As Ashleigh Barty held up the French Open Trophy last weekend, the happiness on her face competed largely unsuccessfully with the look of utter disbelief that overshadowed the joy for much of the time.
In Indian Wells, with wins over two young players vying to be the future of tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have set up another battle in a long line of duels.
Federer made reasonably light work of 22-year-old Hubert Hurkacz, who has had a terrific week at the Masters 1000 event. Federer converted 84 per cent of his first serve points and saved two of the break points he faced, keeping his serve out of reach of his Polish opponent.
Nadal had a blow-for-blow battle with Karen Khachanov with many break point opportunities arising and two each being converted by both players. Ultimately both sets ended up being decided by tie breaks as neither man could maintain their advantage.
Although they have always produced great matches, fans could have understandably got a bit used to seeing the two great men play each other given they crossed racquets 15 times between 2006 and 2008, but with both Federer and Nadal in the back end of their careers and with promising young players slowly but surely catching up to make draws less predictable, fans now treat every fixture as a rare and pleasant surprise not to be missed given it’s not clear when the final chapter in this rivalry will be written.
Despite its longevity, the rivalry hasn’t grown tiresome. It is unique in the sense it is not bitter or mean-spirited. It doesn’t even seem like a zero-sum affair. It has always been characterised by respect and even friendship. Another interesting feature of this contest is that it has stayed fresh by developing different seasons.
Obviously the longest running theme has been Nadal’s significant success in their 38 encounters, starting with their the first match-up all the way back in 2004. Rafa has 23 victories, 14 of them coming in finals. Three times in their history Nadal has put together five straight victories against Federer.
Of Nadal’s 23 triumphs over Federer, 12 have come on clay. Federer has suggested that too many clay clashes and defeats too early in his career made the prospect of facing Nadal even more daunting.
Although Federer won’t be able to make up the difference in their head-to-head results, he will certainly want to make the gap as narrow as he can in the time remaining. When the question of the all-time greatest player comes up, one of the few counterpoints to his case is his head-to-head tallies against Nadal and Djokovic.
Surprisingly it is Federer who has had the better of things later in their careers. Nadal’s most recent win over Federer was at the 2014 Australian Open. Since then Federer has won in Basel 2015 and then four times in 2017 to put together his own five-victory streak for the first time. Four of these five wins were in finals. Should Federer get up in the semi-final at Indian Wells, it will be the first time either of them has put together six straight victories against the other.
It is this later section of their careers that has kindled great interest. Both men had time off in 2016 before storming into 2017, taking all four grand slams between them: the Australian Open (Federer), the French Open (Nadal), Wimbledon (Federer) and the US Open (Nadal). Federer also claimed five other titles that season, with Nadal four.
It appeared that both were in career-best form after injuries, which made Federer’s dominance over Nadal in 2017 an even greater surprise.
Having not met in 2018 – their previous skirmish was in Shanghai in 2017 – we have to look at their current form to see how Sunday morning (AEDT) might go. Coming into Indian Wells, they have had a fairly similar 2019 win-loss ratio with, 7-2 for Nadal and 8-1 for Federer. Nadal had a very strong Australian Open before falling to Novak Djokovic in the final. Federer fell early in that tournament but has since gone on to win his 100th title in Dubai.
Neither has dropped a set as they attempt to make yet another Masters 1000 final. Perhaps the only concern is Nadal’s knee, which gave him some strife in the quarter-final.
The only certainty is that this rivalry is not petering out. They simply do not play games without significance. Every time these champions meet, we are now wondering if it will be their last encounter. Both of them will be desperate to make sure that when old age or injury finally pulls them begrudgingly into retirement, they had the last triumph over the other.