Interestingly, or perhaps typically, the order can be dictated by mental toughness and confidence. Federer, as evidenced by the wagging at the end, was utterly confident he still had the goods over Djokovic—who was, strangely, reduced into his old crabby, peevish personality in the French; he oftentimes complained over crowd noise and recoiled against slights. Djokovic is a guy who apparently only feels comfortable with the adulation of the Serbs; he has managed to piss off the French and the Americans, and it’s a good bet if both the French and the Americans find you unsavory, you are, in fact, unsavory. So Federer enjoyed superior mental toughness, and the backing of the French crowd, who probably like him because for all the French Revolution stuff the French still secretly yearn for someone who acts like the ideal aristocrat, until he faced Nadal, who has all the mental toughness of the Terminator. Nadal is so mentally tough mental toughness doesn’t even enter into it—he’s effaced his entire off-court personality into an implacable wall—and Federer feels a special weakness in the face of that implacability, and so he loses.
For a man who not just loses to his greatest rival but is routinely humiliated by him in important matches, the media is surprisingly admiring of him. Joe Posnanski thinks it’s because Nadal is better than his imagination, and Nick Sywak argues that it’s because Federer is artistry and tennis fans want artistry to win:
The truth, I suspect, is that we keep saying Federer is the best ever because we need it to be so. We need to believe in the triumph of the beautiful, that the grace he embodies isn't merely incidental to his success. Because tennis, even as it appears forever on the verge of degenerating into mere athleticism (cf. the joyless gruntfest that has been the women's game of the past half decade or so), can never quite escape its subtle relationship to art — to sculpture, say, even to dance. (Attending a tennis match is even a little bit like going to the opera, what with the hushed deportment.) Nadal's two-handed backhand, so powerful that Federer once said it was like facing someone with two forehands, could never be called beautiful. But the majestic sweep of Federer's increasingly anachronistic one-hander, so ruthlessly victimized by Nadal's tsunamilike topspin, has the drama of a grand gesture. In this dialectic tennis resembles soccer, where greatness can be achieved via mere winning (Manchester United) but immortality is reserved for those who win the beautiful game beautifully (Barcelona).
This seems plausible enough. There was once a time where it was Federer who intimidated. Like Barcelona does now, his style seemed to embrace the game so comprehensively that no one had an answer and no one particularly wanted to find out whether there was one (did you remember the Wimbledon match where Federer’s opponent sat with him during breaks, practically giddy that Federer had deigned to grace him with his presence?), and so they were intimidated. Then Nadal came along. But it’d be a mistake to reduce Nadal to brute force; or, rather, it would be a mistake to underestimate the awesomeness of brute force. Federer’s beauty is easy to get: he takes chaos and brings it into order; sees the statue inside the block of marble, etc. Nadal is harder to get; Nadal is a force of nature—volcanoes erupting, buffalo stampeding, big cats leaping, etc. Nadal takes chaos and tries to harness it just a bit. Federer is wow while Nadal is holy shit. Both are awfully cool in their own way, and it’s a mistake to only appreciate one aesthetic form. The ultimate message of Nadal over Federer is that, in the end, the raw power of nature gets you—either you blow up immediately and apocalyptically, or, by the end, after the weight of centuries, you crumble. Ozymandias, king of kings, is somewhere, mere dust in the desert.