Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s rivalry started in the sweltering heat of Miami and ended almost two decades later in tears and hand-holding in an emotional London farewell.
In between, the great friends met 40 times, battling out epics on European clay, London grass and hard courts from the United States to Australia.
Nadal edged their head-to-head count 24-16, coming out 9-3 on top in Grand Slam finals including his stunning Wimbledon triumph in 2008, widely regarded as one of the greatest finals at the majors.
However, the statistics only scratch the surface.
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“When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is leaving too,” admitted a tearful Nadal as he played Laver Cup doubles alongside 41-year-old Federer in the Swiss star’s final appearance last September.
The two clasped hands as Federer hobbled into retirement.
On Thursday, Nadal revealed that he too is facing the end of the line with 2024 likely to be his swansong after withdrawing from this year’s French Open with a hip injury.
“Very proud to be part of his career but even for me happier to finish our career as friends after everything we shared on court as rivals,” said Nadal.
When Nadal equalled Federer’s haul of 20 Grand Slam titles by lifting his 13th French Open in 2020, the Swiss described it as the “greatest achievement in sport”.
Federer never begrudged Nadal moving past him to 22 majors.
“I can call up Rafa and talk about anything,” said Federer at his emotional farewell in London.
“We enjoy each other’s company. We have a million topics to cover. I always feel like any evening we ever spent together we never have enough time.”
Nineteen years earlier, it was another time, another place.
The only thing they had in common then was respect.
When they met for the first time in March 2004 at Miami, Nadal was just 17 and ranked at 34.
Federer was the world No 1 and had already captured the Australian Open and Indian Wells titles that year.
However, a fearless Nadal swept to a 6-3, 6-3 victory in 70 minutes.
“I was very worried about him beating me 6-1, 6-1 or 6-1, 6-2, but I really wanted to play this match against the world No 1,” said Nadal.
Nadal fretted if his friends back home could follow the match “on Teletext” while Federer correctly predicted more meetings to come.
“I was impressed with what I saw,” said Federer.
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