It’s been a year for the ages. After injuries to both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who had seemed to have taken Federer and Nadal’s spots at the top of the tennis game, Federer and Nadal reclaimed their thrones. Combining to win all four of this year’s grand slams along with four Masters 1000 titles and a handful of other trophies, they have turned the tennis world upside down.
Like always, the success these two have had this year has sparked another debate. Who has had the better year so far? Is it Nadal with his clay court dominance and US Open triumph or Federer with his unlikely Australian Open victory and eighth Wimbledon title? Let’s take a look at both of their seasons and try to make a decision.
Hard Court, No Problem?
Let’s start off with the Spaniard. It wasn’t the greatest start for Rafa as he fell to Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals of the Brisbane International. Next up, the Australian Open, arguably the most exciting and entertaining grand slam in years.
In a dramatic turn of events, Nadal made an incredible run to the finals as the ninth seed, defeating some excellent players like Zverev, Monfils, a revenge win against Raonic, and an epic semifinal against Dimitrov. In the final, he would face Federer, and after five grueling sets, he would be unable to hold onto a 3-1 lead in the fifth set, allowing the Swiss to break and eventually claim the title.
In a somewhat strange decision, Nadal opted to enter the Mexican Open in Acapulco, falling in the final to Sam Querrey, the newest American to storm onto the stage this year. Onto the pair of American hard court events – Indian Wells and Miami.
At Indian Wells, Nadal would fall once more to Federer, this time in a much more straightforward fashion, losing in two quick sets to an almost unbeatable Federer. Just a couple of weeks later, Nadal would reach the final of the Miami Open to meet – you guessed it – Roger Federer. And once again the Swiss would get the better of him, defeating the Spaniard 6-3, 6-4 to claim the Sunshine Double.
Clay Court Dominance + La Decima
But it would be Nadal’s time to shine now. It was the clay season, and there’s no doubt that Nadal’s clay court tennis is probably the most dominating in the history of the sport. Nadal would cruise his way to a Masters 1000 trophy in Monte Carlo, losing just one set along the way and crushing fellow Spaniard, Ramos-Vinolas, 6-1, 6-3 in the final.
A couple of days later, Nadal would claim yet another title, this one in his hometown of Barcelona. Rafa would lose just 30 games in the whole of the tournament, claiming his tenth Barcelona Open trophy on his own court – Pista Rafa Nadal.
Nadal’s dominance would not stop there. A couple of weeks later, Nadal would claim yet another Masters 1000 title. This one was perhaps his most impressive win of the entire clay court season. He defeated an impressive roster of players – Fognini, Kyrgios, Goffin, Djokovic, and Thiem – to claim the title, and he would do so in emphatic fashion – losing just one set throughout the entire tournament.
Nadal’s unbeaten streak would eventually come to an end. The third time was the charm for Dominic Thiem as the young Austrian was able to defeat the Spaniard in straight-sets, partly due to Rafa’s fatigue after playing so many matches in so little time. The early loss would allow Rafa to prepare for his true goal – the French Open and claiming La Decima.
As important as the tournament may have been for Nadal, it wasn’t that exciting. Nadal would lose just 35 games en-route to his 15th Grand Slam title, winning every single set he played. The closest anyone got was Robin Haase, winning a total of eight games against Rafa. Nadal’s dominance on clay had returned, and no one was ready to challenge him, especially with Federer’s absence from the entire clay court season.
The win marked Nadal’s tenth victory at the French Open, and it closed the gap once again between him and Federer. The way he cruised through the draw was frightening, and it proved once and for all that if Nadal is playing well on clay, no one can beat him. No one.
Grass Woes Continue
Nadal would head into Wimbledon with his head held high. He had come off his best season in years, and he was primed for an excellent showing at Wimbledon, perhaps even another Fedal meeting. Unfortunately for the Spaniard and tennis fans all around the world, that was not to be.
Rafa would cruise through his first three matches, but there was a slayer of giants lurking nearby – Giles Muller. The Luxembourgian was fresh off an impressive grass court season, and the “servebot” was looking as deadly as ever. Despite Nadal’s tendency to collapse against Muller’s type of playstyle, there was still hope.
Two sets into the match that hope quickly disappeared. Nadal found himself two sets down, and with no answer to Muller’s booming serve, it looked as though it would be another early exit for Nadal. But Rafa, the fighter that he is, would make a dramatic comeback, leveling it at two sets apiece.
The fifth set would be one for the ages. Both players traded serves, and Nadal never had an opening. Muller’s serve would be too precise and too powerful for the Spaniard, and after a couple of missed opportunities from Giles the Giant, he would finally take the opportunity – claiming the upset 15-13 in the final set.
Nadal was visibly disappointed by the result, but there was a lot to be happy about. It was one of his best performances at the tournament in years, while it might not have been the result he was looking for. Muller was simply the better player that day.
Hard Court Vol. 2, US Open Victory
Nadal’s expectations going into the American hard court swing were tempered. While Nadal was certainly playing well, he tended to struggle around this time of year, mainly due to fatigue from the clay court season and the faster court speeds.
This struggle seemed to have continued as Nadal bowed out of both the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati Open, losing to Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios respectively. It was not the type of performance that would typically instill confidence, especially considering that Nadal was practically alone for the Cincinnati Open after almost all of the top seeds withdrew.
Nevertheless, hope was still there. Heading into the US Open, Nadal was not the favorite, and even after a relatively easy draw, expectations were low. His form in the first two Masters of the American season was dreadful, and he would have to take out a resurgent Federer (albeit probably an injured one) and the newcomer, Zverev.
But it seemed as though it was fate. The stars aligned, and Nadal made it through. A matchup with Dimitrov was ruined in the first round, one with Zverev in the second, and one with Federer denied yet again by Del Potro. In fact, Nadal didn’t have to face a single player seeded above 24 throughout the entire tournament, and a simple win against Kevin Anderson in the final sealed the deal.
Nadal would claim his first US Open in years, and he would match Federer’s tally of two grand slams for the year.
Aussie Revival & Sunshine Double
Now onto the Swiss legend, a player who has revolutionized the sport of tennis and whose resurgence, while surprising, was not totally unexpected.
Well, at least not really. Federer was forced to pull out after Wimbledon after suffering a knee injury. A six-month break from tennis was unprecedented, and fans and experts alike expected Federer’s form to suffer because of it.
And it seemed like that would be the case. The Swiss looked a bit rusty at the Hopman Cup, an exhibition tournament in Perth. Seeded number seventeen for the Australian Open, the highest expectations for Federer ranged around the quarterfinals, where he was supposed to meet Murray.
And in the first two matches, that rust was still there. Federer started off shakily against Melzer and Rubin, but out of nowhere, that nervousness disappeared. In his first true test, Federer brushed aside Tomas Berdych in a tennis masterpiece, dazzling fans from all over the world.
And in the next round, Federer’s form continued to impress as he battled against Kei Nishikori to reach the quarterfinals in a tough five-setter. Next up, Mischa Zverev; it had been Zverev the Elder to take care of Murray, and while serve-and-volley was certainly an acceptable strategy against Murray, it would not be enough to trouble Federer as the latter won comfortably to advance to the semifinals.
Federer would face Wawrinka in the semifinals, and it would be anything but easy. Federer stormed out to a two-set lead, and Wawrinka looked weak – a common occurrence when playing against his fellow Swiss compatriot. But Wawrinka and his booming groundstrokes battled back, and he’d push it to a fifth set. A deep forehand on match point would give Federer the victory, and it would set up another Fedal final – one that no one anticipated.
The final might not have been the best match of the tournament. That honor has to go to Nadal and Dimitrov’s epic five-set semifinal, but the final was certainly the most significant and one of the most thrilling. These two old rivals went back and forth, trading sets, but it would be Nadal to take the early break. Yet again, Federer was at the mercy of the Spaniard.
Down 3-1 in the fifth set, Federer reversed the trend. The Swiss carved his way through Nadal’s loopy groundstrokes and won five consecutive games, claiming his 18th grand slam and one of his most memorable for sure.
He wasn’t done there. Just a month or so later, Federer would carve his way through Indian Wells, playing a near-perfect tournament and making it two wins against Nadal and Wawrinka in the process. And Federer still had not had enough.
A couple of weeks later, Federer would head to Miami. He would face Del Potro, Berdych, and Kyrgios in the path to the final, playing one of the best matches of the year against the Australian, one that was decided by three straight tiebreakers.
And it would be Nadal yet again in the way of the Swiss. Federer did not falter, and he made defeating his greatest rival, one that had dominated him for years past, look easy, claiming the Sunshine Double in the process.
No Clay, No Problem – A Tale on Grass
After Federer’s incredible success in the initial hard court season, the Swiss made a crucial choice. While many experts predicted that Federer would skip the clay season, returning to compete in the French Open, fans still held out hope that he could dominate on clay as well. Neither was right.
In a slightly controversial choice, but one that turned out to be correct, Federer opted to skip the entirety of the clay season, foregoing any shot at the French Open and significantly damaging his chances at the number one spot. He would head into the grass season; more than a month without true match play.
The rust would show as Federer crashed out of Stuttgart in the opening round, losing to fellow friend and longtime rival (although not truly a rival considering how lopsided their H2H is) after holding a match point. It was a cause of concern as Federer looked unable to truly settle into the grass courts, and it would also be Federer’s first official loss of the season.
But that rust would slowly fade as Federer would cruise to his ninth Halle title, doing so without dropping a set for the third time in his career. It would be a particularly impressive performance, and it would also allow him to be seeded third for Wimbledon, something that would prove crucial for his success in London.
Heading into London, expectations were high, even higher than usual. Federer was seeded third for the draw, and he faced relatively little competition. While there were still some quality players like Raonic and Djokovic, both seemed in poor form, and no one on the tour seemed prepared to challenge Fed.
That prediction would hold true throughout the tournament. Carving his path through the draw, Federer defeated Dolgopolov, Lajovic, Zverev, and Dimitrov en route to the quarterfinals where a familiar foe would await him. Milos Raonic, the same man who had taken Federer out just one year before, would prove to be no challenge to the Swiss Maestro as Federer claimed a triumphant straight sets victory over the Canadian.
Next up was Tomas Berdych. The Czech had pushed Federer to a tight three-setter in Miami, and he had just come off a win (by retirement) against Novak Djokovic. This would be the closest match of the tournament, and Federer would claim it in three sets, including two tight tiebreakers.
In the final, many expected Federer to finally meet his match. Big-serving Marin Cilic was fresh off a dominating performance in the early grass court season, and he was fully expected to present a challenge to the Swiss. He had troubled Federer the year prior, and it was only by a miracle that Federer managed to pull out the comeback.
A couple of games into the final, Federer began to struggle. The Croatian was hitting blistering groundstrokes, and his serve was always a factor. But at 2-2 in the first set, everything changed. The Maestro hit a lovely drop shot, Cilic fell to the turf, and just like that, Fed was up 30-0 on his opponent’s serve.
After that fateful point, Cilic was never the same. Federer would crush the Croatian’s hopes and dreams, reducing the big man to tears, and he would claim his 19th grand slam title and record-setting eight Wimbledon trophies in a fairly straightforward 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 win.
Just as Rafa had showcased his dominance on the clay courts, Federer displayed his on grass. He claimed Halle and Wimbledon without a single set, and going into the American hard court swing, he was fully expected to be the favorite.
Hard Court Return, US Open, Injury Woes?
Federer’s next tournament would be played in Montreal as Roger challenged for the Rogers Cup. And in the first round, Federer seemed to pick up right where he left off, crushing Canadian Peter Polansky in the first round. But his form would slowly decline.
Federer would barely edge past David Ferrer, and after two unconvincing wins against Bautista Agut and Haase, the Swiss would somehow find himself in the final against Zverev. The success was certainly welcome, but there were still serious concerns surrounding him.
Federer’s movement looked poor, he wasn’t bending as much on his serve, and he no longer looked like the man who had dominated for most of the tennis year. Federer would play off these reports of injury, claiming that it was simply muscle soreness, but a straight sets loss against Zverev in the final – one that seemed almost as though Federer had given up midway through the match – confirmed those woes.
Federer admitted that his back was bothering him, and he also decided to skip Cincinnati – a tournament that could have given him the chance to reclaim his number one ranking and one at which, historically, he had been dominant.
Nevertheless, Federer was still the favorite for the US Open. Even with a bad back, Federer had managed to reach the final of a Masters tournament, and after more than three weeks of recovery, Federer’s back looked to be better.
But Federer’s favorite status would only plummet with his first two matches. In the first, Federer faced Frances Tiafoe, and he eventually claimed a five-set thriller, failing to serve out the match in the fifth. The following round, Federer would have to claw his way back from a two-set to one deficit against Youzhny, and it was only after a slight Youzhny injury that Federer would be in cruise control.
Once again, Federer insisted that his back was perfectly fine. Straight-set wins against Feliciano Lopez and Phillip Kohlschreiber soothed some of the doubts, and everything looked in order for a Fedal semifinal.
Federer would face a tired and ill del Potro in the quarters, and even though the Argentinian had played some great tennis against Thiem, most expected that he would be too burnt out to pose a challenge to Federer. They were wrong.
Federer would lose the first set after squandering a couple of breakpoints. He would re-find his form in the second, but the third was the turning point. In dramatic fashion, Federer reclaimed the break to stay in the set, and leading 6-4 in the tiebreak, Federer looked to have finally made the breakthrough.
But Federer would miss a couple of easy forehands, and after a stunning backhand miss on set point, his fate was all but sealed. Del Potro would claim the set, and a demoralized Federer would crumble in the final set.
It was an uneventful end to an incredibly eventful season, and Federer himself acknowledged his poor form near the end of the season. Whether it was fatigue or just Father Time catching up to the legend, it will still be a year that Federer will never forget.
Now that we have gone through each player’s respective season, let’s try and determine who has had the better year.
Both of their seasons have been nothing short of remarkable, and if you had bet on them dominating in this fashion, you would have likely emerged a millionaire. After questions of whether Federer would return the same from injury or if Nadal could ever re-find his form, both players proved that they should never be counted out.
Statistically, many may argue that Federer has had the better season. He has only four losses on the year compared to Nadal’s nine, the same number of grand slams and Masters titles, and he’s only 1800 points behind in the Race to London despite skipping the whole of the clay season.
But many could argue that Nadal has had a better season overall. He was in the final of the Australian Open and Miami, and he’s consistently been one of the best players on tour for the entire season, something that the Spaniard has struggled to do in the past five years or so.
But at the end of the day, I think we have to factor in their individual stories. Whose is more epic? Which tale will go down in history as the most improbable ever?
In my personal opinion, being a Federer fan myself, I have to side with Roger. No one would expect a 36-year-old man to return from a six-month injury leave and dominate the season the way he has. No one would expect him to beat four top ten opponents en route to winning the Australian Open. No one would expect him to win the first three major titles of the year.
We didn’t expect him to win Halle and Wimbledon without losing a set. We didn’t expect him to be vying for the number one spot at this stage in the year.
But Federer did. He defied all expectations and crafted one of the most incredible sporting stories in history. What Nadal has done shouldn’t go unnoticed, and his story is just as unlikely, but Federer – the unquestioned king of tennis, a man who has revolutionized the sport, perhaps more than any other sporting figure ever – takes the cake for me.
If Nadal sweeps the rest of the year and claims the year-end number one spot, my opinion might change. But for now, I will side with Federer.
Both players should be recognized as tennis icons, sporting icons. This year has been one of the most incredible adventures ever for tennis fans. We are witnessing tennis history, so no matter who you support or who you think has had the better year, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.