Long bound for the history books, Roger Federer’s epic rivalries with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal can now be viewed in their totality as the Swiss pens the final pages of his storied ATP Tour career.
A triumvirate internationally known as the Big Three, the sporting legends have dominated tennis’ biggest stages, taking the game to an unprecedented level. The three most decorated players of all time have forged their careers in parallel, with 63 Grand Slam titles between them to date.
On his road to greatness, Federer lifted his game in the presence of his two greatest rivals. He faced Nadal, five years his junior, 40 times. He met Djokovic, six years younger, on 50 occasions.
ATPTour.com takes a look back at some key moments in Federer’s two biggest rivalries on tour.
Federer vs Nadal Rivalry
H2H: 24-16 Nadal
Grand Slam encounters: 10-4 Nadal
Grand Slam Finals: 6-3 Nadal
Nitto ATP Finals encounters: 4-1 Federer
ATP Masters 1000 encounters: 12-7 Nadal
ATP Masters 1000 finals: 7-5 Nadal
Encounters in finals: 14-10 Nadal
Some rivalries transcend their sport and it is impossible to contemplate modern tennis without Roger Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal. At a time when he was the dominant force and undisputed No. 1, Federer found himself faced with a new rival with the breakthrough of Nadal, who had been ready since adolescence to leave an indelible mark on the circuit. In total, the two players met 40 times, taking tennis to new levels of excellence and popularity.
The impulsiveness of the Spaniard always provided the perfect foil to the natural talent of the Swiss, a clash of styles that produced an enticing spectacle. The speed of Nadal, a player as physically strong as he is tactically adept, contrasted with the magic hands of Federer, who was able to put the ball anywhere on the court.
Nadal never feared the great Federer, whom he beat in an unforgettable first match. On the courts of Miami in the 2004 season, before turning 20, Rafa emerged as a tactical conundrum for Roger. With a looping left-handed forehand straight to Federer’s backhand above his shoulder, the Spaniard was ready to break down the Tour’s dominant force. The Swiss, who was forced to improve his backhand wing to compete with Nadal, responded by winning the 2005 Miami final in five sets on the same stage. He got the win, but he also knew that he had found a special nemesis.
Nadal was ready to challenge Federer’s supremacy, and signs of a big rivalry came quickly. Before Federer could extend his mastery to clay, the Spaniard made sure he stamped his authority. Although the Swiss was the man to bring an end to Nadal’s 81 consecutive wins on the red dirt – the longest streak on one surface in the Open Era – Nadal was always fiercely dominant during this stretch of the season. He would take out Federer in three consecutive Roland Garros finals between 2006-08.
“If one of us didn’t exist, the other would have been more successful,” Nadal admitted. “But it’s also true that the rivalry has benefitted our international reach, because it has made the game more attractive to people. When a player wins all the time, it may be good for the player, but it’s not necessarily good for the sport. At the end of the day, what’s good for the sport must be good for both of us.”
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Having already contested two consecutive finals at Wimbledon, Nadal and Federer crossed swords once again on the London lawns for the third consecutive season in 2008. In one of the greatest matches in the sport’s history, Nadal overcame the Swiss, the champion of the grass Grand Slam for the past five years. The Spaniard’s five-set triumph confirmed that their rivalry would extend far beyond the confines of clay. A race against time had begun, it was history in the making.
By the time history repeated itself at the 2009 Australian Open, Nadal’s first major trophy on hard courts, their rivalry was in full flow. “God, this is killing me,” admitted a beaten Roger during the trophy ceremony.
When the world seemed resigned that Grand Slam finals between these two greats were a thing of the past – their last having come at Roland Garros in 2011, Nadal and Federer found themselves in the decider at the 2017 Australian Open. There, with the weight of history on his shoulders, the Swiss produced a five-set win for the ages thanks to a stinging backhand and new racquet, chosen in part to defend against the Spaniard’s forehand that had tormented the Swiss for so many years. Unexpectedly, Federer had another major, after a five-year drought, and another epic chapter against his most iconic rival.
Photo Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
With impeccable professionalism, Federer resisted the passing of the years despite a dazzling career already under his belt, winning the last four finals he played against Nadal on Tour. Far from resigning himself to a changing of the guard, the Swiss’ competitiveness extended this once-in-a-lifetime rivalry.
Their last two meetings could not have been more fitting. A win for Nadal at Roland Garros and one for Federer at Wimbledon, the stages where these two legends had built the foundations of their respective legacies brought their joint masterpiece to a close.
“I’ve always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and a champion,” said Federer. “My rival for many years, I think we have forced each other to be better players. I’ve seen many hardworking and inspiring players, but in my opinion you were the most influential of all. You helped me become the player I am today.”
Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic
H2H: 27-23 Djokovic
Grand Slam encounters: 11-6 Djokovic
Grand Slam finals: 4-1 Djokovic
Nitto ATP Finals encounters: 3-3
ATP Masters 1000 encounters: 11-9 Djokovic
ATP Masters 1000 finals: 5-3 Djokovic
Encounters in finals: 13-6 Djokovic
In another epic rivalry that brought equal measure of delight and heartbreak, Federer battled Djokovic more times than any other player on Tour, with a total of 50 astonishingly intense clashes in their ATP Head2Head series. Djokovic is the only player to have beaten Federer at all the majors and the Swiss is the only one to have done likewise to Novak.
While Federer came out on top of their first four encounters, taking 10 consecutive sets from a youthful Djokovic in 2006-2007 during a time when he was the undisputed No. 1, the Serbian channelled the experience into one of the most intense assaults the sport has seen.
From that moment on, they occupied a leading role in the fight to be the best on tour, only crossing paths when the biggest prizes were at stake. The following 46 clashes that made up their rivalry included only semi-finals, finals and the Nitto ATP Finals, with Djokovic claiming a 27-23 edge overall.
Photo Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Their two semi-finals at the US Open, where the two players pushed one another to their limits in 2010 and 2011 and the stunning survival skills of Djokovic were in full effect, will live on long in the memories of tennis lovers. In both five-set matches, at one of Roger’s happiest hunting grounds, where he had claimed five consecutive titles (2004-2008), Novak dug his heels in, saving match points under the floodlights of New York.
The 2011 season was an especially intense one for both players. In one of the most astonishing seasons of all time, Djokovic extended his winning streak to 43 matches, a historic run that ended in the semi-finals of the French Open. There, with an opportunity to underline his authority, Federer came out on top of one of their most epic encounters, lifting a finger to the sky once victory was his, a reminder that the No. 1 spot was perhaps not the exclusive property of the Serb.
In a rivalry that travelled around the world, London played a vital role. Djokovic claimed the Nitto ATP Finals trophy against Roger in 2012, 2014 and 2015, a sign of both players’ ability to stand out on indoor courts, and the two would become the great modern dominant forces of the tournament that caps off the season. Roger’s final win there, in the group stage in 2019, underlined his ability to square off against the strongest players even as he approached his 40s.
England’s capital is also home to the lawns of Wimbledon, where they have produced some unforgettable battles at the most traditional event on the Tour. When Federer won their epic five-set semi-final in 2012 before reclaiming the No. 1 spot, Djokovic’s response was resounding. The Serbian is the only player who has beaten the Swiss in three Wimbledon finals (2014, 2015, 2019), conquering the wonderland that Roger had made his own.
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The last of those clashes, during which he saved two match points on the return, and which reached 12-12 in the deciding set, was one of the pinnacles of their rivalry. With a ninth Wimbledon trophy within his grasp, the defeat was arguably the toughest moment in the Swiss player’s career.
The greatest stages have provided the backdrop for their history together on court. A total of 20 ties at ATP Masters 1000 events, in which they have faced each other at every one of the category’s events bar Madrid, took their rivalry to every corner of the globe. They played finals in Indian Wells, Shanghai, Canada, Rome and Cincinnati (four times).
“We’ve played some incredible matches,” acknowledged Federer. “Whenever I go on court against him, the match is brutal. It’s exciting because it goes beyond the match, it transcends the sport.
“Novak plays perfectly on every surface. He always brings an extremely high level, to beat him you have to play your best. He moves wonderfully and I have great coordination so we are a good match for one another.
“Rivalries are important in sport. I think they help make it more popular. You always need someone with whom you can have a good rivalry. Fortunately, I was able to have one with Djokovic. We brought the best out in one another.”