Before the infamous 2008 final, before Roger Federer became the record-holder of the number of Grand Slam tournaments won, before Rafael Nadal proved that he was much more than a simple clay specialist, before the confrontation between the two became a classic, there was this very first duel at Wimbledon. It was in 2006. The rivalry between the two current favorites of this 2017 edition could truly kick off.
On one side, a twenty-something kid whose prominent muscles allow him to win Roland-Garros twice, and who believes that he already has the power to adapt his game to a quicker surface. On the other side, the boss, who remains on a series of 47 consecutive wins on grass, and who already has seven Grand Slam trophies in his trophy cabinet - the French Open being the only one missing-, but who’s bothered by the power displayed by this young lefty, who has defeated him six times in seven matches played against him. A few weeks earlier, the two men were facing each other in the final in Paris. Two identical consecutive Grand Slam finals, a first since 1968 for the duo Roland-Wimbledon. The proof that this duel is getting really serious. As if we were to date the start of the sporting rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, we would certainly mark down this July 11th, 2006. The day of a Wimbledon final.
“I find it nice to see that Rafa accomplished that much”
Especially as Nadal, with his long hair held by a headband, had started to make his game evolve. Very offensive, the Majorcan discovered he had a certain talent to volley the ball. And when his arm let him down, like during the second round where Robert Kendrick, the world number 237 who had gone through the qualifying rounds, led by two sets to none, his mental strength came into play. The result ? The player seeded at the second spot kept going and ended up winning the match (6-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-5, 6-4). After that, he defeated Andre Agassi, Irakli Labadze, Jarkko Nieminen and Márcos Baghdatís with much more ease. Sitting comfortably on his throne as the three-consecutive-times champion, Federer was quietly watching. The tournament was actually a walk in the park for the one who didn’t lose a single set before the final - Nicolas Mahut being the only one to push him to a tie-break. Before meeting up with the outsider in the final, the world number one seemed pretty relaxed : « I find nice to see that Rafa accomplished this much, he said. I’ve started looking at the other side of the table since the quarter-finals. It’s nice to face him on grass. Grass is my favorite surface. He’ll have less time than usual because at Wimbledon, the rebound is lower. »
“I can now defeat Federer”
Then came the judgement day. Very quickly, Roger took the match in his own hands and won the first set 6-0. It seemed all over and the final result couldn’t seemed obvious. But many had forgotten Rafa’s personality, who started to play his tennis at the start of the second set. The start of a beautiful hard-fought battle, in which the Swiss, thanks to his experience, managed to get the upper hand after saving a set point (5-4, Nadal’s serve) before dominating the tie-break (7-5). The Matador didn’t give up and ended up wining a set (7-2 at the tie-break). Enough to convince the spectators and the viewers : this boy wearing a tank top, is not only a clay specialist, but a player who’s ready to bother Federer for many years to come. On whichever surface. And even if the match ended on a last set won 6-3 by the boss, Federer. « When I managed to play my tennis in the second and third set, I got the impression that I was very close to him. It’s important to know that I can now defeat Federer on this surface, said a satisfied Nadal after his defeat. He plays incredibly well on grass. But I too can perform on grass, no ? » To which his future best enemy answered : « I’d simply like to underline the fact that Rafael played a great tournament. Sincerely, I didn’t think that he would reach the final. It’s fantastic (…) It was very tight and I was terribly nervous at the end. » One year later, Roger matched Bjorn Borg’s record with a fifth title, again after defeating Nadal. Two years before playing, on the same court, a mythical final which he lost against…the Spaniard ! And while waiting, maybe, for the fourth act to be played in a few days…
By Florian Cadu