Longevity, big matches on the greatest stages when the stakes are high and a genuine off-court reverence for each other once the battle is over.
They are the hallmarks of a truly great rivalry in sport, and few rivalries measure up to that between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
On Friday night, the 17-time Swiss Grand Slam champion Federer will square off for the 33rd time against the 13-time major-winning Spaniard.
The bulk of their great clashes have fallen between 2005 to 2010, the six-year stretch where they were the top two ranked players throughout. While Nadal leads the all-time ledger 22-10, these are the best of their battles, given the magnitude of the moment, the quality produced and the toughest fights waged.
1. Wimbledon final 2008
Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 6-4 6-4 6-7(5) 6-7(8) 9-7
Calling it at the time, John McEnroe branded it the greatest match of all time, let alone between these two. This struggle was punctuated by ball striking of the highest quality, rain interruptions and a fifth set stretching to the brink of total darkness. The last ball was struck at 9.16pm, Nadal winning his first Grand Slam title outside his French Open triumphs, making him the first player since Bjorn Borg to win back-to-back French and Wimbledon crowns. But it very nearly slipped from his grasp. Leading two sets to love, he was in the driver’s seat only to have the five-time defending champion lift to take the third set in a tiebreak. When the 22-year-old Spaniard let two match points slip in the fourth-set tiebreak, it looked as though the mental letdown would allow Federer to extend his 65-match winning streak on grass with a sixth straight title at SW19. Nadal, though, held his nerve, edging to 8-7 in the fifth before one final forehand from the Swiss on serve caught the tape, the four-hour 48-minute epic becoming the longest Wimbledon final in history. Federer summed it up in six words: "Probably my hardest loss by far.”
2. Australian Open final 2009
Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 7-5 3-6 7-6(3) 3-6 6-2
Federer came into this match the fresher of the two having coasted past Andy Roddick, and stood one win from equalling Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Nadal had battled through a monster five-hour marathon to edge fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco the night before in what is still regarded as one of the highest-quality clashes ever seen on a tennis court. Where mental and physical fatigue from that match would floor many pretenders, Nadal was able to rise in the fifth to secure his first Australian Open crown, the first Spanish player to win the Australian crown. But the most memorable moment of this match was to come when Federer’s idol, the great Rod Laver, was about to present the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup to Nadal. A choked up Federer was unable to hold back his emotions when giving his runners-up speech. “God, it’s killing me,” he said before breaking down and having Nadal console his great rival. “You are one of the best players and it is always a pleasure playing against you. Remember, you're a great champion, you're one of the best in history. You're going to improve on the 14 of Sampras,” Nadal said.
3. Wimbledon final 2007
Roger Federer d. Rafael Nadal 7-6(7) 4-6 7-6(3) 2-6 6-2
Federer had been soundly thrashed by Nadal in three previous French Open deciders heading into this, their second Wimbledon final clash. Federer was bidding to equal Bjorn Borg’s record five consecutive Wimbledon crowns for the Open Era and it would all boil down to a fifth set. Down break points in two of his service games early in the fifth, both times the Swiss responded before snapping the Spaniard’s resolve with a double break to clinch the match. While falling short on the day, Nadal, they player once pigeon-holed as a claycourt specialist, was knocking on the door of a breakthrough away from the red dirt of Paris. Tellingly, it remains the last time Federer has beaten Nadal in a major. It’s been five on the trot for the man from Mallorca since.
4. Rome Masters final 2006
Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 6-7(0) 7-6(5) 6-4 2-6 7-6(5)
Where the Spaniard has typically dominated his counterpart on the clay at Roland Garrros, this stands as their greatest battle on the dirt, the five-hours-plus on court the longest match they have contested against each other and the five-set final the French Open has craved to host between the two masters at their best. Down two sets to one, Federer looked ready to hit the deck before securing a double break to register the fourth set. The fifth set proved to be one of Nadal’s greatest escape acts against his Swiss rival. Federer was up a break only to let it slip and later brought up two match points on the Nadal serve at 5-6 in the decider. A pair of forehand errors handed the Spaniard a get-out-of-jail-free card and it was all the initiative he would need, going on to steal the breaker seven points to five.
5. ATP Masters Series Miami final 2005
Roger Federer d. Rafael Nadal 2-6 6-7(4) 7-6(5) 6-3 6-1
While difficult to include only their second-ever encounter, given Nadal was only 18 and had not come close to reaching his potential, the nature of the match and the statement it made in establishing their rivalry cannot be overlooked. Only 12 months earlier, a 17-year-old Nadal had stunned Federer in Miami and looked to be on his way to doing the same again, up a couple of sets and 4-1 in the third. The Swiss world No.1 looked toasted. However, drawing on all his experience and greater match toughness at the time, he would rally two points from defeat to claw back in five. It stands as the only match Nadal has lost having led two sets to love.
Best of the rest
French Open final 2011: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 7-5 7-6(3) 5-7 6-1
ATP World Tour Finals final 2010: Roger Federer d. Rafael Nadal 6-3 3-6 6-1
Monte Carlo final 2006: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 6-2 6-7(2) 6-3 7-6(5)
Hamburg final 2007: Roger Federer d. Rafael Nadal 2-6 6-2 6-0
Hamburg final 2008: Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer 7-5 6-7(3) 6-3