Federer, Nadal and the Conundrum of Time

Which of these two greats can better deal with this unbeatable opponent? RealSport takes an in-depth look at the stats to find out.


Some in the tennis world would say a new generation of players arrives every 5 years. Federer, Lopez, Ferrer and Youzhny are some of the last remaining players of their crop. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are at the forefront of theirs. Raonic and Dimitrov the leaders of their group. And now we have the latest generation group led by Alexander Zverev.

But many tennis fans view Federer and Nadal as being part of the same generation even though the Swiss is 36 years old and the Spaniard 31 years old. To complicate matters further there is the engrained habit of referring to Federer as so many years ‘young’, while Nadal, is regularly mentioned as being ‘older’ than his age.

Why might this be? Why is the older Federer seen as the Peter Pan of tennis and the younger Nadal as always one injury away from retirement? To make sense of this apparent conundrum it has proved useful to first look at some of the facts available from the ATP.

Starting out younger and faster

The 15-year-old Nadal made his start in professional tennis nearly a year younger than Federer did. He was also much quicker to secure his first ATP tour win at 15 years 3 months in Seville, in September 2001. The Swiss, in contrast, picked up his first win in Toulouse, in September 1998 when he was 17 years and 1 month old.

After that first win, the 17-year-old Federer likely would have expected clear daylight between him and any opponent five years his junior as he began his career. After all, Nadal was just 12 at the time. But the auspicious dates of their first respective ATP victories gave notice that Nadal, in reality, was already just 3 ‘tennis years’ behind Federer. This was due to the maturity and talent displayed by the Spaniard from the outset of his professional career. This dramatically showed itself when they first met in Miami in 2004 as the then 17-year-old Spaniard beat the then 22-year-old world #1 in straight sets. In that moment the tennis world made a link between them that would never be broken again.

Injury prone

The downside for Nadal of stepping into professional tennis so early and so successfully was to show itself over time with the number of injuries he had to deal with in comparison with Federer.

By the time both had reached approximately 30 years of age one sees that Federer had played 993 matches by the end of 2011 over a 14 year period. Nadal, had played 980 matches by the end of 2016 over a 15 year period. This shows that an older starting Federer eventually caught-up with the younger starting Nadal on career matches played, by maintaining a higher average number of matches played, 69 against 64 for Nadal, during this period. Undoubtedly, this catching up was in large part facilitated by the many injuries suffered by Nadal.

Match time

To date, Federer has logged 2297 hours in 1368 matches while Nadal has logged 2021 hours in 1045 matches. Federer has a career average match time of 1 hour 41 minutes. Nadal’s is 1 hour 56 minutes. What this shows is that Federer has generally played shorter matches over the course of his career, which will surprise few. This is mostly due to the difference in their respective game styles with Nadal employing a more grinding baseline style than Federer. However, a 15 minute difference between them for every career match they have played so far is massive. And it has huge physical implications for the body when it applies to over 1000 matches.

(All graphs and tables courtesy of Gergo Benyi)

It is instructive if we step beyond this current 15 minute career match differential and now look selectively at their actual seasons’ match-time data.

Phase 1

The ‘Match-time by Age Table’, where Nadal started out in tennis the younger of the two, automatically must begin with him leading in court time. The statistics confirm this but also they show he kept adding to his match-time surplus over Federer until they reached age 25.

At that stage Nadal (end 2011) had played a remarkable 288 hours more than Federer. He did this by accumulating 1277 hours from 657 matches. Federer in the same age period (end of 2006) accumulated 989 hours from 608 matches. This phase gives an average match time for Nadal of 1 hour 57 minutes, and for Federer of 1 hour 38 minutes. It reveals a significant difference of 19 minutes for every match they played.

By dividing the 288 surplus hours by 1 hour 57 minutes we see that Nadal had already played 148 ‘matches’ more than Federer. That is a massive amount of additional wear and tear for Nadal’s body to cope with. Indeed, it equates to an extra two full seasons of matches.

Phase 2

For the next five years the statistics show that Federer by the end of 2011 had marginally increased his on court match time compared with Nadal’s by the end of 2016. The gap of 288 hours had reduced to 235 hours. In this phase Nadal accumulated 620 hours from 323 matches. Federer accumulated 673 hours from 385 matches. This gave Nadal an average match time of 1 hour 55 minutes, and Federer one of 1 hour 45 minutes. But if the 235 hours were to be translated into ‘matches’ it shows that Nadal’s body is still carrying 123 ‘matches’ (nearly two full seasons) more than Federer’s.

It is also worth noting that the major reason for the reduction in match times for Nadal was because he was playing less frequently due to injury. Federer was still the more efficient of the two on court. Although with his own average match-time extending by 10 minutes it meant he was the one working harder than previously.

Phase 3

This 5-year period to age 35 years, is presently exclusive to Federer (to end 2016). It will not be until the end of the 2021 season until such statistics are available for Nadal. The data shows that Federer accumulated 560 hours from 332 matches. This shows his match-time average has reduced by 4 minutes to 1 hour 41 minutes as he regained some on-court efficiency.

These Federer trends towards increased on court aggression and physical frailty, the latter evident in both 2013 and 2016, are markers for Nadal to note when trying to negotiate his way through this next critical phase of his career. Unless he does this efficiently, he is unlikely to emulate and advance beyond the successes of the older Swiss.

What can we now say?

Despite, starting younger than Federer the Spaniard made a relatively quicker impact on the ATP tour than his Swiss counterpart. As a consequence, it brought them into career conflict much earlier than might otherwise have been anticipated. In retrospect this has been to the benefit of both.

Nadal’s more physically demanding style has caused him eventually to carry 2 ‘full career seasons’ more match-time in his body, since he was aged 25. This has become hugely valuable for the then 30-year-old Swiss onwards, as it meant he had reduced a critical competitive physical advantage held by an opponent 5 years his junior.

The outcome of starting younger and quicker while staying on-court longer may also have led the Spaniard to suffer more from injury than Federer. Again, the Swiss has gained a strong advantage from this in practical on court terms, and from the psychological boost of seeing his great rival vulnerable to injury.

Lastly, there are some who would claim it is the mileage in your body that reflects your true tennis age. By this measure, as per the on court match times of both and their respective injuries, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that the current Nadal and Federer are in fact, incredibly close in ‘tennis age’ terms.

Only time will tell

Does any of this help us to predict which of them will hold the coveted Year End #1 spot? No, probably not. Nor is this data likely to offer an answer to the much asked question as to which of them will finish with the most Major titles. However, this may help to explain why we instinctively see them as two greats of the game of the same time and generation.

What remains certain is that the Swiss and Spaniard will continue to be inextricably linked for the entirety of their respective. Will the younger starting Spaniard end up being penalised or benefit from doing so? Can he manage to stay on court after the Swiss has retired to prove his separate generational credentials? Which of these two unique players will time end-up favouring? The only one who can conclusively answer that is time itself. The same time that has weaved its impressive powers capriciously round both men for nearly two decades now.

Who do you think will defy Father Time the longest? Let us know in the comments below!

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Donal Kerry


I'm 62, married with family. Jimmy Connors first brought me to tennis viewing and somewhere in the 90's I lapsed. Roger's arrival rekindled my interest and Rafa's only added to it. Novak, Andy and others have increased my joy of viewing the game. I have always played tennis to a very ordinary level but love getting out on the court every time.