What a great run men's tennis has had this century. After a few years prior to 2004 when there were some very good players but no truly great ones since Pete Sampras began to decline, Roger Federer began to dominate tennis like few players ever had before. Then Rafael Nadal arrived to challenge him and that was followed shortly after by Novak Djokovic. But something about the Federer and Nadal rivalry was special.
Maybe that was because both players were young and extremely well-liked. That is meant as no disrespect toward Djokovic, but something about a third player or team coming into a rivalry always seems a little intrusive. It's easier with two.
But for much of the first part of the Federer and Nadal rivalry, the Spaniard dominated. This was the case whether the two played on clay, where Nadal is very likely the best player ever on the surface with maybe only Bjorn Borg coming close, or on a hard court. Nadal revealed the secret to his success against Federer in a recent interview with El Pais, and turns out it was relatively simple and one Federer eventually figured out.
Rafael Nadal reveals how he used to beat Roger Federer
The key, according to Nadal, was to hit to Federer's backhand. The reason Nadal had success in that area where many other players failed is because Nadal is a lefty with a massive top-spin forehand. He could hit the ball at an angle that a right-handed player facing Federer could not. Plus, Nadal has one of the best forehands in the history of tennis.
Rafael Nadal told El Pais, "That’s one thing (Federer) got wrong in his career: he let me repeat shots on his backhand. His answer was a sliced backhand, and I have a very good shot when it’s sliced, it doesn’t bother me, I like to return it, and I return it hard, I’m not uncomfortable."
13 years later in 2017 after Federer was returning from an injury, the Swiss finally had an answer to what Nadal was doing. Federer began to play much more aggressively and with a bigger racket that gave him more power. This is one reason Federer's serve, while always a weapon, became one of the most consistently best in tennis later in Federer's career.
After getting out to a 23-10 head-to-head lead over Federer, Nadal would eventually lose six of the final seven matches the two would play. By that time, Nadal's all-time lead was too much, however, and the rivalry would end 24-16 in favor of the Spaniard.
Nadal, of course, is still playing and hoping to win titles. He defeated qualifier Jason Kubler in the second round of the Brisbane Open on Thursday with ease. Nadal looks almost back in form to chase the Australian Open title this month.