Nadal vs Federer Could Be the Last Great Sporting Rivalry

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.

As first Novak Djokovic and then Andy Murray departed early from the Australian Open, it felt like the tournament had lost something - another chance to see the best two players in the world compete for further glory. But while Djokovic and Murray have competed fiercely for dominance of tennis, they've never come close to a rivalry like the one that was rekindled in the final on Sunday. It was a timely reminder that Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal is the greatest sporting rivalry of all time, and why it probably will never be repeated.

This year’s Australian Open was a glorious throwback in a few ways. In the women's draw, we saw the first all Williams sister final since 2009. Serena's win further grew her credentials as the greatest tennis player of all time, winning a record 23rd slam. She has had an extra-ordinary career, but such has been her dominance that she never had a rival to be her equal and opposite. And while her victory on Saturday was a historic moment, such is the draw of Federer vs Nadal that it has been a bit overshadowed. This says something about the way women’s tennis is treated, but it also speaks to the fact that everyone loves a good rivalry. Borg v McEnroe, Prost v Senna, Ali v Fraser - a great personal rivalry energises a sport.

It can be easy to forget but for over a decade these two men dominated the world of tennis. They’ve played each other in 9 grand slam finals and won 32 slams between them, including playing the best match of all time in the 2008 Wimbledon final. It's a period of dominance unmatched by two individuals in any sport. Ever. Their rivalry made each of them better (they are now ranked first and third in grand slam titles for men) and enlivened the game of tennis. The final in Melbourne was in many ways the perfect showcase of a historically brilliant rivalry.

This is a rivalry the like of which we will never see again. Part of what has made it so brilliant is that they’ve played each other so many times in crucial matches. In their prime the gap between them and the rest of the field was so great that every match became crucial, serving to further amplify the rivalry. But two athletes being head and shoulders better than the rest of their sport is becoming increasingly rare. In tennis, Djokovic and Murray are top of the pile, but in the last 13 Grand Slams there have been 6 different men’s champions. Compare that to a spell between the French Open in 2005 and Wimbledon 2009 when in 18 Grand Slams, Nadal or Federer won 17 of them, with only Djokovic managing to break through once. With the amount of money now in sport, and a wider understanding and sharing of conditioning and training techniques, it is generally less likely for one or two individual athletes to 2000’s less likely now than it was then.

It’s also the case that in the age of social media, the mystique around some of these great sporting rivalries is somewhat diminished. In the past, when our impression of these players was shaped by media narratives or brand storytelling, the creation of an image of a heated and epic rivalry was easy. But today, social media takes us closer to the lives of the athletes and has the effect of humanising them. It shows us that they are real people, who in reality are often close friends off the court. For a great rivalry, we should believe that they are just as combative with each other off the court as on it. As the filter between us and these athletes wears away, the idea of these personal rivalries somehow seem less realistic.  For both of these reasons, high profile rivalries like Rafa and Roger could be a thing of the past.

So when watching the final battles of this iconic pair like we did on Sunday, it’s important to realise just how special what we are watching really is. It’s always easy to assume in the moment that the status quo right now will repeat itself. But Federer v Nadal is the type of rivalry that just doesn’t repeat itself, and in today’s sporting context is even less likely to happen. So my advice would be, enjoy it while it lasts.

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search