of their respective careers, we wonder just how many more of these much-cherished clashes we’ll witness.
“It brings extra energy to the building,” noted Federer on Friday. “There’s always a lot on the line.”
Federer, the No. 4 seed, has been sharp throughout the tournament. He dispatched countryman Stan Wawrinka, 6-3, 6-4, in a rematch of the 2017 final, and took out 22nd-seeded Brit Kyle Edmund in the quarters, before overwhelming Hurkacz, 6-4, 6-4. The Swiss has yet to drop a set.
The No. 2 seed Nadal also boasts a clean slate in wins over Jared Donaldson, Diego Schwartzman, Filip Krajinovic and Karen Khachanov. The Spaniard showed some real gumption in the last, a 7-6(2), 7-6(2) squeaker in which he not only battled his 6-foot-6 Russian opponent, but also his compromised right knee.
“The main thing is all the things that we’ve shared in our careers,” said Nadal of his career-long rivalry with Federer. “That makes always the matches really special. Different styles, different ways to understand the sport. At the same time, we’re two players with a good relationship after all the things that we went through in our careers, competing for the most important titles. All these things make the match always really special between us and it’s beautiful to have the chance to keep competing at the highest level in late rounds, in the most important events at that late part of our tennis careers.”