Roger Federer – His Five Greatest Rivalries
Roger Federer defined tennis for a generation, but he could not have done it alone, playing his part in a number of fierce rivalries at the highest level.
Over a 24-year pro career, Federer faced hundreds of opponents in more than 40 countries throughout the globe, but a select few men were his greatest adversaries. Here, Tennishead looks at six men who faced the Swiss maestro the most, accounting for 185 of his 1,526 career matches on tour, or about one in every eight of his tour level encounters.
5. David Nalbandian
Time spanned: 9 years, 2 months – Matches played: 19 – Head-to-head: Federer leads 11-8
This talented Argentinian had the better of Federer early in their career. After defeating the Swiss 6-2, 6-1 in their first meeting at the 2002 Monte Carlo Masters, Nalbandian won the next four battles between the two, including two fourth round Slam encounters at the 2003 Australian and US Opens.
From there the Swiss stepped up to win the next four himself, the last coming in the round robin of the 2005 ATP Finals. As can be the case at that event though, the two met again in the final, with Nalbandian triumphing over five sets for the biggest title of his career.
Down 6-4 in the head-to-head, Federer proceeded to win seven of the next nine meetings, their final battle coming in the third round of Wimbledon 2011 before Nalbandian retired aged 31. The pair faced off seven times at Masters 1000 events, four times at the ATP Finals and six times at Slams.
4. Andy Murray
Time spanned: 9 years, 10 months – Matches played: 25 – Head-to-head: Federer leads 14-11
Another rivalry that was tipped against Federer at first, Murray won six of the duo’s first eight meetings, though one of the two wins for Federer came in the 2008 US Open final, Murray’s first appearance in a Slam final. Whilst Federer suffered Slam heartbreak at the hands of Rafael Nadal many times, he inflicted similar on Murray, defeating the Brit in the final of the 2010 Australian Open and Wimbledon 2012.
Just weeks later though Murray defeated Federer on the same court to win gold at his home Olympiad in London, a stepping stone to his first Major title at the US Open later that year.
After trailing in their head-to-head 11-9, Federer won their last five meetings in 2014 and 2015, the last of which was the semi-finals of the 2015 Cincinnati Masters, an event the maestro won without dropping a set or even having his serve broken.
The two men met nine times at Masters 1000 events, five times at the ATP Finals and six times at the Majors. Intriguingly, they never played on clay, with 22 meetings on hard courts and three on grass at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
3. Lleyton Hewitt
Time spanned: 17 years, 3 months – Matches played: 28 – Head-to-head: Federer leads 19-9 – (all statistics include juniors)
The longest spanning rivalry of Federer’s career if you count junior meetings, he first took on the Australian when both were 15 years old at the 1996 Junior Davis Cup, defeating Hewitt 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4. The pair next played at the 1999 Lyon Open at the age of 18, when Hewitt exacted revenge before going on to make the final.
Hewitt won seven of their first nine meetings at senior tour level as the Australian rose to number one first in November 2001. One of those two Federer wins was his first over a world number one when he downed Hewitt in the semi-finals of the 2002 Miami Open.
After a tight tussle in the semi-finals of the 2003 Davis Cup that was won by Hewitt, Federer dominated the head-to-head. The Swiss won their next 15 matches, including the 2004 US Open final where he twice bagelled Hewitt 6-0, 7-6 (7-3), 6-0 to claim his first crown in New York.
Hewitt then won two of their last three encounters at Halle 2010 and in the final of the 2014 Brisbane International to claim his penultimate tour level singles title. The two did battle three times in Davis Cup competition, eight times at Masters level, three times in the ATP Finals and on eight occasions at Slams.
2. Novak Djokovic
Time spanned: 13 years, 9 months – Matches played: 50 – Head-to-head: Djokovic leads 27-23
In terms of match played, this is Federer’s most storied rivalry. Five years the Serb’s senior, Federer won their first four meetings before Djokovic won two of their next three in the final of the 2007 Canadian Masters and the semi-finals of the 2008 Australian Open on the way to his first Major title.
This was a rivalry defined by play at the highest level, with 20 meetings at Masters 1000 tournaments, eight in finals, plus six encounters at the ATP Finals, twice in the final. They met a joint-record 17 times at Slams, including four finals.
Both inflicted some of the toughest defeats on the other. in 2011, Djokovic began the season 41-0, winning the Australian Open and four Masters titles before facing Federer in the semi-finals of the French Open. He defeated Djokovic in four sets there, one of only six losses suffered by the Serb that season.
But Djokovic was also the bane of Federer at his beloved Wimbledon, defeating the Swiss in three finals in 2014, 2015 and most heartbreakingly in 2019, when the legend had two championship points before losing 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3) in his last ever Major final.
Their final battle came in the semi-finals of the 2020 Australian Open soon after, a one-sided affair that Djokovic claimed on the way to his 17th Major triumph.
1. Rafael Nadal
Time spanned: 15 years, 3 months – Matches played: 40 – Head-to-head: Nadal leads 24-16
A rivalry that defined an era, this was Federer’s longest-standing professional rivalry, spanning from 2004 to 2019. Despite the fact that Federer was the newly-crowned number one in their first meeting, a 17-year-old Nadal defeated the more experienced Swiss 6-3, 6-3 at the Miami Open. A year on the two played out an epic final at the same event as Federer recovered from two sets down to win 2-6, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-1.
Nadal then won their first Slam meeting in the semi-finals of the 2005 French Open, going on to capture his first Major title there. Locked at number one and number two in the world, 17 of the next 19 matches between the two came in tournament finals from 2006 to 2010. Eight were Masters finals and seven Slam finals, including every French Open and Wimbledon final from 2006 to 2008.
The pair met in two more Slam finals at the 2011 French Open and 2017 Australian Open, with victory for Nadal and Federer respectively there. Finally, after more than 15 years doing battle at the highest level, the two men met at their spiritual homes for their last two encounters. Nadal defeated Federer in the semi-finals of the 2019 French Open, before Federer downed the Spaniard in the semi-finals of Wimbledon just weeks later.
Honourable Mention – Andy Roddick
Time spanned: 10 years, 5 months – Matches played: 24 – Head-to-head: Federer leads 21-3
While certainly a rivalry based on the number of matches played and longevity, the results of the head-to-head between these two former number ones is heavily in favour of the Swiss. Federer was more so a perennial party pooper to Roddick, stopping the American from winning Wimbledon in three finals in 2004, 2005 and 2009, and winning 11 times in a row against him between 2003 to 2008.
Roddick did have the last laugh though, downing Federer in their last ever encounter at the 2012 Miami Masters, his second win over the Swiss at that event after doing the same in the quarter-finals of the 2008 event.
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