Roger Federer on how ‘intense’ rivalry with Rafael Nadal evolved – ‘Back in the day we couldn’t stand each other’

Shahida Jacobs
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the end of a match
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal after their final match at Wimbledon in 2019

Roger Federer has opened up about his special relationship with Rafael Nadal as he explained how they went from fierce rivals earlier on in their careers to having conversations about their families and life in general.

Federer turned professional in 1998 and by the time Nadal made his breakthrough in 2005, the Swiss was already a multiple Grand Slam champion and considered the leader of men’s tennis.

But Nadal soon started to challenge Federer as the leader of the pack as he won multiple majors himself, dominating at Roland Garros.

The pair would dominate tennis for the next few years and they enjoyed an intense rivalry early on as they initially formed the Big Two, which later became the Big Three with Novak Djokovic joining the party.

During a recent UNIQLO event, 20-time major champion Federer talked about the early years of the Fedal relationship and how Nadal went from a shy young player to a confident man.

“I am five years older than Rafa so I saw young, junior Rafa come through [and] he was extremely good, very young. He was incredibly respectful and also very shy, he had complete respect for me, not that he doesn’t have that now, it’s just different because we are friendly,” the 42-year-old said.

“He would be very in awe of me and everything I wanted to do with the Tour. [When I had] ideas, he was like ‘you’re right’.

“Then I saw Rafa grow into his personality, he became more confident, he had his own ideas and then we started playing each other every other weekend and obviously the rivalry got intense, but it was good and we always got along well.

“Not just the two of us, but also our teams, my parents, his parents, my coaches, his coaches, his sister, my sister so the whole surrounding were always respectful and very good.”

But father time catches up with everyone and at some point their relationship changed as they became friendlier and enjoyed a special bond during their final few years on the Tour before Federer retired in September 2022.

The Swiss added: “As we got older, and maybe knew time was ticking and we were not about to see each other so much any more. I started a family – it changes someone completely – and we started to talk about totally different things in life, maybe more about injuries, about kids – he is also a father now – so the conversations changed.

“We started respecting the rivalry we used to have and we almost miss it, playing each other every weekend. Back in the day, we couldn’t stand each other probably for that. He’s a great man. I wish he can come back one more time but he has shown the tennis world and the fans how good he is.”

The pair ended up playing each other 40 times in top-level tennis with Nadal winning 24 of those encounters.

Following Federer’s retirement in September last year, Nadal is set to join his great rival on the sidelines in 2025 as he has already confirmed that the 2024 season will be his last as a professional.

READ MORE: Roger Federer on retirement, Coldplay and his Wimbledon Royal Box debut