Today, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal reprised their famous rivalry. And the result was on the usual lines: Nadal emerged the winner in 4 sets. Federer had his chances in the first three sets but he could not break the voodoo this time either. Time is not on his side and, at least in grand slam encounters, he may wind up unable to set the record straight on this when he’s done.
The rivalry has been dissected endlessly and many reasons have been offered as to why Federer seemingly runs into a wall against Nadal. Questions have been raised about Federer’s temperament and mental strength and whether he has conceded a mental edge to Nadal. In my view, a player who has won 16 slams cannot be all genius and no temperament. Recall that he prevailed 16-14 in the fifth set of the 2009 Wimbledon Final against Andy Roddick, while also breaking Sampras’s record for most slams in the Open Era in the process.
He must have the appetite to win and big match temperament to be able to pull off such achievements. Nadal seems to have a bigger heart and more stomach for a fight but a player can’t hold all the aces. Nadal would love to possess Federer’s ability to produce aces at crucial moments, for instance. I think there are deeper reasons than only motivation and character as to why Nadal so overwhelmingly owns the head-to head (18-9) against Federer. Three of those that make sense to me are:
1. The left-right match up and the one handed backhand:
From the beginning, Federer has grumbled about the disadvantages he faces in playing a left hander. With good reason. As a left hander, Nadal’s forehand targets Federer’s backhand. And Federer still plays a classical one handed backhand. Now, the classical one handed backhand may be a sight for sore eyes and gorgeous to behold but it simply doesn’t provide Federer the power he needs to counter Nadal’s high balls. Often, Federer simply chips or floats his backhand and Nadal duly obliges with a punishing forehand winner.
Today, Federer’s backhand drive, down the line as well as crosscourt, worked well except for a patch in the 2nd set and this allowed him to stay with Nadal on several points. This is the reason two sets had to be decided by a tiebreak, Federer even winning one of those. But even these drives only work when Nadal is forced to keep the ball low. The moment he serves it up at chest or shoulder height, Federer’s backhand is rendered relatively weak and Nadal immediately gains an upper hand in the rally, irrespective of its final outcome.
I imagine it would be very difficult to train a top level player out of a one handed backhand so it is no wonder Federer gets hassled when he has to play Nadal. This also explains why Novak Djokovic could bully Nadal at the Wimbledon and US Open Finals last year. Because he does have a powerful double hander, among other weapons, to negate the potency of the Nadal forehand.
2. Federer does not regularly play doubles
Federer has a powerful serve and he could get closer in matches against Nadal in spite of the left-right disadvantage if he could hone some other strength. Time and again, players have attempted to draw Nadal to the net because it is near impossible to penetrate his defence from the baseline when he is on top of his game. But Nadal is actually very competent at the net and regularly outplays his opponents when they draw him forward. Federer has a good netgame but not quite good enough to consistently prevail at the net over Nadal.
He could have possibly changed that had he played more doubles. That would have improved the speed of his responses at the net and he’d need to be really snappy to outdo Nadal at the net. Federer has the shots but can’t always play them in the nick of time and when he loses a few crucial points at the net, he returns to a baseline oriented strategy, which only makes it even harder for him to beat Nadal. Notice how many routine volleys he botched today against Nadal. That is partly the pressure of a high profile clash but it is also the speed at which you have to react when you go for serve-and-volley. Playing doubles would have helped him execute volleys and drops more fluently.
3. No coach during his prime years
I believe not having a coach from 2007 through to 2010 may have been a costly decision for Federer. Today, even though he lost to Nadal, he was able to make Nadal fight much harder for his points than he has in a long time. And that is even though Nadal plays better now on hard court and grass court than in the peak of the rivalry around 2008. He also appeared to approach rallies with a method and a plan with which to win them.
At times during the height of the rivalry, Federer would appear lost and frustrated, relying heavily on his incredible flair to find a way. Perhaps, it was not enough against a player of Nadal’s caliber and whose style also matched up uncomfortably with Federer’s.
The problem with much analysis of Federer’s failures against Nadal is it is too Federer-centric and doesn’t take into account how tough an opponent Nadal actually is. Nadal’s preparation for big matches is thorough and his execution immaculate. He had and has a coach and for a long time, Federer didn’t. Today, under the guidance of a coach, he appeared to be poised to break the jinx.
But he is nearing 31 now and probably can’t play at his limits as much as he could earlier. It may be a bit too late in the day now to make amends in a contest in which he was disadvantaged from the beginning. He probably knows a few things now about how to bell the cat in his mind, but his body doesn’t always obey. Besides, Nadal has just got better and better, all the time.