Opinion: Roger Federer universally beloved — in part — because of Rafael Nadal rivalry

No athlete in the history of professional sports has been as universally beloved during their competitive prime for as long as Roger Federer. Others have experienced the kind of embrace Federer gets everywhere he goes and no matter who he plays, but none have had it all over the world like Federer, uninterrupted, for the better part of 15 years.

He will feel it for perhaps the last time at Roland Garros on Friday in the semifinals, creating an awkward scenario in which 11-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal will fall into a villain’s role he’s done absolutely nothing to deserve except land in the same half of the draw as his 37-year old rival who has defied all conventions of tennis history by being this good for this long.

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Few will expect Federer to actually win. Though Federer has beaten Nadal five consecutive times during his remarkable late-career surge, Nadal has won all five meetings at Roland Garros and 13 out of 15 on clay. As much as Federer has evolved his game in recent years to better handle the heavy spins and high bounces Nadal creates, beating the King of Clay on his home court would be the single most improbable victory of his career. 

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The Federer-Nadal rivalry has, in almost every way, shaped how fans around the world have felt about men’s tennis since 2005, even in the ascendance of Novak Djokovic as the game’s top player. 

Roger Federer celebrates after recording match point against Casper Ruud on Day 6 of the French Open. (Photo: Susan Mullane, USA TODAY Sports)

Nadal is the one you’d probably bet on to win one match if your life was at stake. Federer is the one the fans loved the most.

And for that, Federer has one person to thank: Nadal.

When Nadal really announced his presence in 2005, winning the French Open for the first time as a swashbuckling 19-year old while beating Federer in the semifinals, tennis was at a critical moment. 

The terrific generation of players that dominated the late 1990s and early 2000s had all but disappeared, leaving the sport in a state of uncertainty with very few legitimate stars. By the beginning of 2004, Federer had surpassed the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick and had begun to take over the majors quickly following his breakthrough win at Wimbledon in 2003. 

Federer was almost unbeatable in those years. He spent 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1. In different stretches, he won 56 consecutive matches on hard courts and 65 straight on grass. In 2005, Federer went 81-4. The next year, he put up a preposterous 92-5.

And during a stretch of 11 majors from the French Open in 2005 through the U.S. Open in 2007, Federer beat everyone in his sight — except Nadal. 

Rafael Nadal in action during his match against Yannick Hanfmann on Day 2 of the French Open. (Photo: Susan Mullane, USA TODAY Sports)

Had it not been for Nadal stopping him at Roland Garros — once in the semifinals and twice in the finals — Federer could very well have won 11 straight Grand Slams. 

While a run like that would have undoubtedly given Federer a stranglehold in the all-time Slam count — his 20 still leads Nadal’s 17 and Djokovic’s 15 for now — it wouldn’t have been good for the sport. Or, perhaps, for Federer’s image. 

Having a real rival, particularly one he struggled so much to beat, humanized Federer. It offered a real contrast between the physical brutality of Nadal’s game and Federer’s efficient, effortless ballet. 

In 2009, when Nadal outlasted Federer 6-2 in the fifth set of the Australian Open final — the third Slam final Federer had lost to him in fewer than eight months, including an epic five-setter at Wimbledon — Federer couldn’t even complete his runner-up speech without breaking down in tears and exclaiming, “God it’s killing me.” 

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