We finally get the Federer/Nadal match we’ve been waiting for since the second part of the season began. These two were supposed to square off at the U.S Open. Nadal held his end of the bargain. Federer did not. He was bundled out of the tournament by Juan Martin Del Potro. The Argentine is becoming something of a FEDAL spoiler, and he had plans to play spoiler again today. Not even a re-injured wrist could prevent him from bringing everything, including the kitchen sink to today’s match against Federer. Marin Cilic was no pushover for Nadal either. Let’s analyze these two semifinals and see if we can perhaps glean a few keys to the match from them.
Rafael Nadal vs Marin Cilic (7 – 5, 7 – 6)
What do you get when you combine a high tennis IQ with amazing power and physique? Marin Cilic of course. The Croat is famous for being a thinker as well as one of the biggest hitters in the game. When he is on form, he can blend both into an electrifying power game with a hint of chess strategy to it. Cilic was certainly on form today and he would have won against any other player not named Rafael Nadal. That’s the story about Nadal these days though. He is quite literally in the zone. That hasn’t stopped players from taking their best shot at him. Dimitrov gave Nadal all he could handle in the quarterfinals and came up short. Cilic broke Nadal twice in the second set today and still lost in the tiebreak. I talked about the changes Nadal has made to his game this fall, in my article, Feelin’ The Rhythm. With the exception of scheduling, I will analyze those changes again.
Serve and Court Positioning: Nadal’s serve has been very effective on the hard courts this fall and his service games have been very efficient. I counted at least five love holds against Cilic today. Nadal hasn’t been hitting a ton of aces. It is his newfound one-two combination that has been so devastating for his opponents. Where John McEnroe would use his lefty serve placement to get himself in position for the putaway volley, Nadal uses his serve to open up his forehand – one of the greatest shots in the history of our sport. Why he hadn’t used this combination earlier in his career, beats me. The influence of Moya has clearly illuminated the benefits of this tactic to him. His court positioning, particularly on his service games, also allows him to take the ball early and offensively, taking time away from his opponents. This is a play Roger Federer is famous for. Nadal has it now and it has only made him a more dangerous hard court player.
The Forehand: I touched on Nadal’s forehand earlier. His crosscourt forehand is certainly back to its lethal best and everybody knows how wicked that shot is. The shot that is catching his opponents off guard, is the down the line forehand. If there is a sign of Nadal’s soaring confidence, it is how willing he is to go for this shot. The strategic benefits are immense. It opens up the court and usually sends opponents camping on the ad court, scrambling to their right to cover the line. What makes this shot more dangerous is his ability to hit it from a defensive position, especially when opponents like Cilic choose to go with the inside out offensive forehand – a favorite play against Nadal.
The Backhand: Another tell-tale sign of his confidence, Nadal has been hitting his backhand with sublime timing for the past two weeks or so. Not only has he racked up a decent amount of winners from the shot, his defensive slice has gotten some new bite to it. That is a shot he rarely pulls out of the bag but its ability to reset the rally for someone with Rafa’s speed has been nothing short of rewarding.
The Net Game: Rafael Nadal’s net game has steadily improved throughout his career and he has become one of the most accomplished volleyers of his generation. Make that two generations even. However, his level of play at the forecourt this fall has been exemplary. At times it is surprising to see that it is Nadal, the same player who was written off as a one surface defensive player, who pulls off such offensive minded forays to the net. He does it with a great amount of success too and it has turned the tide in Nadal’s favor in many a tense moment.
Cilic found Nadal’s total game too much to handle in today’s Semifinal. He certainly did his part in contributing to a highly entertaining exchange, but the result was never really in doubt. Nadal was too good, too strong and… too complete. The opposition only gets tougher for the Spaniard though. Let us look at Nadal’s opponent in tomorrow’s final. Roger Federer.
Roger Federer vs JMDP (3 – 6, 6 – 3, 6 – 3)
As I said earlier, Juan Martin Del Potro is making a habit out of spoiling potential FEDAL clashes. Despite a wrist scare yesterday, Del Potro came out firing in today’s Semifinal against Roger Federer. With Federer’s up and down level throughout this tournament, there was a real possibility Del Potro would overwhelm Federer once again and move on to the final against Rafa. However, Federer knew what he was up against today. Despite losing the first set, this was the Federer we hadn’t seen since Wimbledon. Here’s what worked for him today.
The Movement: In my article, What If, I stated that Federer is moving well and the rest of his game just needs to catch up. The movement was even better today. It had to be, for Del Potro was throwing lightning bolts all over the court. The one game Federer looked lackadaisical in, was the service game in which he was broken. That was telling. If his level was any less, I believe he would have lost today. Federer’s defensive skills aren’t always talked about but they should be. His running forehand, in particular, was a joy to watch. Del Potro didn’t know what to do with that shot all match.
The Serve: Again Federer was broken in this match, but he regrouped and used his serve to set up his game for the rest of the match against Del Potro. His slider out wide was particularly effective even against someone with Del Potro’s wingspan.
The Return: The forehand return has always been a good shot for Federer. What impressed me today was how well he timed the backhand return. At one point, he was able to redirect a body serve from Del Potro off his backhand for a clean winner. He was very aggressive on the return from that wing, coming over the ball as often as possible. Whenever he chipped a backhand return, it looked deliberate and controlled rather than reactionary. It has to stay that way against the one opponent who delights in exploiting any weakness from Federer on that wing.
The Backhand: The backhand everyone was talking about in the early part of the season, finally came to life in this match. We’ve talked about it in the return, but Federer’s backhand also held up against Del Potro’s barrage, during their furious rallies. He hit some stellar ones crosscourt and down the line, and used that shot to set up his more famous weapon, the forehand.
And so the fever rises again. We will have Federer vs Nadal, for the fourth time this year. How will it play out? I believe the odds tilt slightly in Nadal’s favor this time. Yes Federer has beaten Nadal in all their encounters this year but the Spaniard is in one hell of a groove right now and Federer hasn’t fully settled into gear yet. If Federer is to post a fourth victory over Nadal, these are the key exchanges he must win throughout the match.
The key exchanges to look out for include (red means critical to victory):
- The Federer backhand against Nadal’s crosscourt forehand
- The Federer running forehand against Nadal’s down the line forehand
- The Federer inside out forehand against Nadal’s down the line forehand
- The Federer slice serve out wide to Nadal’s backhand return
- The Federer backhand return to Nadal’s lefty slice serve out wide
- The Federer net game to Nadal’s passing shots.
May the best Titan, win.