A lot was made about the recent Australian Open match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Notable tennis observers even called it a career defining match. Sometimes reality works out in ways that tennis analysts would not predict. Federer lost to Nadal again, but Rafa getting to 17 majors seems like a more uphill affair than it did after the semifinal clash. It ended up being more of a status quo match than being a Federer push-back or Rafa grabbing the GOAT title by the horns.
Most of the Fedal matches have taken place at Grand Slams, Masters 1000 events and World Tour Finals. Almost all of their matches have taken place in the later stages of tournaments. Each man holds so many titles and so many records that any match between the two holds importance. However, some of their clashes have lacked the implications found in the majority of their matches. Here are the 5 least important matches in the Fedal Rivalry.
Number 5 – 2004 Miami
Nadal d. Federer 6-3, 6-3
Why it is less important: Roger had just become #1 in February 2004. He did own a Wimbledon and Australian Open title, but Roger was not yet being thought of as an all-time great (that talk began in ernest when he thrashed Hewitt at the US Open and became the first man in 16 years to win 3 slams in 1 year). Roger had also just won at Indian Wells. After winning a long event, many players do not play as well in the next event. A tireless teen is the wrong opponent when having already logged as many matches as Roger had at that point in 2004. Rafa also missed the 2004 French Open with a stress fracture in his foot. Therefore, Rafa did not turn this upset into a major run.
Why it is more important than the next 4: It set a precedent in their rivalry. It also gave a young Nadal confidence versus Federer. Had Roger dug in and found a way to win the match it might have taken Rafa a bit longer to get his feet under him versus Federer.
Number 4 – 2012 Indian Wells
Federer d. Nadal 6-3, 6-4
Why it is less important: The conditions for this match were atrocious. Wind was a major factor. It impacted both players, but the quality of play was low throughout the match. The conditions were so bad that it would be hard to draw much from this match.
Why is it more important than the next 3: Rafa struggled through portions of 2011 and lost an epic Australian Open final to start 2012. Losing to Federer here was part of Rafa’s 2012 narrative of injury and decline accompanied by a clay court push-back versus Nole. Also, Roger at 10-23 versus Rafa has to see his wins as more precious commodities.
Number 3 – 2013 Indian Wells
Nadal d. Federer 6-4, 6-2
Why it is less important: Roger hurt himself 2 rounds previous to this match with Nadal. Rafa has had an upper hand versus a healthy Roger. If Roger is injured, the match is just not apt to be close. Rafa needed 12 months to exact revenge on a largely meaningless loss at Indian Wells to notch a largely meaningless win due to the outcome being a foregone conclusion.
Why it is more important than the next 2: Rafa posted nice results on a Latin American clay court swing to reboot his career after an injury absence. His 2013 dominance in North American hard court events began at Indian Wells, and this match is part of that larger story.
Number 2 – 2011 World Tour Finals
Federer d. Nadal 6-3, 6-0
Why it is less important: Roger got a decidedly one-sided victory over Nadal in a round robin match. We’ve seen Rafa struggle at the World Tour Finals in other years. This scoreline is so out of keeping with the remainder of their rivalry that it looks like an outlier. Rafa overcame Roger in 4 interesting sets at the 2012 Australian Open so their seemed to be no hangover for the Spaniard from this beating. Also, round robin matches are a bit different.
Why it is more important than the last one: Roger moved to 4-0 versus Rafa on indoor courts after this match (4-1 now). It does send a message than on faster courts with lower bounces that Roger seems to have a bit of an edge on Rafa (Roger is 2-1 on grass as well). The thing is Roger’s 2010 World Tour Finals victory over Rafa in the championship round had already made this point.
Anyone expecting Roger to do in 2013 what he could not do in 2006?
Number 1 – 2013 Masters Rome
Nadal d. Federer 6-1, 6-3
Why it is of such low importance: At this stage of their rivalry, the outcome of this clay court match was never in doubt. Federer scrapped his way to the final only to take a telegraphed red clay beating. Roger had his worst year in over a decade in 2013, and Rafa had the second best year of his career. If the last match was an outlier or an exception, this match was the rule in their rivalry. The age gap, Roger’s 2013 mobility issues and a clay court all tilted this match to Rafa to such a degree that it would have only made waves had Roger won.