Having both made their come-back to the top in 2017, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have proven once again that they are among the best players in history. If the first one is certainly the strongest clay specialist that tennis has ever seen, the latter prefers grass. The reason why the two opponents have faced each other on a hybrid court ten years ago. Let’s look back on the well-names « Battle of Surfaces ».
It’s surely one of the most unusual looking trophies on which Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have both put their hands on during their career. Far from looking like a regular cup, the metal object represented a tennis court split in two halves by a white line : the left part was colored in green, and the other one in orange. Bizarre ? Absolutely not. As the shape represented the court on which they had just been fighting for 2 hours and a half on this May 2nd, 2007. It was a hybrid court : on one side of the net, the court was made of clay, and on the other side it was grass. This exhibition match, named the « Battle of Surfaces » by the advertising agency which came with the idea, takes its roots in the incredible results the two players were having back then. At the time, Roger, who had defeated the Spaniard in the final of Wimbledon the year before, had won 48 consecutive matches on clay, while Nadal hadn’t lost for 72 consecutive matches played on clay. In this context, what could be more logical than to test the world number 1 and 2 on a hybrid court ? The Argentine Pablo Del Campo, founder of the advertising agency Del Campo Saatchi & Saatchi, offered to play a match on a never-seen before tennis court. With this simple question : « Why wouldn’t we change the schemes ? »
« I’m here while I’m not used to playing exhibition matches »
The government of the Balearic Islands, the archipelago where Nadal was born, took on the idea and organized the event. 1,63 million dollars and 19 days were needed to create and set up the improbable court in Palma de Mallorca’s sports centre. More than enthusiast, Toni Nadal, who « reacted like a child in front of a new toy when I first mentioned the idea » according to Del Campo, found the idea to be brilliant. And gave his analysis, in AS, on what such a court demands in terms of reflexes and reflection : « When you’re on the clay side, your shots have to be ones usually played on grass, flat and shorter. And the opposite for Federer. » Interviewed before the event, Federer considered that « the result isn’t the most important », but didn’t hide his curiosity : « We’ve been world number 1 and 2 for weeks, and it’s always interesting to see a confrontation between the two of us, whether it is an official one or an exhibition. I’ve loved the idea from he start. The proof is that I’m here, while I’m not used to playing exhibition matches. This one will be entertaining and exciting (…) It’ll be fun to get to know what it feels like to be playing on a court with different surfaces ! And it’ll be interesting to see who chooses the best tactic. People have been speaking of this event for a while now (…) It’s nice to see that the stadium is in Mallorca, in Rafa’s home. » The two friends took the time to visit the Cathedral of Palma and admire the works of Miquel Barceló and Antoni Gaudí. On his side, Nadal didn’t really know what to expect, a few weeks before Roland-Garros : « It’ll be a nice battle from the start. The one who’ll be playing on grass will have to quickly run up to the net to try to end the rallies. I think that the player who’ll be on clay will have an advantage, as he’ll try to make his shots longer. Even if the next tournaments will be important, I don’t think that playing this match is risky (…) Federer really impresses me on grass, with his ability to cover the whole court. »
« More pleasant than expected »
The unusual confrontation attracted a big crowd, and the 6 800 tickets were sold immediately. Except that the Battle of Surfaces almost got canceled. On May 6th, the day before the clash, the organizers found out that the grass half of the court had been devastated by worms. Without a second thought, the grass was replaced straight away, and nobody noticed when the long-awaited day arrived. Especially as the duel, which started at 4 p.m, and was broadcasted live on Antena 3, offered an entertaining show. Despite seeing a few strange rebounds and the obligation for the two players to change their shoes and each change of ends (they had a 120 seconds break instead of the usual 90 seconds), they both took the event seriously and truely engaged in a duel. As a result : breaks, lots of breaks, no striking difference playing on one surface or the other, two match points wasted by Federer in the tie-break of the third and last set, and a hard-fought victory for Nadal (7-5, 4-6, 7-6). Being a class act, the Swiss expressed his joy of having had the opportunity of playing on a hybrid court after his defeat. « I thought the court was excellent, especially on the clay half. On grass, I felt that I was moving very well from the start. I took a little longer to adapt to the clay side, he said, facing the press. The challenge was difficult, because you have a lot of things in mind. You don’t really know how you’re going to play on each side (…) I had a great time, it was really fun to battle during two hours in a half against Rafa. In truth, it was more pleasant than expected. » The Spaniard also admitted having a great time, after admitting that playing on the clay side was more advantageous. Before his best enemy concluded : « We could imagine other matches like that in the future, maybe with a side made of hard surface. » Ten years after this sentence, the moment has surely come.