Did we ever think we’d say these words? Federer defeats Nadal for the fifth time in a row, and the fourth straight time this year. After a masterful display of all court attacking tennis, here we are. Those words are as true as undoctored history. What changed? There are three men Federer has to thank for this startling turnaround to his rivalry with Rafael Nadal. They are:
- Novak Djokovic
- Ivan Ljubicic and
- Roger Federer.
You’ll understand why in a moment.
Yesterday, I gave Rafael Nadal the slight advantage going into this match. The logic was simple. Nadal has been in terrific form of late, and Federer well… hasn’t. The Swiss Maestro hadn’t been playing as well as he was when he was dominating tennis at the start of the season. That dip in form went all the way back to Montreal, where a sprained back severely hampered his movement. It would cost him that masters title and is the chief suspect in Federer’s lackluster performance in New York, which ultimately ended in a defeat at the hands of Juan Martin Del Potro. When Federer arrived Shanghai playing with the same troubling fluctuating levels he showed at the U.S Open, I wondered if that break in momentum had undone the winning confidence Federer built throughout the first half of the season. Was it really just rust? Turns out it was.
Federer appeared to be scraping the surface ice away, just within reach of the answer that would turn this matchup around in his favor, but never really finding it.
Maybe we need to go back and watch the old Federer vs Nadal matches and truly see how close most of those Federer losses were: Rome 2006, AO 2009, Wimbledon 08, FO 05 – 07. There have been some nailbiting close contests between these two. To the tennis neutral and to the Federer fan, it was frustrating. Federer appeared to be scraping the surface ice away, just within reach of the answer that would turn this matchup around in his favor, but never really finding it. We knew one thing. The Nadal lefty forehand (injected with a wicked dose of topspin) to Federer’s relatively weaker backhand side, was the foundation of Nadal’s success against Federer. This was especially true on clay. It was and until proven otherwise, still is absolute on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Over the years, Federer’s counter-strategy involved adding more wrinkles to his game – more weapons he could hurt Nadal with. He was one of the first to discover that the aggressively flat inside-out forehand to Nadal’s forehand, could stretch the speedy Spaniard and open up the court for more winners. He introduced that tactic in their 2006 masters final classic in Rome. Next, he explored the option of coming to net against Nadal, behind aggressive forehands and sliding wide serves. It served him well in their 2007 final, in Hamburg. In that match, the tactic worked so well for Federer, that he was able to bagel Nadal in the final set – a rare feat on clay. After a drubbing that remains Federer’s worst grand slam defeat till date at the 2008 French Open final, Federer introduced the drop shot into his repertoire. That shot would help him win the French Open the following year, but he never faced Nadal. However, it did lead him to victory against Nadal a tournament earlier in Madrid.
As such, Nadal would eventually figure out a way to negate whatever Federer was doing to him, and bring the dynamics back to one fundamental truth. The lefty forehand to Federer’s backhand.
The common problem with these tactical changes was that they never provided lasting solutions to Federer’s Nadal problem. Nadal may not play like it, but he is one of the most tactically adaptable players to play this game. He knows how to make subtle strategic changes to counteract an opponent’s winning formula against him. As such, Nadal would eventually figure out a way to negate whatever Federer was doing to him, and bring the dynamics back to one fundamental truth. The lefty forehand to Federer’s backhand. As long as this problem remained unsolved, Nadal would always have the upper hand against Federer. The effectiveness of this go-to strategy for Nadal has always been hinged on its simplicity. It doesn’t take a lot of tennis ability to hit a crosscourt forehand. In a sense, it is a basic shot. Nadal’s unique follow-through ultimately dictates that he will impart a ridiculous amount of spin on the ball so that doesn’t take a lot of effort either. To Rafa, spin comes naturally. This means that even when he is not playing his best, he can still hit this shot enough times to pull Federer’s game down and as such, give himself chances to win. On the other hand, Federer’s counter strategies were not basic shots at all. The inside-out forehand requires excellent footwork. The net game requires a well-placed serve with good pace or a very good approach shot, and that’s not all. It also demands great hands, hand-eye coordination, and fantastic positioning at the net. This is especially true when facing someone of Nadal’s passing ability. The drop shot requires a level of confidence and feel that if absent, will end up dropping the ball into the net, or popping it too high up and gifting the putaway to the opponent. In effect, all of these counter strategies required Federer to be playing at his very best to be effective over a best of three or even a best of five set match. If Federer’s level dropped, the effectiveness of these tactics were heavily impacted, unlike that of Nadal’s.
It took until 2011, for Federer’s answer to reveal itself to him. It came from another feared rival, Novak Djokovic. That answer had always been there but never looked at because Djokovic was also constantly losing to Nadal until that year. However, Djokovic more than any other player appeared to give Nadal fits, even on clay. His losses were due to Nadal’s ability to physically outlast him in their encounters. In 2011, that all changed. A much fitter and stronger Djokovic emerged and went on a tear. He also beat Nadal seven straight times that year and in doing so, brought to light the weapon that would prove as the blueprint to taming the bull. The flat two-handed backhand. Djokovic proved that with a solid two-handed backhand, Nadal’s high bouncing forehands to that wing could effectively be canceled out by responding with flat crosscourt backhands or aggressively redirected down the line backhands. He even showed that one didn’t have to expend the energy of running around backhands to hit inside-out forehands to Nadal’s forehand wing. With a solid backhand, a player could strike a sharp crosscourt backhand with pace and achieve the same effect without giving up so much real estate down the line. The results were devastating for Rafael Nadal. With his go-to strategy completely vanquished, Nadal had to rely on other aspects of the game he hadn’t really worked on. He had to defend his backhand and put his down the line forehand into play a whole lot more. Nadal began to lose. At first, it was to Djokovic, and then slowly but surely, to the big hitters of the game. The tall giants who discovered that Nadal’s high bouncing forehands jumped right into their backhand striking zone. Roger Federer? He remained the occasional winner. Nothing changed. If he wasn’t playing lights out tennis for his counter-strategies to work (Indian Wells 2012), or on a surface that dampened the bounce of Nadal’s forehand (indoor hard courts), Federer inevitably would lose to Rafa.
This would hold true until December 2015. Federer brought on Ivan Ljubicic as the successor to his great idol, Stefan Edberg. Many were skeptical about the choice. Ivan Ljubicic was respected as being one of the top players of his day but he hardly troubled Roger during his active playing days. He couldn’t possibly bring anything to the table of a man who had owned him like many others in his playing days, could he? He could. It was generally agreed that in his prime, Ivan could hit two shots better than Federer could. His backhand and his serve. The latter hardly comes as a surprise. Ljubicic is a Croat and if there has been one tradition with tennis players from that country, it is that they have all been big servers. Borna Coric might be the exception. The former shot is the one that caught many people’s attention. Ljubicic has a one-handed backhand.
The summary of this fundamental change is what I overlooked in my prediction. I was still operating on the supposition that Federer has to be at his best to beat Nadal. That is not true anymore.
It appears, in retrospect, that the injury break Federer took after Wimbledon was a blessing in disguise. It allowed him to reset mentally and physically. More importantly, it allowed him to practice without pressure and groove in a much improved one-handed backhand drive that could stand up to the relentless pounding of the Nadal crosscourt forehand. Since the new year and since that epic Australian Open final, Nadal and the rest of the world have discovered one thing. With Federer winning the forehand to backhand exchanges, the rest of the counter-strategies kick into gear more easily. Federer is still striking his inside-out forehand, he still pulls Nadal in with well-timed drop shots and he still comes in on the solid approach shot to the net. Then there’s Federer’s movement. His running forehand is not always the offensive shot that Sampras’s was, but it does give Nadal something to think about when the Spaniard tries to go up the line with his forehand.
The summary of this fundamental change is what I overlooked in my prediction. I was still operating on the supposition that Federer has to be at his best to beat Nadal. That is not true anymore. He just has to have his backhand working well. The dynamics have changed. It is Federer who goes into these matches with a clear and simple strategy – strike the backhand flat and crosscourt, or drive it deep up the line. As long as the strategy prevails, the bull is tamed. It is now up to Rafael Nadal to effect a change that completely usurps this dynamic or accept that he will be taking most of the defeats from here on out.
As for Federer, one has to marvel and give him credit for his ability to take feedback and learn new skills at this stage in his career. Stubbornness is a trait of all champions. They are notoriously difficult to get thinking differently, especially when one way of thought and play has fetched them so much glory already. But the true legends know that you don’t stop learning until you decide the time has come to step away.
Congratulations to Roger Federer.