In the summer of 2005, a precocious long-haired, capri-donning teenager announced his presence to the world when he defeated Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the French Open.
Rafael Nadal, who turned 19 on the day, shocked the then four-time major champion and World No. 1 Federer, went on to win his first major title a couple of days later.
14 years later, Federer and Nadal will once again meet in the semi-finals of the French Open on Friday.
Federer will be aiming to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, which he has never done before in his career. The two have played against each other five times in the clay-court Grand Slam and Nadal has won all five of them.
The Spaniard won the semi-final in 2005, and the finals in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011. Federer clinched his only French Open title in 2009 when Nadal lost in the fourth round to Robin Soderling.
37-year-old Federer is playing his first French Open since 2015. He had skipped the entire clay season in the previous two years. “If I came back to play on clay, it must have been to play Rafa,” Federer said on Tuesday after winning his quarter-final match.
Tennis is as much a sport of forehands and backhands as it is of matchups. A player could be one of the greatest in the world, but a certain opponent’s style of play could still prove to be his Achilles’ heel. And that is the “Fedal” rivalry in a nutshell.
For 15 years, Nadal has had the upper hand against the Swiss. Nadal leads the overall head-to-head 23-15, 13-2 on clay and 9-3 at Grand Slams. The 2008 French Open final was one of the most lopsided defeats of Federer’s career where he lost 1-6, 3-6, 0-6.
One of the biggest factors in the Nadal’s favour is that he plays left handed. His signature cross court forehand has always troubled Federer and the heavy top spin that he generates is difficult to counter with a one-handed backhand, especially on a slower surface like clay. Nadal’s wicked serve wide to the ad court is also very difficult for one-handed backhand players to return.
Also, Nadal’s consistency and his ability to run down an extra ball in every point. His command from the baseline, his impenetrable defence and his tactic of physically wearing his opponents down adds to his formula.
However, over the past couple of years Federer seems to have finally found a way to conquer his rival. After switching to a bigger racquet, Federer’s backhand has been more effective. He has also been more aggressive in rallies and tried to disrupt Nadal’s baseline rhythm with a mix of serve and volley, short points, and well-timed drop shots. All of this combined has helped Federer win their last five encounters.
Federer could find some hope as Nadal has not completely dominated this clay season. He lost in the semi-finals of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid before eventually winning the title in Rome. But apart from those blips, Nadal has looked in ominous form in his quest for a 12th title.
On their paths to the semi-finals, both Federer and Nadal have almost spent the same amount of time on court — 10 hours and 59 minutes for Nadal, 10 hours and 45 minutes for Federer. But the Swiss was thoroughly tested by compatriot Stan Wawrinka in their quarter-final, which Federer won 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4. So, it is going to be an uphill battle for Federer and he will have to play at his absolute best if he wants to reach a sixth French Open final.
With history and the odds stacked heavily against him, does Federer stand a chance of defeating the King of Clay in his backyard? The 20-time major champion certainly believes so.
“Like against any player, there is always a chance. Otherwise, nobody will be in the stadium to watch because everybody already knows the result in advance,” Federer said. “And I think sport does that to you, that every match needs to be played before it’s decided.”