Federer or Nadal? The definitive guide

If you’re a tennis fan, the Australian Open this year must have you checking your calendar to make sure it’s 2017 and not 2007 (side note: wouldn’t it be great if we still had 8 years of Obama ahead of us?!?)

On the women’s side, Serena Williams’ dominance may not be surprising, but facing her sister Venus in her first Grand Slam final this decade certainly is. And the men’s side is even more surprising. Most experts thought the days of winning Grand Slams was over for both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Yet here they are, meeting in a Grand Slam final for the 9th time (and first since 2011).

Before their final on Sunday, it’s worth reflecting on what was the biggest tennis debate before the rise of Djokovic: Federer or Nadal? There isn’t much that can be added to this debate beyond the much-stated facts around each of their impressive feats and the head-to-head record. (Full disclosure: I fall firmly on the Federer side of the debate.)

The truth is that this debate has often detracted from the more important point — we have been able to witness two of the game’s most special talents ever over the last decade. Instead of comparing them to see who’s better, it’s worth dissecting their unbelievably distinct elements that has made them each so compelling to watch:

How he hits the ball (Federer) vs. What he does to the ball (Nadal)

The smooth, fluid strokes of Federer turn the game into an art form, more so than any player since Borg. His command of the racket makes his game appear timeless, impermeable to the effects of time and technology. One often feels like if you put a wooden racket in Federer’s hands, not much about his game would have to change in order for his wizardry to emerge anew.


On the other hand, the spin and torque generated by Nadal (especially on the forehand side) has left spectators breathless and opponents flailing for the past decade. There’s no other player past or present that has been able to generate the spin of Nadal. Generating over 3,200 RPMs on an average forehand makes it a nightmare to deal with, especially for those with a one-handed backhand (just ask Federer).

The way he moves (Federer) vs. where he can move (Nadal)

Federer’s movement on the court has been compared to that of a ballet dancer. Each step is taken so lightly, quickly, and gracefully — the sound of his feet moving is barely perceptible as he prepares for the next shot. In fact, even quantitative measures of Federer’s footwork have determined it’s practically flawless. Even without analysis, all tennis fans can point to instances where they’ve been truly mesmerized by Federer’s court movement.

On the other hand, no one would describe Nadal’s movement as particularly graceful. You can’t argue with the results, though. Nadal is able to track balls down that would be clean winners for most touring pros — not only that, the pace and angles he’s able to generate from these defensive positions is out of this world. The incredible defense of Nadal demoralizes opponents and forces them into pressing for too much — once that happens, Nadal is like a shark with blood in the water.

Effortless (Federer) vs. so much effort (Nadal)

Earlier in his career, one of the complaints against Federer was his seeming nonchalance on the court. Even while he was racking up titles and records during his epic run from 2003–2007, there were still some questions about his heart or competitive grit. While those doubts have definitively been put to rest, the reason these questions even emerged is due to Federer’s effortless style of play. Often times, especially in the cooler playing environments of New York or Wimbledon, he doesn’t even break a sweat through five-set matches. Even as Federer ages, it’s still amazing to witness how he makes the game look so easy.

It’s hard to put into words the feeling of watching Nadal prepare for each and every point. Whether he’s up 6–0, 5–0, down 6–0, 5–0 (just kidding, that never happens), or in the middle of a 5th set, Nadal pours his entire heart and soul into each point. No player (other than maybe Jimmy Connors) has ever brought such a fierce, competitive spirit to the court so consistently. From the moment he runs to the baseline after the coin toss, everyone knows that he will not let up till the final point is played.

Where he hits (Federer) vs. what shot he hits (Nadal)

Federer has always been able to find the angles in a way that hasn’t seemed physically possible. During Federer’s early Wimbledon triumphs, he made Philippoussis, Roddick, and several others look downright silly when they approached the net. This aspect of his game has definitely been less appreciated as the baseline game has become predominant, but his ability to find and create angles is unparalleled in the modern game.

No player has made a living off exploiting his strengths more than Nadal. He knows his killer advantage (the forehand) and has defined his game to maximize his opportunities to punish opponents with it. The rest of his game is methodical — the consistent, deep cross-court backhand, the serve speed and placement — all in an effort to ensure that the point is won or lost on his forehand side. Even his footwork revolves around running around his backhand side to hit the inside-out forehand, which has been a constant source of pain for his opponents over the years.

This could go on forever, but you get the point. Both of these guys are part of the GOAT conversation (with Djokovic nipping at their heels), and their greatness comes in distinctly different flavors. Most of us have spent the past decade on one side of the fence or the other in terms of our favorite, defending our guy and deriding the other. At this stage, especially as we reach the twilight of their careers, let’s make sure we take the time to appreciate both of these all-time greats. Let’s enjoy another epic encounter on Sunday — there’ll be plenty of time to argue after they’ve hung up their rackets.