Following Roger Federer’s surprise second round exit from Wimbledon, which followed the first round exit of Rafael Nadal, questions are raised about the immediate future of men’s tennis and whether the Federer-Nadal era is officially over.
It was in the mid-noughties when the most famous rivalry in modern men’s tennis unfolded right in front of our eyes.
Nadal won the pair’s first meeting at Miami in 2004, while Federer had to wait a year later for his first victory over Nadal, also at Miami, in the 2005 final, which also marked their first showdown in a championship match.
This preceded the series of famous Grand Slam finals that the pair would fight out over the next five years. They would face off in three consecutive finals at the French Open and Wimbledon, between 2006-2008, with Nadal winning four of the six, including what is undoubtedly their most famous meeting ever, the 2008 Wimbledon final.
Additionally, they also met in a five-set classic in the final of the 2009 Australian Open, and again in the final of the 2011 French Open, with Nadal winning both.
However, somewhat bizarrely, they have yet to meet at the US Open. On two occasions, Federer was very close to making the US Open final in 2010 and 2011, holding multiple match points against Novak Djokovic but falling on both occasions.
Just imagine had Federer converted one of those match points – then Federer and Nadal would have met in the final of each major. But it was not to be, and instead it would mark the peak of the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry, which had died down since June last year, only for it to be revived through their two meetings on clay this year (split one-all).
Nadal defeats Federer twice in every three meetings for a 20-10 head-to-head record. Most of these victories come on clay, which is statistically Nadal’s best surface and Federer’s worst (though he has proven us wrong on that front with a victory over Nadal in the final of the 2009 Madrid Masters).
This includes every French Open, Monte Carlo and Rome final which has been contested between the two (collectively, nine). Federer’s only two victories over Nadal on clay have come at the 2007 Hamburg Masters and the 2009 Madrid Masters.
Federer, though, has the edge on grass, winning two from three (the lone exception being that aforementioned great Wimbledon final of 2008), and on indoor hard courts, winning all four meetings at the year-end championships (2006, 2007, 2010 and 2011).
It was Federer’s victory over Nadal in the final of the 2010 World Tour Finals which denied Nadal the chance to cap off the most dominant year in his career, which included winning all but the Australian Open and completing a career golden slam at the US Open.
Nadal, clay court aside, also dominates Federer on outdoor hard courts, winning six of their eight meetings. What is interesting about this statistic is that Federer has never beaten Nadal on outdoor hard courts outside of America. His only two victories in this category came at Miami in 2005 and at Indian Wells last year.
As of 2013, Nadal is yet to win the World Tour Finals, having come closest in the aforementioned 2010 tournament.
Since 2011, the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has died down gradually, though the pair would meet in some more notable matches.
Nadal had come off a dominant 2010 season and made himself clear as the real world number one, while Federer was about to endure his longest Grand Slam title drought.
It was thought that Nadal would continue his dominance into 2011, when he entered the Australian Open with the chance to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Grand Slam tournaments within 12 months, only for compatriot David Ferrer to end that bid in the quarter-finals.
Then, 24 hours after that, Roger Federer lost his title defence to Novak Djokovic, who would eventually capture the title, thus setting the precedent for an era of dominance from the Serbian, which continues today.
Even in the early part of Djokovic building his dominance, Nadal was still the man to beat, as he was still number one. At Miami that year, Nadal would defeat Federer in their first non-final since the 2005 French Open, not taking the World Tour Finals/Tennis Masters Cup into account, before losing to Djokovic in the final.
It was after then that Federer would start playing third fiddle, as Nadal and Djokovic started to peak in their rivalry.
For the first time since 2002 the Swiss would go through an entire year without winning a Grand Slam title, though he would reach the final of the French Open, losing to Nadal, after ending Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak to start the season in the semi-finals.
Even though Federer and Nadal contested the French Open final, the Indian Wells/Miami time period appeared to be the first signs towards the end of the Federer-Nadal era.
From there Djokovic and Nadal would contest the next four Grand Slam finals, with Federer not featuring in a Grand Slam final again until Wimbledon last year, when he defeated Andy Murray to win his seventh title at the All England Club.
In the middle of this, though, Federer and Nadal would meet three times – at the round-robin stage of the 2011 World Tour Finals (Federer), and in the semi-finals of the 2012 Australian Open (Nadal) and Indian Wells (Federer).
Nadal then went down with injury following a second round loss to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon, which allowed Federer and Andy Murray to contest two finals at the All England Club, with Federer winning the Wimbledon crown and Murray winning the Olympic gold medal.
Then came the Djokovic versus Murray final at the US Open, which Murray won in five sets to capture his first Grand Slam title at the fifth time of asking.
Tennis experts started coining the Djokovic-Murray rivalry, one which could peak if they meet in next Sunday’s Wimbledon final. The chances of this happening would now be very high given the early exits of Federer and Nadal.
As we have now realised, Federer’s Wimbledon title last year has appeared to be a false dawn, the Swiss having lost his title defence overnight to Ukraine’s Serhiy Stakhovsky.
This marks the earliest ever time in which Federer has conceded his title defence at any Grand Slam tournament.
Federer’s second round loss also marks his worst performance at a Grand Slam tournament since the 2004 French Open, when he went out to former number one Gustavo Kuerten in the third round, and his worst performance at Wimbledon since 2002, when he crashed out in the first round to Croatian qualifier Mario Ancic.
His departure, which follows hot on the heels of Rafael Nadal’s shock first-day dismissal, marks the worst performance by those two collectively at a Grand Slam tournament since the 2003 US Open, and it could officially mark the end of the Federer-Nadal era as we know it.
On July 8, Federer will drop out of the top four for the first time in more than a decade, and ironically it will be Nadal who is the beneficiary, despite the Spaniard’s first round loss at Wimbledon.
Federer will be 32 by the time the US Open begins. Does he still have the petrol and energy to hit 20 Grand Slam titles? We’ll have to find out by then. To achieve that he’d have to revisit his halycon days of 2006 and 2007, in which he captured all but the French Open.
Given his form at the moment, it’s very unlikely, and he could be closer to retirement than another Grand Slam title, let alone another showdown against Nadal for it.
We’ve had the Federer-Nadal rivalry, the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry, and now it seems men’s tennis now centres on the Djokovic-Murray rivalry, which could peak if the two meet in next Sunday’s Wimbledon final.
For now, though, Federer and Nadal will be licking their wounds following their worst ever collective performance at a Grand Slam tournament. Let’s just hope that they can sneak in a US Open showdown (it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the final) before Federer retires.
It’d also be sad to see Federer continue to decline – after all, he is a great champion and let’s just hope that he can finish his career on top, like many other champions do.