As the congratulatory messages started to pour in, and threatened to drown out each other, there was one that stood out. There was always going to be that one that would. That one by Roger Federer.
“I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion,” Federer tweeted after Rafael Nadal secured his 13th French Open title.
“As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players. Therefore, it is a true honour for me to congratulate him on his 20th Grand Slam victory. It is especially amazing that he has now won Roland Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport. I also congratulate his team, because nobody can do this alone. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”
The message was uploaded on social media just moments after Nadal struck his fourth ace of the match to secure a resounding 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 win against Novak Djokovic in the Roland Garros final.
It was a fitting tribute to Nadal, as he entered the ’20-Grand Slam’ club. And there was no person more apt to welcome him there than Federer, the one whose all-time men’s Grand Slam record Nadal has now equalled.
It was the symbol of a friendship, of respect, of a rivalry that started in 2004. And for the first time in these past 16 years, with 20 Grand Slams each to their name, they’re finally equals.
“To share this record between us, that we had an amazing rivalry for such a long time, is something in some way beautiful, I really believe,” Nadal said.
“We have a very, very good relationship. We respect each other a lot. At the same time in some way, I think he’s happy when I’m winning and I’m happy when he’s doing the things well.
“In some way, for me it means a lot. The positive relationship that we have together because we have been going through a great rivalry for a very, very long time. Yeah, I just can say thanks to him.”
The first time they played each other was in the third round of the Miami Masters in 2004. Federer was the World No 1, Nadal was ranked 34 and was yet to win a Slam, but came out with an upset 6-3, 6-3 win. A year later, when Nadal – then 19 – won his first French Open title, Federer was already a four-time Grand Slam champion. And Nadal has trailed the 39-year-old Swiss ever since, until Sunday.
Nadal, now 34, was always playing catch-up to the man five years his senior, but even then, at a time when Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles seemed insurmountable, their rivalry is what captured the imagination of the tennis world. And perhaps, the sporting world in general.
“Both of us have a different way to play tennis (and have) a lot of good success with these two different styles. I feel that this rivalry goes not only in the tennis world. People from outside of our world talk about it and that’s good for our sport,” Nadal had said about the rivalry at the 2017 Australian Open.
Then there were three
In an interview with Eurosport last year, John McEnroe said: “If Federer is so universally loved around the world, he owes it to Rafael Nadal.”
But while the rivalry flourished, a young Serb by the name of Djokovic entered the mix and started to conquer events that had till then seemingly been reserved for Federer and Nadal (Fedal, if you will). He pushed the duo to greater heights, and they pushed him to becoming a 17-time Grand Slam champion and World No 1.
It is folly to ignore Djokovic, for all his achievements, enthralling skills, and what he can still achieve. The debate for who will be the Greatest of All Time, the ‘GOAT’, still rages, but there’s a strong suspicion that it will be the Serb who will be the one who ends up with the most Grand Slam titles to his name.
He’s the youngest among the Big 3, at 33. But his elders aren’t quite done yet.
Federer has taken a brief hiatus to recover from a double knee surgery and is expected to return at the 2021 Australian Open. And we all know what happened the last time he took a lengthy break to recover from surgery.
He had been written off at the 2017 Australian Open, but won it – beating Nadal in a historic final. Then he won Wimbledon that year without dropping a set, and defended his crown in Melbourne a year later.
Nadal just won his 13th French Open title and now has an astonishing 100-2 record at Roland Garros. And even as he celebrated his 20th Grand Slam title, he issued a warning.
“I don’t think today about the 20th, equal Roger on this great number. For me, today is just a Roland Garros victory,” he said on court after winning the title. “Roland Garros means everything to me. I spent here most of the important moments in my tennis career, no doubt about that… for me, just playing here is true inspiration.”
In other words, Nadal wants to win the French Open again, and again…
That three-way race to being the GOAT will continue. But for now, as we bask in this Greatest Generation of All Time, we can just savour the experience of having two 20-time Major winners.
After beating Nadal at the 2017 Australian Open, Federer had said: “There are no draws in tennis, but I would have been happy to share this trophy with Rafa tonight.”
Now, for the first time in their careers, the honours are even.
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