It all started here at Crandon Park, in the spring of 2004. A pair of bandanas: one holding back a honey-blond bun, the other wrapped around a dark and shiny curtain of hair. Roger Federer, coming off his first Indian Wells title, was ambushed by Rafael Nadal in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.
“You could tell that he was definitely going to win the French Open,” said Federer on Friday night as he enjoyed the afterglow of his three-hour Miami Open victory over Nick Kyrgios. “I didn’t think he was going to win nine or ten of them.” And neither could we have imagined the sheer scale of this rivalry. In the annals of tennis, only Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert can compete.
On Sunday, Federer and Nadal are preparing for the 37th instalment of their long-running saga on the same court. The level of excitement in Miami can be judged by the scarcity of tickets: the cheapest seats are going for more than $500. To adapt the old cliché, they must keep meeting like this.
“It feels like old times, playing each other every week,” added Federer.
Yet even in their most dominant phase, in the mid-to-late noughties, they had never racked up three meetings by the end of the early-season hard-court swing.
In the old days, this might have felt like a chore for Federer. Until 2017, Nadal could always fall back on a simple and effective tactic: just hit towards the high backhand that represented Federer’s Achilles heel. But we are dealing with a different Federer now, a Federer whose backhand has grown fangs. Victorious in the Australian Open final, and then in the fourth round of Indian Wells, he has narrowed the gap to 23-13 in Nadal’s favour.
In Miami, Nadal leads 2-1, but Federer still remembers their only previous final here – in 2005 – as a significant moment in his career. Finals were best-of-five sets back then, and Nadal led by two sets to love and by 4-1 before the match flipped on its head. “It was a turning point in my career,” Federer recalled on Friday, finding the positives in a series that some have characterised as a decade-long roadblock.
“For me to be able to focus for four hours, smashing forehand after forehand down the line … I felt like I had to learn how to fight in matches, and there I showed it to myself and my team that I could do it.”
Fight has certainly been the theme for Federer in Miami this week. Yes, we have seen many mesmerising strokes, including one drop shot so audacious that everyone in the stadium laughed out loud. But the last two matches in particular have been contests of wills, settled by deciding-set tie-breaks against Tomas Berdych and Kyrgios.
In both cases, a rabidly pro-Federer crowd helped to muddle the minds of his opponents. In both cases, they committed hara-kiri in the final seconds with a wild double fault.
Still, Federer has just kept rolling. “When I came to Miami, I thought eventually it’s going to catch up with me,” he said. “The court is slower here and I already won Indian Wells, so semis would be an unbelievable run.
“Now here we are in the finals and I get a chance to win the tournament.
“Still, I feel like there is a mountain to climb in Rafa. He’s not won it yet before. He’s definitely feeling fresher than I feel right now. That’s not a problem. I’ll be ready.
“It’s definitely going to be very special playing Rafa here again. Of course I’m thrilled for him as well that he came back as well as he did after the comeback, the struggles that he had last year. Hopefully it’s not our last match.”
Barring catastrophic injury, there seems little chance of that. When the new set of rankings comes out on Monday, the ‘Big Five’ will be reunited at the top, with Federer and Nadal slotting in behind Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka. The only question – to be decided on Sunday – is who will take the No 4 spot and who will be No 5.
So what of the rest? Over the past few days, it feels like we have witnessed the birth pangs of a new world order. Kyrgios could and probably should have beaten Federer on Friday in an extraordinary three-hour rumble that might well go down as the match of the season to date. And 19-year-old Alexander Zverev also showed his class in a comprehensive win over Wawrinka.
At the same time, though, the old guard are not going away. When the coin toss is made on Sunday, those bandanas will not be holding back quite as much hair as they did in 2004. But in the stands, the sense of anticipation will be greater than ever.