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In 2006, David Foster Wallace wrote a beautiful piece for the New York Times aptly titled “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.” It is considered by many to be one of the best pieces of sports writing ever done. In 2006, it simply rang true. Federer was in full flight, at the height of his considerable powers. Watching him play tennis during that time was almost surreal. In every single match he would provide a highlight reel that, years before, would have done for an entire tournament. There seemed to be simply nothing he could not do with a tennis racquet as he blithely hit  impossible winners with a flick  of his wrist. Those were the early years, the easy years.

Now we know better. It began with Nadal, of course. At first, it was easy to dismiss the inevitable yearly defeat at Roland Garros. Nadal was a clay-court specialist after all, and the kid was pretty good on the dirt. But as Nadal’s game developed, we saw a side of Roger Federer that had seemingly disappeared with the beginning of 2004. Doubt, hesitation, and eventually even a hint of fear. Against Nadal, gone were the broad sweeping groundstrokes and confident finishes. Not entirely, of course. Federer still played with power and grace, but against Nadal he almost always seemed off-balance, unsure of his footing. There were inevitably some marque performances, particularly indoors and on the grass. But as the hard courts slowed, and the grass slowed, we watched Nadal chip away at Federer’s legacy with one buggy-whip forehand to Federer’s backhand after another.

When Nadal took Federer’s Wimbledon crown in 2008, it seemed almost an affront. But as Federer broke down crying on the podium after yet another Grand Slam defeat to Nadal at the Australian Open in 2009, there was almost a sense of inevitability to it. Watching Roger Federer play was no longer a religious experience. It was entirely a human experience.

Federer broke down during the Australian Open trophy presentation in 2009

There was a pattern to their Grand Slam meetings best summarized by their 2006 French Open Final. Federer came out serving sharply, and hitting his sublime forehand with authority. He took the backhand early, and drove it effectively both cross-court and down the line. His timing was impeccable, his instincts moving forward flawless. After a comfortable and commanding first set, the second set opened well enough. Then came the game. Serving at 0-1, Federer opened up a 40-0 lead on his own serve with an easy forehand winner into the open court. He looked set for a routine hold. Federer hit a strong serve up the T, and Nadal chipped a floating backhand return that the linesman called out. In a gesture of sportsmanship, Federer requested the umpire check the mark as he felt it was good (which it was) and the point was replayed. The second time around, Federer netted an easy inside-in forehand for 40-15. Federer pulled Nadal wide with his serve and came into the net for an easy forehand volley into the open court. He missed it. At 40-30, Nadal scrambled and somehow won a cagey point that had both players at the net. Federer netted another routine forehand to hand Nadal a break point, and then saved it with a sharp serve and volley point. A netted easy backhand from Federer, and then Nadal pulled a beautiful backhand passing shot to seal the break on what should have been a routine hold.

Despite being the picture of poise and surety against everyone else, there has always been a sense of fragility when Federer plays Nadal. People usually watched Federer play for the spectacle of it – the result was a foregone conclusion. But against Nadal one couldn’t help but feel nervous, anxious even. Even when he was playing well, one couldn’t shake the feeling that disaster was lurking just around the corner for the Swiss. It wasn’t, ironically the infamous Nadal “heavy topspin ball to the backhand” that was typically Federer’s undoing – that came on Nadal’s service games. Rather it was Federer virtually breaking himself with sloppy forehands and missed easy volleys. Once the lapse happened, the rest of the set/match was spent with Federer bringing inspiring offense again and again, only to be held off by Nadal’s brilliant defense. Break points would come, and come, and go, and go. Nadal would scramble, extend rallies beyond belief and somehow find the amazing pass at the crucial moment until, finally spent, Federer’s chances would fade away into nothing.

The familiar sight of Nadal with the champion’s trophy next to Federer holding the runner-up plate

As 2016 wound down, it seemed the storied history between these two greats had wound down with it. Nadal had missed much of the year with the wrist injury that had forced him to retire from the French Open. Federer took a full 6 months off after Wimbledon, not willing to risk further damage to the knee he had injured in January. Djokovic had hiccuped at the end of the year, but still seemed dominant despite Murray taking Wimbledon, the World Tour Finals, and the World #1 ranking. The next generation of young-guns were finally showing their mettle. Dimitrov came into the Australian Open on a win streak having taken the title in Brisbane (a tournament Nadal played and failed to win). Zverev had climbed to #20 in the world and showed little signs of slowing down. And of course Raonic finished 2016 ranked #3, fighting off a surging Kei Nishikori who came in at #4. It was time to pass the torch, for the next generation to come through.

Nadal and Federer had other ideas. Entering the tournament seeded 9th and 17th respectively, both players moved through the draw with determination. Nadal showed a willingness to adapt, playing more aggressive tennis than we had seen from him since the 2010 US Open. Rafa was standing closer to the baseline, taking the ball earlier and played with a clear intent to move forward and finish points. Meanwhile, Federer displayed a mettle that had previously been missing. In his entire career he’d never before won multiple 5-set matches in a slam and taken the title. After coming through against Nishikori in five, Federer easily dismissed Mischa Zverev before again going five with Wawrinka. As seed after seed dropped before them, Nadal and Federer’s meeting in the final had a sense of destiny about it.

In the end, it came down to courage. Not Nadal’s courage – there has never been any doubt of that. Never in all their Grand Slam meetings has Nadal failed to do his part to create a great match. It is Federer who has so often fallen short. Federer who has wilted, caved, shrunk from the moment. One chipped backhand return after another, we have spent a decade watching Federer fade before his great rival. Not this time.

Federer came out from the beginning playing the style he had used the entire tournament – hitting aggressively off the ground, standing high up in the court and coming forward. Certainly it had its effect on Nadal, who was forced back in the court and put on his heels. Federer wrapped the first set up in tidy fashion, dominating on his own serve and taking his one break opportunity on Nadal’s.

Given the drama that was to come, it is surprising that perhaps the most important game came in the second set – a set that Federer lost. Having gone down a break, and failing to break immediately back, Federer then dropped a second break. The Federer Express seemed headed for a classic derailment. This was the moment – if Federer was to abandon his strategy it was to be now. In the face of a blowout set, Federer kept to the plan. He stayed up on the baseline, hit over his returns and found three forehand winners to break back for 1-4. It wasn’t enough to save the set, but it was enough to keep the faith.

As Federer began to fade in the fourth, one couldn’t help but feel that growing sense of the inevitable. When the fifth set opened, it seemed it was only a matter of time. Nadal broke Federer immediately for 1-0. Federer pushed back, earning two break points in the next game. It was classic Federer-Nadal. Every time Federer got a chance, Nadal came up with some brilliant piece of play and erased it. Nadal 2-0. Federer held at love, and then earned another break chance. Another winner from Nadal. Try as he might Federer just couldn’t break through. Federer held easily again for 2-3, and Nadal stepped up to serve.

On the first point, Federer for once came out ahead after a long rally. He stepped into a high backhand and casually swiped a cross-court winner that Nadal didn’t even run for. At deuce, another cross-court backhand winner. Nadal did run for this one, but to no avail. Courage. When Nadal missed an inside-out forehand wide, the match was level. Federer’s second serve ace at 40-0 saw him back in the lead for the first time in almost an hour.

It has never been Nadal’s way to give his opponent anything – what you get from Nadal you take. The Spaniard found himself down 0-40 in his next service game. With Federer having not lost a point on serve in some 20 minutes, it seemed as though Federer had three virtual match points on his racquet. Nadal saved one break point, then another and another. Federer pushed ahead again with a perfectly hit forehand winner after an incredibly long rally, only for Nadal to level the game yet again. It seemed as though Rafa could keep the match level on will alone. Another long rally, but again Federer got the better of it with a forehand approach that Nadal forced wide.

With Rafael Nadal serving a break point down, at 3-4 in the fifth set of the Australian Open Final, Roger Federer hit the most important backhand return of his life. Nadal spun the ball high and wide, the same serve we’ve seen him hit to Federer a hundred times before. Federer did not slice the backhand. He stepped forward, caught the ball on the doubles sideline and drove it cross-court in a sharp angle. Rafa ran as he always runs, and standing almost a body length outside the court hooked a viciously curving forehand straight into the tape. Break.

As Nadal’s optimistic challenge on match point failed, the expression on Federer’s face was a complicated one. It was not pure joy, but rather a blend of emotions. Joy of course, but also relief, disbelief, and perhaps, vindication. Maybe it is fitting that the final shot hit in this match was a Federer forehand winner. It is, after all, the shot upon which his career has been built. However it is Federer’s backhand that is a microcosm of his entire rivalry with Nadal. The shot that has been both revered and scorned in turns. The shot that most experts said would inevitably break down. There was never anything technically wrong with the shot, of course. Backhands over the shoulder with 4000 rpms are hard for anyone, whether you hit a one hander or not. It was always about mentality, and belief. In the fifth set, the time when in the past Federer had always been at his weakest against Nadal his backhand was at its best. Of the 14 backhand winners Federer hit on the match, eight of them came in that final set. On this stage, at this moment, Federer stepped into the court and took his shot.

It was never about the stroke. It was always about the courage.

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12 Comments
  1. Oh yes. What a write-up. Thoroughly enjoyed!

    That most important backhand not sliced but smashed right across court. One of the shots I’ll remember for a long long time.

    A minor correction, Wawrinka won US Open 2016.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Sid. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I said anywhere in the article who won the US Open in 2016?

      • It says early in the article that Murray won the US Open and clinched #1 in the world. Maybe you meant he won the WTF?

        • Bingo. Thank you! I think my fingers were moving faster than my brain when I typed that. I was actually thinking Wimbledon.

  2. Hi Glen

    Good to see you back blogging. Also great to see a commitment by Fed to a revised backhand strategy against Nadal. This performance for me was reminiscent of Indian Wells 2012. It also had many elements of Dimitrovs approach in the semi.

    Apparently the balls were lighter this year and the court surface was put down earlier than usual causing more weathering and flattening.I noticed an interesting graphic described by Jim Courier showing the bounce height was lower than Wimbledon. Interestingly to me, the Indian Wells court plays more like clay so perhaps while a quicker court certainly helps Fed in the fine margins of elite tennis, a tailored optimal strategy against individual players, (something you have mentioned before), which Fed seldom seems to bring or to stick with,may be the real deal in improving his winning chances against tough players. I think the particular changes he stuck with, which you have suggested he do in other articles, underpinned the belief in his shots. I still think the high backhand capability is key against Nadal and is why Djokovic defeats Nadal so much since he does not have the complication of keeping the ball to Nadals backhand as much as Fed and the one handers.
    Martin

    • Glad to be back, Martin!

      I think you’ve largely hit the nail right on the head. Fed really has two options: to play an unaltered game and hope for a good day/fast courts, or to make adaptations in order to maximize his chances. He had more options available to him in a sense back in his ‘prime’ simply because his movement was so very good. He had a whole series of patterns designed to redirect play onto his forehand that he employed to great effect. Then somewhere along the way, he lost a step and many of those old patterns didn’t work as well. He also stopped using some of them (such as the short, low slice backhand). I think the time away from the game due to his injury has been very good for him. He’s clearly worked on some things, and I hope we continue to see him be a force at tournaments this year as a result!

      Glen

  3. Forget to mention -what do you think of Dominic Thiem ? Another Wawrinka?

    • I think there’ll be an article just on Thiem, probably right after I finish the current one on Dimitrov!

  4. Well I like you blog but I tend to disagree. There was never a “mentally strong” Nadal and “metally weak” Federer. The so called mentall strength of Nadal was built around most succesful tennis strategy ever witnessed on courts. The power of Nadal strategy was that it was high percentage strategy loopy FHCC to BC and the taking the run around position to kill of the ball. This strategy worked perfectly as there was a backup plan. Whenever someone was trying to go down the line the answer was Nadals hard CC BH. For a better part of their rivalry Federer tried two very low procentage strategies – HIGH BH DWL as answer for Nadals FHCC and second strategie – run around forehands . This strategies were doomed because in the long run the high percentage stategie wins. It can be a testament to FEDERER skills that he was still able to win more then 10 matches against Nadal using flawed tactics. There was one more flawed thing to that – Federer tried to hit his HGBH against Nadal with spin. So what was the answer finally found on Sunday? 1. hit backhand cc flatter and hard but not go for the lines rather but for steady power 2. take one step aside as to preperring for Nadals serve (the amount of returned serve was therefore outstanding). 3. When you hit down the line BH don’t go to close to lines. 4. try to hit backhand and other shots early to rob Nadal of time and to use the power of incoming ball. 5 keep points shorter, but dont rush them. Ironically there was one instance when FED did apply somewhat akin strategie – 2012 Indian wells Final. As to my controversial thesis about Nadal mentality – keep in mind that Djokovic after applying strategy against Nadal build around CC BH won 7 matches in a row. I still remember commentators saying that Nadal has lost the mental egde in his matches against Djokovic. This was simply not true -Nadal is the fiercest competitor on courts ever witnessed but having lost the tactic golden Graal against Djokovic he was pressed to seek less win-likely percentage wise strategies and failed on and on. There is a beautiful english saying in tennis that I want to use now – Federer again and again hit BH CC court to KEEP Nadal HONEST. That was also the reason why Nadal hit so little run around forehands in that match. There was this saying that Nadal shrinks the court for Federer – namely that FEDERER was pressed to hit smaller and smaller spots to be in the rally. The answer was simply BH CC but not with spin because when you tried to spin the ball above your shoulder your muscless will kill you. A flat high backhand will eventually go down by gravity and when you hit it cc it is a high percentage shot. I would like to know other opinions on this subject if somone would bother to read my post and answer.

    • Konrad, you’re certainly welcome to your opinion. I stand by my words however – the Australian Open final showed us that Federer has had options to successfully change the dynamic against Nadal. We’ve seen glimpses of it in the past. However in the vast majority of their meetings Federer has stuck with losing patterns (slicing the backhand return, trying to avoid the Nadal forehand) rather than step out of his comfort zone and truly adapt to his opponent.

      As to Nadal’s mental toughness – I challenge you to find a grand slam final or semi-final where Nadal was blown out. He has brought 100%, and fought tooth and nail in every single big match of his career. Even during his losing streak to Djokovic, he had many incredibly close matches that came down to the wire. Djokovic was simply playing *slightly* better tennis during that stretch. Federer is my favorite player of all time, but you can’t ignore some of the heavy losses he took.

  5. I accept the challange. Wimbledon 2011 final. Lets look at the end of the first set 4-5 Nadal serving 30-00. From that point on Nadal played scared, passive, tentative and lost 4 point in a row – the last two with his unforced errors. Then his was just blown away in the second set with two easy breakes of serve 6-1. Then the laps in the 3rd set from Djokovic and a more tightend 4 set. Nadal was blown out in semi finals against Tsonga 2008 and del Potro 2009. BUT my point was that its NOT about Nadal being not a fierce tennis player.Actually I really think he DOES fight with tooth and nail every time EVEN in matches when he was blown away. My point is that the lack of good gameplan is the reason for perceived metal weakness. If you get frustrated with the results because of bad game plan you make easy mistakes because you are going to risk more and you are uncertain what to do – then think to much and became tentative. I do absolutely agree that Federer kept playing losing patterns against Nadal. He was so very stubborn that I wonder if there was not something different into it. Perhaps when you play your succesful tennis you can’t change it so easily – it becames somehow anchored in your way of playing. So if you find someone perfectly build to kill your game its not easy to adapt. Tennis is fast and you don’t have to much time so much of your “set” play patterns is to fast to think about. (thats my guess) Going back to Nadal – his record against Djokovic is 19 – 7 from the beginning of 2011. I do not pick this date by accident – this was for me the time when Djokovic adopted the right gameplan against Nadal. Djokovic gameplan was perfectly evident at US open 2011 where he won 6 game in row in the first set from 2-0 to 2-6. That was not random thing, it was also not a proof that Nadal was mentally weak. For me the sole reason was perfect gameplan of Djokovic. Thanks for reply. I want to specialy thank you for you great article about different aproaches of Federer and Wawrinka against Nadal at AO 2014. I find it awful when comentator are talking about emotions of the players instead of giving poeple informations about whats really happening on court and how tactics play a key role in a match, so your blog with so much information about it is really important for tennis fans and me. Thanks