Rafa-Fed rivalry renewed, but for how long?

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
11:00
PM ET
Where were you the first time you saw Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play?

For me, it was my final day at my previous job here at ESPN. I was sitting at my desk, packing boxes and glued to the final of the 2005 NASDAQ-100 Open in Key Biscayne (now the Sony Ericsson). It was the second time they had meet. Federer was far and away the preeminent player in the game. Nadal was a phenom, one of the few Next Big Things who would actually pan out.

Federer beat him, but he fell behind two sets to love against Nadal before winning. I remember thinking back then, "Hmmm, this could be a good rivalry for years to come." Turns out I was on to something. OK, so apparently, anyone who knew anything about anyone who hit little yellow fuzzy balls on blue, green and red tennis courts knew this, too.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillWe've seen so much Roger-Rafa through the years. And we want so much more.
Anyway, watching Federer and Nadal at Indian Wells on Thursday night had a much different vibe than just one moment in this storied history. We've spent so many years dissecting game plans and shot-making and turning points between these two. So much time parsing each match, each set. This one, though, spoke less about the current state of their respective games than it did about nostalgia and cherishing what's left of these glorious, insatiable battles.

You see, a year had passed since they last played. A year! At that match was here at Indian Wells. You can blame Nadal, er the world's most famous teetering knee that is, for the sojourn this rivalry took.

In the 29th chapter in this rivalry, a healthy Nadal beat down a now-ailing Federer 6-4, 6-2 to reach the semifinals of the first Masters 1000 tournament of the year. But this clash was merely a sidebar to a much bigger storyline: How much longer? How many more memories?

This isn't to say the offing is bleak and that we won't have many more Federer-Nadal matches. But we waited so long, and the future, as bright and hopeful as we want it to be, is more tenuous with each passing tournament.

What if Rafa can't withstand the intensity of the circuit the way he once did? What if Federer's tennis dotage finally catches up to him? It has to at some point, no? The squirrely back he had at Indian Wells, especially against Nadal, will only become more pervasive as time passes. What if Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray take the game over week in, week out. Sure, perhaps we're overreacting and being a little hyperbolic here, but the questions are legit, the apprehension justified.

Imagine no more Fed-Nadal, a rivalry that has withstood a generation of players and one that resonates well beyond tennis circles. Does anything in tennis even come close to giving you chills when they walk on the court? Is there a greater contrasting of styles between two stalwarts anywhere in sports?

But maybe the staying power of these two isn't going anywhere. Rafa is back and Federer never went anywhere. There aren't players outside Djokovic and Murray who can beat these two with any kind of consistency. Rafa's knee looks strong right now and we've been constantly proven wrong by Federer's capacity to ignore those vexing suggestions of what he should and shouldn't do. And, oh by the way, he's still the No. 2 player in the world. And the last time he lost any Grand Slam match before the quarterfinals, guys like Coria, Schuettler and Grosjean were relevant. So there's that.

And though we don't know what's left, we've reached the point in the Federer-Nadal history in which the rivalry itself far surpasses any singular, salient moment, or any one championship along the way. The collective credentials they've accrued is mind-numbing. Twenty-eight Slam titles, each owns a career Slam and they've snared an unthinkable 42 Masters 1000 titles. But the zeal that penetrates the sport when they meet is real -- and that's what matters now.

So when was the first time you saw Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play each other? Was it the gutsy 2008 Wimbledon final? Perhaps one of their one-sided French Open affairs? The Aussie? World Tour Finals? Nonetheless, just relish the rivalry from here on out. Don't sweat the results. Because whether you are an ardent Rafa lover or a Fed fanatic, one doesn't feel right without the other.

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