Federer and Nadal display glimpses of their illustrious rivalry in Basel

The following is an article provided by Palatinate.

By Alex Fage

Last Sunday saw an astonishing 34th meeting in Basel between two ageing legends who have captured the imaginations of us all over the last decade. Their rivalry shall remain immortally etched in the minds of those that have seen them do ferocious battle on every surface the modern game has to offer. Whether it was their first classic encounter in Miami in 2005 or their famous 2008 Wimbledon Final, everyone has their favourite Roger-Rafa moment.

The pair share 31 Grand Slam singles titles between them and so when they faced each other in last weekend’s Swiss Indoors final, there was always going to be the predictable hype surrounding the match, and rightly so. However, as recent times have shown, the Nadal and Federer rivalry is frankly not nearly as competitive or entertaining as it was. Naturally there is always extreme excitement whenever the two meet one another, but I think over the last couple of years it has really sunk in that there aren’t going to be many more occasions where we have the pleasure of seeing Rafa’s lasso of a forehand rip into Roger’s graceful single-hander. Therefore, the rivalry has taken on a different, yet equally important, level of significance: one of adoration and respect for the two great champions.

There are an abundance of different points to raise when it comes to Federer and Nadal, but undoubtedly one of the most fascinating is to consider how their rivalry has matured and developed into something slightly less fierce than that of a few years ago, as they are now no longer two superpowers of a bipolar ATP Tour.

However, this did not detract from the final in Basel last weekend as we were treated to three sets of high quality tennis with Federer finally prevailing 6-3 5-7 6-3. Federer, who had not beaten Nadal since 2012 at Indian Wells, was visibly buoyed by his home crowd and displayed some sublime shot-making, painting the lines at times. Perhaps the one thing that was lacking from this match was Rafa’s usual counter-punching finesse. This was particularly highlighted at deuce, 5-3 to Federer in the second set, when Nadal had Federer at the net as a sitting duck but failed to make what was a fairly routine passing shot off a mid-court ball. Instead, Nadal fired the ball straight back at a grateful Federer. This is certainly not the Rafa of old.

Another aspect of the match which emphasised that the Federer-Nadal rivalry is lacking a truly on-form Nadal was that Federer was the one noticeably coming up with exquisite shots on the run (memorably at break point down in the first set), when we are so used to it being the other way round. This may just be that Rafa is trying to evolve his own game to accommodate for his knees or for other debatable reasons, but the fact remains the same; one of the characteristics of the great rivalry that Nadal and Federer have had has been the incredible defence that Nadal has had.

Despite Nadal’s traditional defence not being present, Federer’s certainly was and I was incredibly pleased that this shone through because Federer is, and always has been, a phenomenal athlete. The only reason that he has never truly been accredited for his excellent defensive play is because the hallmark of his two closest career rivals, Nadal and Djokovic, has been their defensive prowess. Therefore, this fortunate occurrence of serendipity will perhaps make people more aware of just how good Federer is as a counter-puncher as well as an aggressor.

One thing I think we can be certain of is that the best days of this most famous of sporting rivalries have been and gone. Currently, Federer and Nadal are different players from when they were both at the peak of their powers, but this does not mean we shan’t still lick our lips with anticipation every time the two are drawn against each other. Seeing them grace the same court will always be special; the battle between their two contrasting styles took the popularity of the sport into uncharted territory. They will be eternally cherished, even if their rivalry does not quite have the same cutting edge that it once did.

Photograph: Marianne Bevis via Flickr