May 2nd 2007 : The day that Roger and Rafa played the Battle of Surfaces

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On May 2nd 2007, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two best players in the world,  played a unique exhibition match in Majorque, called the Battle of Surfaces.

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What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history

On the 2nd of May, 2007, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two best players in the world,  played a unique exhibition match in Majorque, called the Battle of Surfaces. The court they played on was indeed split over two surfaces, one side of the net being clay while the other side was grass, as a reference to their rivalry in which the Spaniard prevailed on clay while the Swiss dominated on grass. Nadal eventually won 7– 5, 4– 6, 7– 6 (12– 10).

The guys involved

Roger Federer : the Swiss genius, age 25, was world no. 1 without a break since February 2, 2004. Since 2003, he won ten Grand Slams : the Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007), Wimbledon (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006) and the US Open (2004, 2005, 2006).  In 2006, his best year, he claimed twelve titles including three Grand Slams, the Masters Cup and four Masters Series. He had a record of 92 wins and only 5 losses, four of these against his only serious rival at the time, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard was the main reason Federer hadn’t won the French Open yet :  he lost against him in the semi-final in 2005 (6/3 4/6 6/4 6/3) and in the final in 2006 (1/6 6/1 6/4 7/6) . He started 2007 by winning the Australian Open without dropping a set, beating Fernando Gonzales in the last round (7/6 6/4 6/4). He then had a peculiar Indian Wells/Miami tour where he lost twice against the same player, Guillermo Canas from Argentina, who was coming back on the tour after being suspended for using a banned substance. Unbeaten on grass in the last five years, Roger Federer had won fourty-eight matches in a row on this surface.

Rafael Nadal : the 21 year old Majorcan was no.2 in the world since July 2005, shortly after his first title at Roland-Garros at the age of 19.  Until this day, he had not lost a single match on clay since the 8th of April 2005, when he lost in Valencia against Russian Igor Andreev (7/5 6/2). He was on  an ongoing seventy-two winning strike, which allowed him to claim twelve titles on this surface, including two at Roland-Garros (2005, 2006). He became Federer’s nightmare, stopping him twice at the French Open (2005, 2006), and beating him up to four times in 2006, a year when only two players managed to beat the Swiss – the other being Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Nadal was not to be challenged on clay, but he was also improving on other surfaces. He had managed to win two Masters Series tournaments on hard court in 2005 (Toronto and Madrid), but he also started to perform where no one expected him to, due to his game style : on grass. In fact, he reached the final in Wimbledon in 2006, where Roger Federer took his revenge from the Roland-Garros final (6/0 7/6 6/7 6/3). In 2007, he reached the quarter finals at the Australian Open, beaten by Fernando Gonzales (score), before lifting trophies in Indian Wells, Monte-Carlo and Barcelona.

The place

The Battle of Surfaces  tennis presentation was held on May 2, 2007. The match was played in the capital city of Nadal’s home island, Palma de Mallorca. The half clay and half grass court, who was created specifically at the Palma Arena for this show and would never be used again,  took nineteen days and cost approximately $1.6 million to build.

Nadal Federer

The facts

This exhibition match was meant to determine which one of the players would prevail on a mixed surface that would even the chances : Roger the grass-court wizard (48 wins in a row) or Rafa the master of clay (72 matches undefeated)?

Quoted by Eurosport.com, the Basel-born champion had said prior to the event :

“It’ll be fun to find out what it’s like to play on a court with mixed surfaces. And it ought to be interesting to see who chooses the better tactic. The result is not the most important thing, it’s about having fun.”

The stands were packed with 6800 lucky spectators, and, according to the promoters, almost 200 million tennis fans were in front of their screen when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – world no.1 and world no.2 – walked onto Palma Arena that day. There was a lot excitement to see the best grass-court player in the world competing with the best clay-court player on this never-seen-before split court. The show almost did not happen though as, according to the BBC, the organisers had to lay a brand new surface on the grass side of the court the night before the match, after the original turf had been damaged by worms.

Changeovers were extended to two minutes instead of the usual 90 seconds to give players a chance to change their footwear for each surface.

Did the unique mixed court actually even the chances? It was clearly giving an advantage to the player standing on the red side : he had more time to adjust, especially while returning, as the balls would bounce higher, while it was hard to defend on the green side.

Maybe it did help Rafael Nadal, as the Spaniard won the contest in front of his home crowd, after two and a half hours of a tough fight, 7/5 4/6 7/6.

What next 

The show was appreciated by the general public, although it was clear that the two champions played in a slightly more relaxed way than on the real tour. Rafael Nadal, quoted by the BBC, confirmed that :

“It has been a nice experience, although before the match I thought it would be a disaster because I felt it would be very difficult for me to adapt to the court. I have had a good time and that is important. Both of us would like to repeat this experience because, although the match was not a real one, it allowed us to play for points without much tension and to play more relaxed.”

Federer said: “I found the court to be excellent, especially the clay part. The challenge was difficult, because you have many things in your head.”

Although both players seemed to have enjoyed the experience and said they were looking forward to doing it again, the 2007 Battle of Surfaces would remain the only match ever played on such an extraordinary court.

A few weeks after this exhibition match, in the final of the Hamburg Open, Roger Federer would put an end to Nadal 81 clay-court winning strike by beating him for the first time on a red court (2/6 6/2 6/0). Nadal would still remain the best at Roland-Garros, edging the Swiss again in the final round, 6/3 4/6 6/4 6/3. At the 2007 Wimbledon final, the lefty would drag Roger into a fifth set, but the Swiss would prevail in the end (7/6 4/6 7/6 2/6 6/2).

Rafael would eventually win Wimbledon for the first time in 2008, winning a legendary showdown against his rival, 6/4 6/4 6/7 6/7 9/7. He would claim another title at the All England Club in 2010.

Roger Federer would win the French Open once, in 2009, defeating Robin Soderling (6/1 7/6 6/4) – the first man to beat Nadal at Roland-Garros – without ever edging Rafa in his favorite tournament.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would face each other fourty times until today, the Spaniard leading 24-16. On clay, Nadal would claim a 14-2 record against the Swiss., whereas Federer would lead 3-1 on grass. Their rivalry would be considered the greatest in tennis history, to the point where it became the very image of our sport.

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