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Federer vs. Nadal, through the eyes of the McEnroe brothers

LONDON — For the first time in 11 years, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will rekindle their rivalry at Wimbledon. Not since their epic 2008 final — arguably the greatest tennis match in history — have they faced each other on the manicured lawns at the All England Club.

The pair last met at the same stage of the French Open in June, with Nadal winning their 39th career meeting in straight sets before going on to lift his 12th Roland Garros title.

Who will have the upper hand in London? ESPN TV analysts John McEnroe and Patrick McEnroe predict Friday’s men’s semifinal:

Where does Federer-Nadal rank in the pantheon of rivalries?

John McEnroe: It’s one of the all-time greats. The greatest match ever played, in 2008, was here at Wimbledon. The longevity of these two guys. The final in Australia in 2017 after Federer took six months off and came back and won three five-set matches, and was then down 3-1 to Rafa in the fifth. He’s won five in a row until he lost to Rafa at the French Open last month. If it wasn’t for these guys and Novak Djokovic, I feel I’d be like…

Patrick McEnroe: What’s going on in the tennis world?

John: … so I think we’re lucky to have them.

Patrick: The cool thing about this rivaly is that they’re so different.

John: Yeah.

Patrick: Djokovic and Nadal have actually played more times, played some great matches but this is just so compelling. It’s like John and Bjorn Borg. It’s the serve and volley or the aggressive player in Roger, and the great athleticism of Nadal and the energy that he brings to the court. They’re so different as personalities. Roger’s soft-spoken, kind of goes with the flow where Nadal is a super-energized personality and player. And obviously their games are so different. That’s why it’s the most compelling rivalry.

John: A lefty and a righty. You don’t hear any sound from Federer, you hear a lot of grunting from Nadal. You’ve got the Mikhail Baryshnikov of tennis in the way Federer moves and you’ve got a guy who looks like he’s just pounding away on the court, where you’re wondering how does the body hold up to it. Both of them are incredible movers, but those differences in style — the way they look, the way they dress — everything about it makes it more interesting.

How have Federer and Nadal’s games changed since 2008?

Patrick: I don’t think that much has actually changed in Roger’s game, other than he’s been forced to play more from baseline. He’s had to develop more variety, and when he took the time off [to recover from injury and surgery in 2016] he came back trying to be more aggressive on the backhand. It’s still incredible the way he covers the court. Nadal, meanwhile, as John said just keeps getting better. His two-handed backhand is getting more aggressive, his serve has gotten bigger and his volley is great. I’ve been amazed this year watching him up close just how well he’s moving on grass. Obviously he’s played great here in the past but it’s been a while since he’s played at this level. But his comfort level on the surface looks as good as ever.

John: Of the top three guys, Nadal’s improved the most. For a guy who was thought of as a clay-court player, who didn’t serve particularly big, who didn’t come to net much, that he’s been able to adapt his game and add to it in order to become an incredible all-court player. He’s shortened points. Him and his team have realized that he could actually have more longevity, that he didn’t have to be as passive and wait — he could play more aggressively. He’s found the perfect mix between offense and defense. He’s done things that have just shocked players where he’s stood on the court returning. He’s as far back as you can possibly get, he’s bought himself some extra time and gotten in the heads of a lot of players.

Patrick: I was watching the French Open final this year and I was just amazed. Obviously we’ve always known that Nadal stands way back and he hits with this crazy topspin, but the way he’s started to take the ball earlier. And when he had Dominic Thiem pulled wide, he would anticipate the next one was coming cross-court and he’d already be moving forward. His tennis IQ, if it’s even possible, has improved. He’s had to force himself to do that to get better on grass and on hard courts, and that has just made him an all-round better player. Not only is he this incredible physical specimen, but his pure tennis ability has improved over the years, too. You look at Roger and the way he’s been able to take care of himself physically and still move the way he can move — he’s almost 38 — is just amazing.

John: Personally, I think Roger has got less stubborn, switching to the bigger frame racket. Obviously he won so much with a 90-inch frame but he had problems, especially with Nadal. That lefty serve, catching the ball with that spin, above his shoulders — that’s a tough shot for a one-hander to handle. I think that was a realization, that if he didn’t make some changes he wouldn’t be able to keep improving and if these other guys kept improving he wouldn’t be able to stay with them. So I give him credit.

How much will Nadal’s victory at the French Open impact things?

John: I don’t think we can go by what happened at the French Open. Those were the worst conditions I ever saw them play on. The wind was just insane. It just took away from the spectacle and the quality of it. You couldn’t be as precise and I think Roger has got less margin for error than Rafa does in his style of play. Roger, to me, is arguably in the best shape he’s ever been in.

Patrick: Which is amazing considering he’s about to turn 38.

John: Exactly. These guys just got it so quickly. I can tell you from personal experience that I felt like I waited on a little bit, to sort of see what my opponents would do instead of going ‘look, just keep adding no matter what because they’re going to try to add something.’ That’s one thing I admire about all three of these guys because they keep saying ‘OK, what can I do to get better?’

Patrick: And I think Rafa has added a little bit since Roger came back. Because he really was dominating Roger until Roger won that Australian Open match. I was calling that match and thinking to myself: ‘This is the same old story, here we go again, Nadal’s going to win it in five’. You know, Roger’s sort of fading away at the end and then he gets this amazing burst of adrenaline. But he also stuck with his gameplan, which is being aggressive and going after the backhand and I think that definitely carried over to the next few times they played. And it’s been a long time since they played here, mostly because quite frankly Rafa hasn’t played that well at Wimbledon. I think Rafa has a lot to try to prove, because he’s looked amazing this whole tournament. I still give the slight edge to Roger because of the surface and he’s been serving well. And if he can keep serving well and sort of take the racket out of Nadal’s hands a little bit, it’ll allow him to be a bit more offensive and aggressive on Nadal’s serve.

John: It’ll be interesting to see how Rafa comes out. In Australia, he dominated all the way until the final and then all of a sudden it was like he looked shocked. He looked like he didn’t believe deep down that if Roger came out with his A-Game, he could stick with him. This is the same type of situation where you’re playing Roger in his house, where he’s won eight times and Rafa’s only won twice and not for a while. You wonder in the head if he doesn’t start the way he wants, how he’ll react to that.

Would Federer and Nadal have been as successful without their rivalry?

Patrick: It’s definitely spurred them on but there’s no doubt they’d still be who they are. These guys have definitely pushed each other, along with Novak. Initially the two of them pushed him to get to another level, so there’s no doubt it’s helped their longevity and their desire to keep going. Clearly they were both going to win a lot of majors, but this rivalry has kept them in the game a lot longer.

John: I can relate to Novak because for me it was trying to break into that mix, the way he’s been trying for so many years to be at that same level as Roger and Rafa. I experienced that with Jimmy Connors and Borg, you want to have that respect and feel like you’re on equal footing. He’s done a great job of that even though these two have been the most popular players that ever lived.

Who wins this semifinal and why?

John: You could obviously make an argument both ways. To me, because of the surface and, although people around the world respect Rafa, I think the crowd’s going to be pretty solidly behind Roger. I would pick Roger in five.

Patrick: I’m going along the same lines and say Roger in four, a very tight four-setter.

Who is the GOAT?

John: It amazingly remains to be seen. Because if Rafa wins Wimbledon, he’s just one Grand Slam behind. And because Roger’s going to be 38, you would assume he’d be the first guy to retire…

Patrick: (laughing) He could play until he’s 45.

John: … although you thought that about Tom Brady and he’s still winning Super Bowls. Roger is still right there. He’s No. 2, No. 3 in the world and he looks like he’s moving amazingly. How does he do it and how long can he do it for? Rafa has also had a lot more injury issues, so you wonder how many more years he has. Novak’s the guy who seems more likely to go another four years and could conceivably play at that level. The jury is shockingly still out despite the fact these guys have won so many slams already.

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