Federer—No. 1 among the men on the all time list of singles tournament victors at the majors—won his 17th and last major title back in 2012 on the lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon, while Nadal captured his 14th and most recent Grand Slam championship on the red clay at Roland Garros in 2014. It is entirely possible that each of these prodigious individuals has moved permanently beyond their zeniths, and highly likely that neither will ever again approach the heights they reached when tennis seemed like their own personal province not so long ago. The public is utterly fascinated with the Swiss and the Spaniard, appreciating how much they did to not only define an era with their enduring greatness, but also realizing the invaluable contribution both men have made to the history of the game.
Fest was probably one of the few international journalists who could have written this kind of far reaching book. He is currently the chief sports editor of the Argentine newspaper La Nación. He previously held the same title for the Spanish Service of DPA, the German news agency, starting in that post back in 2000. His work has appeared in both Rolling Stone and Newsweek. For 18 years, the cerebral Fest lived in Spain, but now he is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Over the past decade or so, Fest has established himself as one of the premier tennis writers in the world.
His dedication to this project was strikingly apparent to me from the early chapters right on through the end. It is not simply a learned examination of one of the sport’s most storied rivalries, or a thorough biography of both men (warts and all), although Fest has successfully taken on those twin tasks. The book is, however, more ambitious than that. It is essentially a portrait of an era, focussing predominantly on these two all-time greats and their gigantic impact, but branching out and including other stalwarts to a lesser degree, most prominently in the chapter on the current ruler of the men’s game, Novak Djokovic.
But, above and beyond anything else, the book is revelatory and enlightening about two superstars who have played the game with contrasting styles and different personalities, two champions who have raised the stakes over and over again, meeting in head to head combat 34 times, clashing seven times over a stirring four year span in major finals, boosting the popularity of the sport just about every time they stepped on a court to face each other. They have built immensely loyal fan bases, with both camps holding the player they were cheering against in the highest regard. There has seldom been anything quite like the reverential atmosphere surrounding these extraordinary rivals, who developed a level of respect for each other that has been ever present across their careers, even during times of strain.
Fest brings the readers back to the embryonic stages in the careers of both Federer and Nadal, takes us through the heart of their primes, and moves on to their recent trials and tribulations. All the way through, it is compelling stuff. Writing about the Nadal of 2005—when the refreshing Spaniard captured his first of nine French Open crowns and established himself as the second best player in the world behind the prime time Federer—Fest alludes to the fact that People Magazine was considering putting the Spaniard on their list of “the 50 most attractive men in the world”. Fest writes, “Nadal declined. On one hand, he still felt very young and not much of a man, despite the fact that his title at Roland Garros clearly gave him the necessary status. On the other hand, the image that was being projected of Nadal in those first years depended on his exuding youth, energy, freshness, which happened to be the ideal contrast to Federer. There would be time enough to appear in People later. Young Nadal would never break a racket, would never speak ill of others, would never do anything out of character. Qualities which were, for the most part, genuine, since the education he received from family had a stronger Prussian influence than a Hispanic one, due to how much they insisted on the value of things, and on the importance of saying ‘Thank you.’ ”
In turn, Fest reflects on the young Federer, who contrasted sharply with the model of decorum he would later become. As Fest writes, “Irascible, disrespectful, conceited, unprofessional: Federer was all these things in his early years as a professional, during which he remembers himself as ‘savage.’ ” Federer speaks of an incident in 2000 that illustrates that developmental period late in his teens when he was learning what was expected of him and trying to figure out how to conduct himself as a professional player with a bright future and high standards ahead of him.
The immaturity of the Swiss at that juncture was evident. Fest offers an example of Federer’s behavior at that time through the eyes of the player himself. Later, Federer is quoted this way regarding a poor effort in 2000 at Barcelona against Sergi Bruguera, the French Open champion of 1993-94: “I lost 6-0 and 6-1. He, a week earlier, had lost 6-0 and 6-0 to Sébastien Grosjean in Casablanca. I walked onto the court without a trace of respect for him. I didn’t respect Bruguera. I thought I would easily beat him 6-1, 6-1. But this was a Roland Garros champion. I underestimated him. I panicked, and then I didn’t know what to do.”
Addressing the young Nadal again, Fest writes, “He had just turned 20 and lives his days with a limitless amount of confidence. He had an angular, olive-skinned face, giant extremities, muscles that seemed ready to burst at a moment’s notice, long hair, exaggerated gesticulations, a genuine astonishment in reaction to the questions that journalists occasionally asked him, and an unchanging kindness—all things that made the Nadal of those days a peculiar character and which made him an inevitable and welcome star.”
This section of the book is so compelling that I must provide one more example of Fest’s perceptiveness about the two towering figures. Of the Spaniard, he says, “Nadal was a kamikaze, a young man to whom the grammar and rules of English were alien….. If he made a mistake, he smiled, with the result that his dialogues with the press went from one smile to the next. However, to get to know him better, to understand his obsessions, you had to hear him talk in Spanish. Then he would amaze, because he was constantly bringing up numbers, points and rankings. Nadal stored in his head all the scores, all the points that had been and would be won, and everything that his direct rivals did in their struggle to reach the peak of tennis. He would recite, without looking at the list, all of the tournaments won on clay courts up until that point, analyze the results against his potential rivals the next day, and bring up again how unfair tennis could be: ‘With the points I won in 2005, I would have been No. 1 in nearly any other season. The problem is I have Federer in front of me, who is the best of all time.’ ”
For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of the book is reading Federer’s musings about a private jet ride he shared with Nadal in 2007, when they had time to talk expansively about what was on their minds, to share how they envisioned the future of their sport, and to compare observations on the ATP World Tour in terms of what was working well and what might be altered.
Federer is quoted by Fest, taking about that journey in the most generous way possible. The Swiss says, “It’s good for us to chat, to talk about problems on the circuit. I’m happy for him [Nadal] because he’s very young. When I was that old, no one, [or] practically no one, ever approached me about my opinions, because my ranking was much worse. He is now in a position of influence and if he, for lack of a better way of saying it, relies on me a little bit, as I’m older and from an almost different generation, that’s a good thing. Because decisions made today will affect him more than me, all the changes that are coming for 2009, 2010, 2011… he’ll experience those more than I will, because I’ll be at the end of my career. And I want to help him. The circuit should be well structured for when I leave tennis and he continues playing.”
How fascinating is that assessment from Federer that he made so long ago? Here he is now at 35, having missed the second half of 2016 with a knee injury, but fully motivated to return next year and still compete at the highest levels of the game. And there is Nadal at 30, still fighting ferociously to claim top prizes, not knowing how much longer his body will hold up, hoping to play the game on his own lofty terms, striving to rekindle the excellence that was once his trademark. For all we know, the Swiss might be out there longer than his most revered rival, despite being five years older.
Be that as it may, Fest draws on innumerable sources in the book to enlarge our understanding of who they are and what they represent. He brings in 1988 world No. 1 Mats Wilander—a victor seven times in singles at the majors—to speak about what Federer and Nadal might have done with their lives if they had not become tennis luminaries. Wilander says, “Federer…. I think he probably would have been a journalist, a reporter. I wouldn’t say a writer, a fiction writer. But he’s much more interested in tennis than most people realize. He lives to hit the ball, to try out new shots. If the ball is close to his feet, he passes it in some way or hits it with different spins, and keeps the ball boys busy. He’s more interested in the game and different aspects of tennis than any player I’ve ever seen. His love of tennis is huge. He’s inquisitive enough to be a reporter; he would want to know everything there is about… Iraq or whatever it might be.”
Shifting to Nadal, Wilander remarks, “Nadal loves the game but with a different culture. It’s pretty obvious he would do something related to sports. He’s more physical than Roger, who’s graceful. Federer doesn’t need to play two hours of sports every day and sweat to feel at ease. Nadal does; he needs that so he can, uffff, breathe easy.”
Another Swede steps forth in the book to discuss Federer and Nadal, and that is the big hitting and sometimes contentious Robin Soderling, the Roland Garros finalist in both 2009 and 2010. In the former of those years, he upended Nadal in the round of 16, becoming the first man ever to beat the Spaniard on the red clay at the French Open. Soderling lost the final that year to Federer, who had endured losses to Nadal four years in a row at the French Open, including setbacks in the finals of 2006, 2007 and 2008. (Nadal would defeat Federer for a fifth time without a loss at Roland Garros in the 2011 final). In 2010, Soderling achieved his lone career win over Federer in seventeen head to head collisions (that was a quarterfinal showdown) but was soundly beaten by Nadal in the final.
Soderling tells Fest, “They’re two different players, so it’s hard to say which of the two is better. To me, Federer is better. It was much harder for me to play against Federer than against Nadal. Because Nadal is one of the best players of all time; that’s huge, or course, but each time he walked onto the court I knew what to expect. I knew what he could do and what he couldn’t. I know that what he does, he does very well, but I could always prepare a strategy. I knew what would happen. I played against Federer I don’t know, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen times [it was actually seventeen], and I think I can say I only played well three times…. He would make me play poorly. I would win or lose against Nadal but there was more of a rhythm.”
Soderling was assessing the two giants from the standpoint of his own experiences. Yet Fest managed to get the Spaniard Alex Corretja—a guileful player who reached the 1998 French Open final and reached No. 2 in the world—to explain why Nadal has always tormented Federer stylistically as an adversary, winning 23 of their 34 contests, taking nine of eleven total meetings at the majors and six of eight final round clashes in “Big Four” events. The case for Federer as the best player of all time is substantial because his record is so diversified and his longevity unassailable. But the critics will always contend that losing so frequently and on so many auspicious occasions against the primary rival of his career diminishes the argument that Federer is the greatest ever.
Corretja makes some penetrating comments on the matchup. He asserts, “Federer doesn’t lose against Nadal because he’s worse than Nadal. He loses against Nadal because he does poorly against Nadal’s system of play. Everything that Federer does to damage his rivals only does half the damage to Rafa. The system that Rafa uses to do the most damage to his rivals is the system that most damages Federer. And the system that Federer uses to do the most damage to his rivals is the one that does the least damage to Rafa.”
Martina Navratilova sits down with Fest to discuss the same topic, asserting that Federer would have fared better in his series with Nadal if he had possessed a two-handed backhand. Navratilova says in the book, “Yes, he would beat Nadal more often [with the two-hander]. .. You would also think that if Nadal were right-handed, he wouldn’t do so much damage. The fact is that to counter Nadal’s forehand, Federer needs to hit the ball with two-hands.. I think that Nadal would still win most of the matches due to his topspin anyway. The topspin is what bothers Federer, on top of which is the fact that Nadal is left-handed. It’s a combination of the two things.”
Fittingly, Fest devotes the requisite space on Federer and Nadal as players. But he also weaves in plenty of material on both competitors as people devoted to their craft on and off the court, and as personalities. On that count, Federer’s compatriot Marco Chiudinelli weighs in on the fact that the public perception of renowned sports figures can differ from the reality of their lives behind the scenes.
As Chiudinelli—a Swiss Davis Cup teammate of Federer’s who has been a trusted friend over the years—tells Fest, “It’s true that the Swiss—because of how our country works and how we are—tend to think things through twice and not to react on our first impulse. But it’s a cliche to think that Nadal is spontaneous and passionate and Roger is just serious and formal. Roger can also be passionate outside the court; he also does his things and has his moments. What happens is that we don’t tell those things to reporters.”
In his reporting, Fest is fundamentally fair to Federer and Nadal. He lauds them for their many attributes, offers constructive criticism and provides illuminating information and observations on both men. For example, he writes the following about Nadal’s negligence in not reading the manuscript of his autobiography Rafa before it was released in 2011:”Rafa, the book, would start out on an injured foot. And things would only get worse for this autobiographical work, and it was born alongside one attention-grabbing fact: Nadal, the author, hadn’t read his own book, hadn’t seen the pages on which his name had been printed as the author on a font twice as large as his co-author’s name. One thing is understandable: no one expects Nadal or any other athlete at his level to sit in front of a keyboard to type out his story. No, that’s why [John] Carlin was there, an experienced journalist and sharp investigator….Not having read your own book is one thing, but indicating publicly that you hadn’t seen it is another thing entirely.”
Meanwhile, Fest’s reporting reaches a peak in his chapter about some significant philosophical differences that emerged in 2012 between Federer and Nadal, who had served together for a long time on the ATP Player Council. Federer had been an immensely devoted President while Nadal had been equally devoted as Vice President, when both men were traveling through and perhaps slightly beyond their primes. That Federer and Nadal were willing to commit to time consuming meetings occurring on the eve of majors was a testament to their extraordinary leadership and integrity.
As an ATP executive told Fest in an interview for the book, “Seeing Rafa, Federer, or Djokovic talking passionately about who has the right to play the qualifying rounds, about whether the doubles registration should close on Friday or Saturday morning…. it’s simply incredible. You see Federer, a day before the start of the U.S. Open, locked up in a hotel room at 10:15 at night. He eats a sandwich or snacks and debates about quality control of the qualifying rounds before a 250 tournament or whether the Sunrise Challenger should be played the same week as the Indian Wells Masters 1000 and how much money should be awarded.”
But Federer and Nadal headed into 2012 disagreeing substantially about ATP political matters. For many years, they had sat down over breakfast with Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley not long before the tournament. along with other important people. But that was not the case four years ago. As Fest writes, “In 2012 it was different; there was no breakfast, no encounter. There were, instead, pending grudges. Roger and Rafa didn’t want to see each other because the tension between the two had been growing for months and was at the bursting point in public.” Fest elaborates on that dispute, but the fact remains that Federer and Nadal have never stopped respecting each other to the hilt, no matter how differently they felt about particular issues, regardless of the timeframe.
The bottom line is that they have an unbreakable bond as rivals, and Nadal described it powerfully in the book. He tells Fest, “Rivalries aren’t light or not light; they’re defined by whether you take them to an unnecessary extreme or not. I think that in other eras, maybe rivalries went beyond what was just the game. I think that in this day and age, Federer and I understand that this is a game. And it’s normal to appreciate your rival. I have a special appreciation of Federer because I’ve experienced some very important moments in my career playing against him. I think he feels the same way towards me. Ultimately, you care for your rivals in a special way. I think Federer, Djokovic, Murray and I all understand this is a game. We take everything out on the court but when it’s over, it ends there.”
I urge you to read Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal. Sebastián Fest has written a first rate book with style, skill and clarity. He is a masterful interpreter. I believe most tennis fans will agree with me that Fest has captured the essence of one unique fellow from Switzerland and another individualist from Spain who have raised the profile of tennis immeasurably by virtue of their many exploits.
Buy Sebastián Fest’s book on Amazon