Awkward Changeover

Novak Djokovic won the French Open on Sunday. In doing so, he not only completed the career Grand Slam, he also currently holds all four major trophies, which is some kind of Grand Slam even if it isn’t the calendar year Grand Slam (which hasn’t happened in men’s tennis since Rod Laver won all four majors in 1962 and 1969).

And yet, this momentous victory for Djokovic feels somehow hollow because of two conspicuous absences at this year’s French Open. Injuries to both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal forced them to withdraw (Federer before it began, Nadal in the third round), making this year’s French Open the first major since 2005 (Nadal’s first French Open title) in which neither of these legends, perhaps the two greatest men’s players of all-time, posed a challenge to win it. To put this in some kind of historical perspective, of the 44 majors played between Federer’s first major win (2003 Wimbledon) and Nadal’s last major (2014 French Open), they combined to win 31 of them (Federer 17, Nadal 14). Perhaps even more convincingly, from 2005 to 2010, Federer or Nadal won 21 of the 24 majors.1

Even though Nadal holds a decided advantage by virtue of his 23-11 record in head-to-head matches against Federer, Federer vs. Nadal has been tennis’s greatest rivalry mostly because of the quality, not the outcome, of the matches, which frequently have been grueling five-set classics. Their matches became mandatory viewing, too, because of their contrasting styles of play: Federer’s artistry and versatility vs Nadal’s power and defense.3 No match exemplified this more than the 2008 Wimbledon final,  often referred to as the Greatest Match Ever Played, in which Nadal won a nearly five hour (that’s match time: it actually lasted about seven hours of actual time), two rain delay, two tiebreak (and 9-7 in the fifth set) classic that ended as the sun had almost set.2  

The essence of the Federer-Nadal rivalry wasn’t just the contrasting styles, but the way in which, despite these disparate styles, their matches exposed the oversimplified binary logic of winners and losers so intrinsic to competition.  The matches were fiercely contested but never were never motivated by resentment or enmity so that after the match you (or at least, I) felt really bad for whoever lost since that term seemed so inadequate–both crude and cruel–to describe being outscored in the fifth set. For instance, Nadal won the aforementioned Wimbledon final in 2008, but no one would really say that Federer “lost” that match. 

No moment demonstrates the close connection between these rivals more clearly than the trophy ceremony at the 2009 Australian Open. Federer had won 13 majors, and was closing in on Pete Sampras’ record of 14 majors. Surpassing Sampras would cement Federer’s legacy as the greatest tennis player ever, but he couldn’t get past Nadal, who kept beating him in major finals (five straight times). For Federer, Nadal must have seemed put this earth strictly to thwart and frustrate him.3 And so, after another five-set loss in a major final to Nadal, this one in Melbourne, Federer breaks down into tears and has to step away from the microphone. Nadal, after he’s announced as winner, picks up his trophy and goes and puts his arm around Federer, which actually seems to comfort him enough so that he returns to the microphone with a bit of perspective and praise for Nadal. Then, when Nadal finally speaks it’s as if he recognizes the torment that his unique and relentless brand of tennis has had on his opponent: in his victory speech he apologizes both to Federer and the fans for winning the match (“I’m sorry for today…”). It’s a wonderful and moving display of friendship and sportsmanship.4

Anyway, Federer, now 34, has passed into adulthood seamlessly and gracefully, as he does most everything (except in matches against Nadal). He may be in the twilight of his career, but he’s still very competitive (ranked #3 in the world), especially for his age: he’s made three major finals in the last two years, losing each time to the younger Djokovic, his new nemesis. Off the court, he and his wife, Mirka, are the parents of sets of twins, a pair of girls and a pair of boys.

This may seem revisionist (and perhaps even convenient) to claim, but it’s difficult to remember Federer as a young player, not because it’s been such a long time, but rather because Federer never really seemed young. There are stories about him being petulant as a junior player, but that seems to have dissipated quickly. Part of Federer’s omnipresent maturity has to do with his style of play, as well as with his comportment. He seems inherently not just like an adult but like an aristocrat. He wore shorts with a tuxedo stripe to play night matches at the US Open; he’s worn cardigans and blazers to his matches at Wimbledon.5 It isn’t just that he appears to be an adult, it’s that he embodies the platonic ideal of upper-class, masculine adulthood—as if he wasn’t born so much as he just materialized from the pages of a Rolex ad in GQ.


Roger Federer: 2007 US Open, 2008 Wimbledon, 2009 Wimbledon.

Because of his elegance and style, Federer, ever the on-court artist, has always been a literary darling. David Foster Wallace wrote the definitive Federer essay in 2006 when Federer was at the height of his powers, but other essays and books about him have appeared rather frequently. And surely there will be more on the way with Federer approaching retirement—although it’s also easy to see him playing forever, a tennis version of Dorian Gray who never confronts his portrait and instead enjoys his immortality without conflict.

Nadal on the other hand, has had a more tumultuous maturation process. When he burst onto the scene at 15, and when winning the French Open at the age of 19 (in his first professional appearance at Roland Garros, mind you), he wore his hair long behind a bandana, and sported a ridiculous wardrobe: muscle t-shirts and capri pants. I vaguely remember the great announcer Dick Enberg perfectly describing Nadal’s style—both his appearance and his game—as “swashbuckling.” He seemed brash and arrogant (which he wasn’t) to go along with his bruising style of play. He was a force of nature with puckish charm, hitting relentless and punishing groundstrokes and then chasing down his opponents’ shots, over and over and over again. Nadal’s game had less to do with aesthetics and more to do with sheer force of will, which, of course, is no less impressive than Federer’s artistic mastery (just ask Federer himself).   

In 2009, Nike influenced Nadal to change his on-court appearance and adopt a more traditional and mature look (he got a haircut, his shorts came abover the knees, and his shirts grew sleeves) so it could sell more of his line of clothes (apparently the Nadal capri pants weren’t exactly flying off the shelves). Nadal’s new look was saddening; from the outside, it seemed like Nike took Peter Pan out of Neverland and gave him an office job.

Rafael Nadal: (left) 2002-2008; (right) 2009-present

Rafael Nadal: (left) 2002-2008; (right) 2009-present

But Nadal never actually lived in Neverland. He may have appeared puckish and carefree, but his on-court rituals reveal what can only be described as obsessive-compulsive behavior. During a point, he frantically runs around the court, but before and after the point he avoids stepping on any of the court lines, making sure to step over them with his right foot first. Perhaps the most evident of Nadal’s routines involves the excessive and meticulous care with which he places his water and energy drink bottles.

Here’s Nadal himself describing this ritual in his autobiography, Rafa:

I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.

This behavior may initially seem merely curious and idiosyncratic—and many websites list and track his “tics” and “routines” with a ‘Hey, look at Rafa! Isn’t he quirky?” tone—or like the the rituals many athletes perform in order to maintain their focus if it were confined to the tennis court. But Nadal seems equally obsessive away from the court. He won’t let his parents leave the house if a storm has been forecast. He calls his sister upward of 10 times a day to make sure she’s alright. He’s afraid of thunder, of animals, of driving, of swimming, of the dark (and sleeps with a light on).

Unlike Federer, Nadal, who just turned 30, has found the passage into the twilight of his career and into adulthood to be more abrupt and fraught with difficulties than Federer. As a result, and with apologies to those writers, like Brian Phillips, who have thoughtfully considered Nadal’s style and particular genius, he’s more popular with psychologists, both the professional and armchair varieties. After all, what happens when when you aren’t able to find any correlation between the order in the world and the order you seek in your mind? Paralyzing anxiety, that’s what.

Nadal has begun to talk about the overwhelming self-doubt and anxiety that he’s been dealing with on the court. It hasn’t only affected his forehand—his best stroke—but also his breathing. He’s basically been trying to play tennis while suffering panic attacks, as he discussed in a recent interview: “It was a strange situation that you couldn’t control; like respiration and time. When you don’t succeed to control these two things, when you do not know where the ball will bounce, it’s because mentally you are worried; that’s caused by anxiety.” Nadal seems to have recovered,6 at least mentally, and is playing better and more confidently than he did in 2015, which makes the breakdown of his body that much more painful to observe. To watch Nadal now is not only to witness the deterioration of an athlete’s skills and body over time, but also to worry about how he’ll process that deterioration mentally.


The beauty of Federer’s game has always been that he makes things look so easy, especially those things that aren’t easy. His game lends itself naturally to praise because of the kind of transport and escape from the mundane that his refined sense of aesthetics offers. Nadal, on the other hand, has always served as a reminder of the excruciating and repetitive effort that life requires and of how our efforts to control our surroundings either fail eventually or were always delusional. Nadal’s anxiety and his crisis of faith remind us that the things we expect to come naturally–even breathing!– eventually don’t.

But that’s what makes late-period Nadal so interesting and so inspiring. His obsessive water-bottle-placement ritual may appear especially absurd now that age and body have made evident the irrational mindset that would equate the placement of water bottles with cosmic order. But that doesn’t make it an empty or superfluous gesture. Sure, the universe may be grossly indifferent to how we place our water bottles, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept that indifference. Federer will always be the more aesthetic tennis player, but the adult version of Nadal is a true artist, one who tries–even in vain–to create order where there is none.


1 Nadal’s absence from the French Open is perhaps more glaring since he’s won the tournament nine times and has an absolutely astounding record of 72-2 on the red clay of Roland Garros.

2 If there’s a lasting image for me of 2008 Wimbledon, it’s of Robert Federer, Roger’s dad. After Federer dumps his forehand into the net, and Nadal finally wins the match and collapses to the ground, the camera shows Nadal’s manically celebrating the victory, and in the bottom corner, Federer’s dad, Robert, stands and cheers, smiling, even though his son has just lost in the most excrutiating way possible. If Federer ever retires, what I’ll miss most is the presence of Federer’s dad, who seems like the most affable, pleasant human alive. He’s kind of portly, has the quintessential dad moustache, and he’s always smiling and cheering, no matter what happens on the court. In a world of aggressive, overly involved fathers shouting at their sons playing sports, it’s very humanizing that Roger Federer has such a regular-looking and relaxed father. I’ve been a Federer devotee since I watched him beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001; I love watching him play. But if given the chance to meet Roger or Robert, I would probably choose Robert. I would love to hang out in some Swiss bar and have a beer with Robert Federer. Despite our difference in bank accounts, the beers would be on me, Bob!

3 Nadal’s style seems crafted, almost diabolically so, for the sole purpose of exploiting Roger Federer’s lone weakness: a high-bouncing ball to his backhand side. This weakness isn’t unique to Federer, since anyone with a one-handed backhand has trouble with balls that bounce above their shoulders. But Federer doesn’t have any other weaknesses, and Nadal’s forehand generates so and topspin (3,200 rpm–and as high as 4,900 rpm) that it almost leaps off the court. So having to face Nadal isn’t just difficult for Federer, it’s existential torture.

4 If you need more convincing that these two rivals actually are friends (or do a wonderful job acting that way), there’s this 15-mintue outtake from a 2010 commercial promoting their respective charity matches. Neither Federer nor Nadal seem capable or interested in saying their lines correctly, and instead spend the duration joking and laughing both at and with each other. Again, in a sports landscape in which male competitiveness seems driven by resentment (see: Jordan, Michael vs. Everyone), that these two greats can produce both legendary matches and be so friendly off the court has been rare and wonderful to watch.

5 This helps explain why he’s so revered at Wimbledon. It’s isn’t just that he’s won the tournament seven times, it’s that he’s basically conducted himself like an English duke while doing so. Andy Murray may play for Great Britain, but he’s also Scottish. Federer, even though he’s Swiss, is more English than the English.

6 Nadal has resisted consulting with psychologists or therapists of any kind, and instead has tried to cope with his on-court anxiety by rethinking and reacclimating himself to what used to come naturally, which actually just seems like a DIY version of cognitive behavioral therapy.






  1. memyself andi

    A sensitive, intelligent and non biased article with great insight into Nadal (at last). I’m amazed at how few people have made a link between Rafa’s rituals and his innate anxiety. But it’s not recent – Rafa has lost many sets by his own admission to crippling nerves e.g the first set in 2006 RG but noone was listening (bravado or ‘psyching out’ the opponent was and is still cited). In a fascinating documentary Rafa (Informe Robinson in Spanish) last year confessed that the ‘pant plucking’ manifested at around 6yo (worse on court but not exclusive) and cannot do anything about it. Interestingly he also said recently that he doubted the rituals helped him and disturbingly that playing through pain in 2013 contributed to anxiety attacks. He seems to have a few comorbid symptoms of OCD such as ‘seperation anxiety’. As he said he has been ‘defeating himself ‘. I wonder what sort of player he would have been if not predisposed to anxiety?

  2. Matt Nicholas

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for the thoughtful feedback. I think asking what kind of player Nadal would have been without the anxiety is a fascinating question. I think it makes his career especially remarkable because he’s essentially been playing two opponents: the one on the other side of the net and the one inside his own head. There’s a tendency in the larger culture to see depression and anxiety as having positive attributes, which predictably take the form of listicles:
    They argue essentially that anxiety can help provide drive and motivation. Perhaps it does, and perhaps the anxiety has helped Rafa become one of the all-time greats, but I’m wary of such such claims because of how miserable and torturous living with those illnesses can be.

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