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  • Mostly written off because of their injuries and age, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer came back to divide the four major titles and demonstrate that even supreme rivals can still respect, support—even like—each other.
By S.L. Price
December 06, 2017

Pity your favorite editorial cartoonist. Usually 'tis the season when that weary wretch can, for a day, get away with a dashed-off Father Time: geezer, sickle, four numerals to note the passing year. But how to capture 2017? Bald and bearded hardly sums up its dispiritingly nasty tone. And it's probably best to avoid using a berobed male to symbolize anything, much less the culture at large, unless you can depict predation, cluelessness and the appalling abuse of position and power.

Indeed, with the revelatory parade of odious men from the media, film, sports and political realms marking this annus as particularly horribilis, it's easy to forget the exceptions. Yet Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, simultaneously crafting the most astonishing comebacks of their careers, together conducted a global tutorial in how to compete, win, project strength and earn millions without embarrassing themselves, bullying subordinates or belittling opponents. Few athletes, this year, proved more dominant. Fewer males, anywhere, handled being "alpha" with such class.

For the first example of this, you had to travel in January to the bottom of the planet, Melbourne—a place about as far as possible from our culture's current left/right, black/white, I'm-right/you're-crazy divide. Sure, it seems odd that a pro sports championship, with its stark delineation of winners and losers, could provide a lesson in how not to approach every argument or game as zero-sum. Yet that was the feeling at the 2017 Australian Open men's final.

Consider: Federer, 35, had every reason to exult after stampeding the 30-year-old Nadal 6-3 in the fifth set, overcoming not just a 1-3 deficit but also a decade of gibes about his lack of guts (or "balls," as seven-time major champ Mats Wilander once put it) when facing his implacable foe. Standing in the same spot where, eight years before, yet another collapse against Nadal had left him weeping, Federer spoke of how, just three months earlier, the two had been nursing injuries that suggested nearly any future but this.

"And here we stand in the finals," Federer said to Nadal. "I'm happy for you. I would've been happy to lose to you, to be honest. Tennis is a tough sport; there's no draws. But if there was going to be one, I would be very happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa."

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The crowd gasped so loudly—Happy to lose?—that Federer added "Really." We've long been taught to expect personal animus at the top of tennis, ever since Jimmy Connors approached each match as a street fight and vowed to chase "that son of a bitch," Bjorn Borg, "to the ends of the earth." And Connors respected Borg. Connors and John McEnroe viscerally despised each other, with a loathing of Ivan Lendl their sole common bond.

"Everyone seemed like an adversary," McEnroe says. "That was sort of the way I grew up; I watched Connors and some of these other guys, and you had to watch out for everyone."

It metastasized from there: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were doubles partners until their rivalry heated up and Navratilova's coach, as Evert told the New York Post in 2002, "taught Martina to hate me." Steffi Graf and Monica Seles maintained a stony silence until a deranged Graf fan stabbed Seles in 1993. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi? In 2010, eight years after their final match, the two faced each other in a charity doubles exhibition: Agassi taunted Sampras for being a tightwad; Sampras blasted a serve at Agassi's head.

Their partners that evening—Federer and Nadal—were visibly unnerved. "This rivalry is intense, man!" Federer hollered crosscourt. "I mean, Rafa ... start! Do something."

But the Rafa-Fed rivalry—which for quality already surpassed anything produced by Sampras-Agassi—had nowhere near that kind of sizzle. They had been playing each other for six years, and Nadal was on a roll, winning five of their previous six (highly civil) meetings, including the French Open, Wimbledon and that tear-stained Aussie Open. Anyone suspecting hidden enmity all but gave up a few months later, when Federer and Nadal turned a promotional video for a charity match into a 14-minute gigglefest. The clip went viral, and some 11 million YouTube views later, it remains one of the more delightful byplays in sports history. "I've seen it 50 times," says Paul Annacone, who coached Federer from 2010 to '13.

This year, though, Federer and Nadal's mutual regard stood out like never before. Perhaps that's because, though long paired in the public mind, their careers had never before tracked so closely. Entering 2017 both were experiencing their longest Grand Slam droughts, five years for Federer and three for Nadal; both had finished just two majors in '16 because of injury; both were considered essentially done as title contenders. Yet each roared back to win two majors apiece and, stunningly, answered the lone niggling doubt about his greatness in the process.

In short, the tennis year belonged to both men—but also to this third entity, invisible but always present, that they've created together. Call it civility or respect or the understanding that genius is only truly understood by genius: It may well end up being the "Fedal" rivalry's most lasting legacy.

"As a parent, I look at them and think, That's kind of what I'd like my children to be," Annacone says. "Not in terms of accomplishment. In terms of sense of one's self, their sense of appreciation for what they get to do. They just get it. It's so rare in sports to see two rivals who are able to approach their careers in that fashion—purely—that it catches all of us off guard. Because we're like, Don't they really hate each other, deep down?"

In truth, it was easy to wonder that early on. Neither Federer nor Nadal sports the flamboyant neuroses that made the early Open era such a circus, but ego and competitiveness did produce some friction. When they met in the 2006 Italian Open final, Federer, then 24, trailed 1-4 in their series and seemed utterly confounded by the 19-year-old's relentlessness and high, spinning southpaw forehands. His frustration boiled over during the ensuing five-set epic, when he snapped at Nadal's Uncle Toni—"You all right, Toni?"—for coaching from the stands.

"Yeah, I caught him in the act," Federer said after. "Not the first time."

Not the first time, either, that he had seized a seemingly commanding lead in the fifth (4-1) and wilted. Nadal ignored Federer's friendly pat on the gut at net and, still smarting from the implication of cheating, the next day said, "He has to learn to be a gentleman even when he loses."

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Despite their language barrier and age gap, the two shared some core traits: A grounded family, a drive based more on achievement than conquest, a dislike of media-fueled sniping. With temperatures rising and fans slavering for a heated rivalry, ground-level ATP officials urged them to meet and talk. A few weeks later, at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Barcelona, Federer and Nadal sat at a table separated only by Princess Elena of Spain, broke bread and cheered each other's triumphs. The following year Federer flew to Nadal's home island of Majorca to play a goofy half-grass/half-clay exhibition, and the two had a warm dinner, seemingly at peace with divvying up, like spheres of influence, the tennis world.

Still, Federer was the sport's undisputed king then, winner of 10 majors, supreme on hard court and grass, while Nadal's only two Grand Slams had come at Roland Garros. The Spaniard had all the marks of a clay-court specialist—except in his own ambitious mind. Armed with great wheels and wondrous hands, aided by a slowing of court surfaces and by string technology that lent his shots astounding torque, Nadal pounded away at Federer's shaky high backhand, lost to him in back-to-back Wimbledon finals, and suddenly, says Boris Becker, "you're going, Holy s---! This guy is the full packet!"

Nadal completed his coup in 2008, beating Federer in a five-set epic at the All England Club—9-7 in the fifth, as darkness fell—that was instantly hailed as the greatest match ever. "The guy proved everybody wrong," Becker says. "His sheer determination to overcome obstacles must be second to none."

Federer's efforts against Nadal on clay, meanwhile, kept falling short. He seemed uncharacteristically cowed in their matches but, against other challengers, began to snap: a "Shut up!" to the crowd here, a "Be quiet" to the player's box there. Critics declared that Rafa had burrowed inside Fed's head. In January 2009, Nadal's record against Federer stood at 12-6 ... and he just kept coming.

Federer opened that year's Australian Open final hoping to tie his idol, Pete Sampras, with his 14th Grand Slam title; instead, Nadal seized his first hard-court major by rolling him in the fifth set, 6-2. The Federer Paradox took hold: How can a player be termed the greatest if he's so dominated by his archrival? "God," Federer said, crying as he tried to give his runner-up speech, "it's killing me."

Much has been made of that moment. No No. 1 has ever had more poise; Federer always carried himself like a jock dreamed up by Ian Fleming. But in Australia, all suavity vanished. Nadal, the first to expose Fed's weakness, now made him reveal how much losing hurt. Far less has been made of what happened next.

After raising the trophy high, Nadal didn't ignore Federer's tears or stare at the ground, but walked back, threw an arm around his opponent's shoulders and leaned in with the gentlest of head butts. Then he took the mike and said, "First of all, Roger, sorry for today. I really know how you feel right now is really tough, but remember, you are a great champion. You are one of the best of history. You are going to improve on the 14 of Sampras, for sure."

Greg Wood/Getty Images

The spontaneity of his response undercut any suspicion of gamesmanship—though it's true Nadal had arranged some cozy psychological cushioning by insisting for years that he was Federer's inferior, even as he was kicking his ass. With that mind-set each loss is justifiable, every win gravy.

Then again, it could be the ease in Federer's game that Nadal so admires, and slightly resents. For by then his own disturbing pattern had begun to emerge. Though Nadal finished 2008 at No. 1 for the first time, the toll exacted by his furious style was becoming clear; his record, riddled with withdrawals because of foot and knee injuries, would nearly always dip after June, and few expected his body to hold up long. Early in '12, with Federer the president of the ATP Player Council and Nadal the vice president, the two clashed over a number of issues, including Nadal's vocal support of a two-year ranking system to protect injured players.

"Maybe he has got a super body and he'll finish his career like a rose," Nadal said of Federer. “Neither myself, nor [Andy] Murray, nor [Novak] Djokovic are going to finish our careers like a rose.... We're not like him, where it's effortless to play. All of us, it's a battle."

At that point the Nadal-Federer divide consumed fans, with numbers (Federer, 17-11 in the Grand Slam count; Nadal, 18-10 head-to-head) deployed in what felt, at core, like a matter of persona. And how do you compare warrior to artist? Sun Tzu to Michelangelo? By the time he won his seventh Wimbledon, in 2012, Federer seemed resigned to ambiguity; yes, he'd finally won his French Open, in '09 (without facing Nadal), but the greatest-of-all-time debate figured to rage on, forever.

"We have two such separate lives and worlds and things we do and the way we do them," he said that night at the All England Club. "If he does beat my record, it almost doesn't matter. Because I did things he can never do. He did things that I can never do."

By October 2016, Nadal had won three more majors to cut Federer's lead to three, but both men seemed on the edge of valedictory. Nadal pulled out of the '16 French Open in tears with a left wrist injury, missed Wimbledon, failed to reach a Slam quarterfinal for the first time since '04 and finished the year ranked ninth. Back trouble and left-knee surgery knocked Federer out of the season's final four months and out of the Top 10 for the first time in 14 years. He attended the October opening of Nadal's tennis academy on Majorca, called him "the great man"—and made an unprecedented admission.

"I've seen a lot of hard workers and inspiring players," Federer said, "but you've been the one who has been the most inspiring and most influential and made me the player I am today. Because you're lefthanded, because of your spin, because of the intensity you bring to the court, I had to reinvent and rework my game entirely."

MILAN KAMMERMAYER/EPA/EFE/Shutte

Neither, surely, suspected that the reinventing was far from over. Indeed, Federer's decision in 2014 to switch to a bigger racket—from 90 inches to 97—had paid minimal dividends until last winter, when he paired it with a tactical shift. Urged on by coaches Severin Luthi and Ivan Ljubicic, who as a player wielded a punishing one-handed backhand, the 16th-ranked Federer returned in January bent on sustained assault. It was hardly a new idea, but previous bids had always, after a set or two, dissolved in the face of Nadal's tenacity.

In Australia, Federer decided it wouldn't matter if he had a lead or if errors began to mount. Hugging the baseline, taking the ball early, flattening out his backhand—especially on returns—he survived three Top 10 opponents to make the final. Waiting was Nadal, uninjured but hardly pain-free. Of course it went five sets. Federer found himself down a break at 3-1 but, this time, "kept his foot on the pedal," says former world No. 1 Jim Courier, "no matter what."

Five games later, Federer had beaten Nadal in a major for the first time in a decade. "First time I've ever seen Roger play the right way against Rafa for five sets," Annacone says.

Then something strange happened. Federer kept it up. He beat Nadal again at Indian Wells, then at Miami—both in straight sets—won his eighth Wimbledon without losing a set and, in October, now 36, crushed Nadal again in Shanghai. He would finish the year No. 2, with seven titles and a 52-5 record: without doubt, the sport's greatest late-career run. "I've watched tennis for 40, 50 years," McEnroe said. "I've never seen anything like this."

Perhaps even more important, Federer has beaten Nadal a career-high five straight to reclaim, at last, his hard-court dominion. Nadal's head-to-head lead is now a less overwhelming 23-15, with 13 wins on clay—an imbalance notable enough to allow Fed fans to claim victory. "Roger's the greatest person ever to play the game," says Rod Laver, the only winner of two calendar-year Grand Slams. "In my mind he's head and shoulders above anybody on the tour."

Yet the vexing truth about this rivalry is that it can never be quite that cut-and-dried. Grand Slam count has only recently become the sport's gold standard, after all, and it matters that Federer has just one major win in Nadal's territory, Roland Garros, while Nadal has won six, including two over Federer, on Federer's home surfaces. This year? Federer's decision to skip the clay-court season was brilliant for many reasons, not least because it allowed him to face Nadal only on his own terms. "Clearly avoiding him—not playing him on clay," Federer said after Shanghai, "has helped."

Such cherry-picking, of course, makes it easier—even with Federer's 4-0 record against him in 2017—to claim that Nadal had the "better" year. He won a historic 10th French Open and his third U.S. Open—arguably the two most punishing majors. He went 67-10, claimed six titles, and at 31 became the oldest man ever to finish the year No. 1. Most important, Nadal managed body and schedule well enough to post the kind of second half long thought past him, all the way until his knees gave out in November.

"Is so important, winning on hard court again," Nadal said after the U.S. Open. "That's a lot of positive energy for me. Being healthy, you see everything more possible, no?"

Including the gift given tennis fans throughout 2017. Call it Kismet: Everything conspired to make Federer and Nadal's return this year a storybook. The tour's injury plague cleared the draw of their most worrying threats: Federer won Wimbledon and Nadal the U.S. Open without facing Djokovic, Murray—or each other. Their warm relationship, meanwhile, made everyone a bit giddy. No press conference could pass without a question about their mutual admiration.

"I don't want to look like I gonna be his boyfriend, no?" Nadal said after his Open quarterfinal, before—again—enumerating Federer's charity, image, completeness and passion.

That was just a few weeks before both men jetted to Prague for the Laver Cup, a Federer-created exhibition pitting Europe versus the World, with Borg and McEnroe coaching. The newfangled format placed cameras in the locker room and on the sidelines, allowing a riveting glimpse of Federer and Nadal talking strategy together, and the contrast between rivals then and now. There was McEnroe, urging Jack Sock of the U.S. during his singles match with Nadal to "finish this son of a bitch off!" There was Borg, being asked if he could imagine playing doubles with Connors or McEnroe, and saying, "Uh ... no."

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And there, at last, were Federer and Nadal together for the first time, playing doubles against Sock and countryman Sam Querrey, lined up with their Hall of Fame forehands covering the alleys. And it went off as you'd expect, Fedal winning 6-4, 1-6, 10-5 with just one tiny hiccup: a high ball that Federer called for but Nadal intercepted, nearly taking Federer's head off in the process. ("We were wondering, Who's the alpha?" said the play-by-play man. "Maybe it's Rafa.") But both players laughed and sat close and jabbered during breaks, and hugged when it was done.

"To have Roger next to me is a huge privilege," Nadal said after.

"For me personally was a great moment too," Federer said. "After this we will be rivals again, thank God—or unfortunately, however you want to see it. But this was something very special."

It was. We live in an era when rivalry, like so much else in the culture, too often becomes poisonous. The way Federer and Nadal have learned to interact poses a compelling question.

"Why can't it always be like that?" Annacone says. "You look at these guys and see that you can be a helluva competitor, work your ass off, spill your guts and then praise the person on the other side. It's kind of how life should be. They do what you're supposed to do."

And the best part? It's not over. Federer holds a 19-16 lead in majors, but this year's string of wins has, for the first time in 13 years, fundamentally changed their dynamic. Roger has climbed inside Rafa's head. The eternal challenger has been pushed back on his heels, and it's now down to him to muster a response. Keep altering serve patterns? Double down on attacking the backhand? Does Nadal have enough left to push this glorious scrap to yet another level?

"We're about to find out," Courier says. "I hope."

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