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The Dichotomous Declines of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal

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When Roger Federer walked toward the baseline during his Wimbledon quarterfinal match on Wednesday down two sets and facing a triple break point, it looked like his magic had run out. His opponent, Marin Cilic, had blown Federer off the court in their most recent matchup, the semifinals of the 2014 U.S. Open. The feeling that the big-serving Croat would triumph again pervaded Centre Court; Federer no longer had the youthful spring that allowed him to down players with this type of firepower. Yet, Federer held serve and won the set — and then, despite facing three match points, the match. The scene after the final point, with Federer’s arms raised in victory, could have been from 2006, or 2009, or 2012. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that Federer recaptured the form of his youth, because much of what makes Roger Federer such a mythical figure is that his magic has never ceased to exist.

So, Federer is back in the Wimbledon semifinals, just as he has been 10 times before. Absent from the tournament entirely is his chief rival of the past decade, Rafael Nadal, who hasn’t made it past the third round of a major in more than a year. The stark difference between the performance of Nadal and Federer is unsettlingly unfamiliar ground for those who treasured the mid-2000s, when Federer was all but assured a spot on Centre Court on the tournament’s final Sunday, and Nadal was likely there to meet him.

For years, the two were separated by the smallest of margins. This week, Federer and Nadal couldn’t look more different.

Though Federer and Nadal have always been linked by their on-court dominance and strange bandana-headband, stylistically, they’ve long been opposites. Federer has never appeared physically dominant or imposing. He’s almost a caricature of what many people think tennis players are: slight and unnecessarily well-dressed. His game has always been fluid and collected and quiet. Federer can make covering an incomprehensible distance and whipping a groundstroke over the net — as he did in the fifth set against Cilic — appear smooth and effortless. His serve, one of the most formidable weapons in the modern game, has never required the force used by heavy hitters such as Andy Roddick or Pete Sampras. Everything that Federer does on the court has always seemed beautifully easy.

Meanwhile Nadal, in his prime, looked nothing like a tennis player. He had the arms of an amateur bodybuilder. For a time, he wore capris and sleeveless shirts. His game has always looked painful. Every one of Nadal’s wild, looping forehands came with a groan and a grimace and looked like it would dislocate the shoulder of a normal man. His game required a great deal of running and sliding and awkwardly muscled shots. He was everything that Roger Federer wasn’t. Nadal’s brand of tennis was captivating because it made the game look difficult.

Federer and Nadal combined to win 21 of the 23 major tournaments from the 2005 French Open through the 2010 U.S. Open, and met in seven major finals during that time. It’s only because the two were so incomparably dominant that now, when Federer and Nadal are still ranked third and fourth in the world, respectively, do we consider them in decline. It’s telling that “still” has become the operative word when discussing the pair.

It’s also telling, when it comes to the legacies the two will leave behind, that Nadal, not a year older than Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray — the world’s top two players — has lost his edge while Federer, almost five years his senior, is poised to make another run at Wimbledon this weekend. Nadal’s absence is understandable — he has 15 years of wear on his body — but it stands in stark contrast to his rival, who seems to age only in theory.

Rafael Nadal was never really in decline. One moment, he was biting the trophy for the ninth time in Paris and the next, he was struggling to drag his increasingly fickle body into the second week of a major. Nadal never looked like he’d lost half a step, but at times he’s looked like he’s lost three. He’s 100 or nothing, and once he ceased to be great at majors, he ceased to be competitive as well. Even his superhuman body couldn’t stand up to the years of abuse it suffered while grinding behind the baseline. Once a crack appeared in Nadal’s armor, it all fell to pieces.

Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon in early June due to the same wrist injury that forced him to withdraw from this year’s French Open. Now, nine majors will have gone by since the 30-year-old last reached even a semifinal, an abrupt departure from the five-major stretch prior, in which Nadal won three tournaments and was the runner-up in another. For better or for worse, only four tennis tournaments each year matter for legacy and relevance, and Nadal hasn’t seriously competed in a single one in more than two years.

Meanwhile, Federer, who should be decomposing at the age of 34 (he’ll be 35 next month), is gliding into Wimbledon’s second week for the 13th time in the last 14 years. Though he hasn’t won on the last Sunday of a major since Wimbledon in 2012, Federer has been on the doorstep, still competitive, almost every year in Melbourne, Flushing Meadows, and especially at the All England Club.

But even the freakishly healthy Federer has shown weakness this year, withdrawing from the French Open (the first major he’s missed since 1999) after having surgery to repair his torn left meniscus and encountering back problems earlier in the season. Yet with Novak Djokovic’s third-round loss to Sam Querrey, the draw is open for Federer to make another run at his eighth Wimbledon title. The Swiss certainly is not the invincible figure he was 10 years ago. He competes, but he no longer dominates. That’s become Djokovic’s territory. But so many majors have felt like Federer’s final stand that it sometimes seems that he will never truly grow old.

Though the 2008 Wimbledon final is remembered as the event that marked Nadal’s rise to the top of the sport and, fairly or unfairly, the beginning of Federer’s impossibly slow decline, it was a match two years earlier that first showed holes in Federer’s aura of invincibility.

In 2006, it often felt as though the two had tennis all to themselves. That year, Federer won 92 matches and lost only five, four to Nadal. Nadal, still a teenager, was already an unbeatable clay court player and the last — hell, the only — bump in the road for the world’s top-ranked player. Federer didn’t have bad days that year — except for when he played the world no. 2.

At the 2006 Rome Masters, a 19-year-old Nadal topped Federer in a five-set bout that lasted more than five hours, staving off two match points. On both, Federer missed forehands that would usually be routine for him. In a time when he rarely lost sets — forget matches — Federer choked a title away. That match served as the ultimate reminder that even the most perfect tennis player had a weakness: a funny-looking teenager who played with such vicious passion that he was unbeatable, at least on red dirt.

In the following years Nadal would succeed on hard and grass courts as well as clay and would become the world’s top player while Federer slowly fell from greatness to better-than-everybody-except-two-or-three-guys-ness. But the same question always remained for Nadal: For how long can he grind down his joints and still win?

In 2016, it seems that we have our answer. It is possible, if unlikely, that Nadal finds his way to another slam victory, but even with the benefits of modern sports medicine, the door to major trophies often closes soon after the age of 30. That is, unless you’re Roger Federer.

If Federer doesn’t triumph at this year’s Wimbledon, he may not have a better opportunity to win again: Djokovic, the player who eliminated him in each of the last two finals, has been knocked out early, and next year Federer will be closer to 40 than 30. But, it’s awe-inspiring that this year Federer is one Andy Murray loss from once again becoming the favorite at The Championships.

Yet the end has to come for Federer, just as it has seemingly come for Nadal. Even compared to players like Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors — who both competed well into their 30s — what Federer is doing is unprecedented. But he’s been past his prime for more than a half-decade, and as much as fans have enjoyed Federer’s presence in tennis’ spotlight for the past 13 years, it’s inevitable that one of these years, his name won’t be in the draw at Wimbledon. “He’s wrestled Father Time to a stalemate so far, and I hope he can keep Father Time in check a little while longer,” said Federer’s former coach Paul Annacone. “But we all know who’s undefeated.”

If this is the end, or some part of the end for Nadal and Federer, it’s fitting that the two players who defined much of the last decade of tennis — the two players who could be considered the greatest of all time — are now entering their twilight in the same ways that they performed at their peaks: Federer gracefully in defiance of probabilities; Nadal violently, suddenly, and painfully.