Friday’s Australian Open semifinal will mark the 33rd meeting between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Their decade-long rivalry has been a boon for tennis fans, who have had the luxury of watching two of the best ever clash time after time on the biggest stages when the stakes are highest. Of their 32 matches, 28 have been in semifinals or finals, with one more on the way. They’ve battled 10 times at Grand Slam tournaments, 16 times at Masters events and five times at the prestigious season-ending ATP World Tour Finals.
In advance of their first showdown at a Slam since Nadal’s four-set victory in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals, let’s look at some of the key moments and matches that have made this rivalry so riveting.
2004 Miami: A fresh-faced 17-year-old Nadal, looking very much like a Carlos Moya clone, dressed in Capri pants with bronze biceps bulging from his sleeveless Nike shirts, announced his arrival on the world stage with a 70-minute, 6-3, 6-3 thrashing of the No. 1 in their first matchup. Federer was coming off a win at the Australian Open and attempting to complete the Indian Wells/Miami double. With his unique heavy topspin forehand, the Spaniard, ranked 34th, made a splash with this third-round victory. (Federer would return the favor in the 2005 final, rallying from a two-set deficit to win in five; Nadal was two points from winning in straight sets.)
2005 Roland Garros: Nadal may have been only No. 5 at the time, but he had won back-to-back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome and headed into his first French Open as the man to beat. Federer was able to take a set off him in the semifinals, but Nadal kept belting that forehand deep into Federer’s backhand, exploiting what would come to be the great mismatch that would define their rivalry. Nadal prevailed 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, and went on to win the title. Check out highlights here.
2006 Monte Carlo, Rome, Roland Garros: By now, Nadal had secured the No. 2 ranking and the two top dogs met in three best-of-five finals during the European clay season. Federer was streaking, coming off an Australian Open title and back-to-back wins at Indian Wells and Miami. Once again, Nadal was ruthless in his dominance on clay. He fought off Federer in a 3-hour, 50-minute duel in Monte Carlo, rallying from 0-3 in the final tiebreaker. Three weeks later, the two battled for more than five hours, with Nadal saving two match points and surviving 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5) in Rome. Then they faced off weeks later in the French Open final. It was Federer’s first Roland Garros final and he was looking to become the first player since Andre Agassi to complete the career Grand Slam. Despite racing to a 5-0 lead, Federer had no answers for Nadal’s relentless attack on his backhand. Nadal defended his title with a 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory.
2006 Wimbledon: If Rafa was the King of Clay, than Roger was the Gladiator on Grass. Federer snapped a five-match losing streak to Nadal with a 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3 victory in the final, winning his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title and extending his grass-court winning streak to 48 matches. But Nadal showed that he was ever closer to mastering the pace and bounce at the All England Club, having reached the final in only his third appearance after early-round exits in the previous two.
2007 Hamburg: After two years of playing second fiddle to Nadal on clay, Federer finally broke through with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 win in the final. Federer broke Nadal’s 81-match winning streak on clay and stopped him from a historic sweep of the clay Masters titles. The success wouldn’t last for long, though, as Nadal would knock him off on his way to a third Roland Garros title.
2007 Wimbledon: To the extent Federer took a step closer to solving the Rafa Riddle on clay in Hamburg, Nadal was still stonewalled on grass. The Spaniard put together his best performance on the stuff and still fell to Federer 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 in the final. Federer matched Bjorn Borg’s record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles, while Nadal was reduced to tears in the locker room. But this would be Federer’s last victory over his rival at a Grand Slam tournament; Nadal took a five-match winning streak in majors into Friday’s semifinal in Melbourne.
2008 Wimbledon: Regarded by many as the greatest match of all time, this 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 epic in favor of Nadal served as a turning point in the rivalry. Everything about the match felt historic, from the stops and starts due to rain to the twilight finish to, oh, yes, the point-by-point quality that left one slack-jawed and exhausted. Just when you didn’t think these two men could top their shot making, they proved you wrong.
Nadal couldn’t make good on two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker, and it looked as though he had missed his shot. But after a 30-minute rain delay in the fifth set (and a little pep talk from Uncle Toni), Nadal settled himself and finally converted on his fourth match point. With that, Nadal became the first man since Borg to complete the “Channel Slam” (capturing both Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same season) and it seemed to give him confidence in his ability to win on faster surfaces.
“”I am very happy for me,” Nadal said, “but sorry for him, because he deserved this title, too.”
Said Federer: ”Probably my hardest loss, by far. I mean, it’s not much harder than this right now.”
2009 Australian Open: Nadal was not supposed to win this match. Less than 48 hours before the final he had to spend more than five hours outlasting Fernando Verdasco in a grueling semifinal. Federer, meanwhile, had cruised to the final, with a relatively easy win over Andy Roddick in the semifinals. But Nadal was game, and he fended off Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 become the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open.
The outcome left the Swiss in tears and led to one of the rivals’ most poignant moments, as Nadal sought to comfort Federer through his disappointment.
2010 ATP World Tour Finals: Federer had lost six of his last seven matches against Nadal entering the final in London, and Rafa had recently won the U.S. Open to complete the career Slam and collect his third consecutive major title. But with new coach Paul Annacone by his side, Federer came out firing and forced the action. With a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory, Federer improved to 3-0 against Nadal at the indoor year-end championships, a record that now stands at 4-1.
2013 Cincinnati: Nadal went 4-0 against Federer last year, and this quarterfinal at the Western & Southern Open was their only highly competitive match. Federer showed flashes of his vintage form toward the end of a subpar season, but not enough of it to avoid his eighth loss in his last 10 matches against Nadal.