It’s been an insane last 12-18 months in the world of sport – Leicester City winning the Premier League and fighting relegation again while going strong in the Champions League, Iceland beating England in the Euros, Bangladesh’s 1-4-4-W-W-W versus India in the World T20, Golden State Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA finals, New England Patriots coming back from 28-3 down to win the Superbowl, the Chicago Cubs miracle... there’s been no end the insanity.
And now, Roger Federer comes back from a six-month-long injury layoff, wins the Australian Open, wins the “Sunshine Double” of back-to-back Indian Wells and Miami Open titles, and in the process wins three straight matches against his one-time arch nemesis, Rafael Nadal, including five sets in a row.
This is the same Nadal who had Federer’s number for a major part of their playing days together, and who held a superior 23-11 head-to-head record against his Swiss rival before their meeting at the Australian Open final in January. That has since become 23-14 in two months and although it is still heavily in Nadal’s favour, Federer is now slowly tilting the scale in his direction.
For Federer fans, such as myself, it’s like we have moved to an alternate universe, and no one wants to come back. I started following tennis around the same time that Federer, in his ponytailed avatar in the early 2000s, started racking up titles. Call me a glory hunter all you want, but he left me with no choice but to like him and support him, what with his silken strokeplay and the graceful demeanour with which he went about his tennis. It wasn’t until 2005 when I first came to know of Rafael Nadal, after the Spaniard beat my hero in the French Open semi-finals. I thought it would be a one-off, but then he did it again, and again, and again, and again.
By the time that decade ended, Federer had piled up a majority of his 18 Grand Slam titles, but had not beaten Nadal too many times, and never in a Major since the 2007 Wimbledon final. When Nadal beat Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, at the Swiss’ adopted home, in his own backyard, I went into denial. I could not get my heartbroken self to accept the fact that Nadal had delivered the knockout blow. Ever since that match, it was almost as if Federer had developed a mental block against Nadal, which made it impossible for him to even hope of beating the Spaniard. There was no coming back from there.
As we entered the 2010s, it wasn’t just Nadal, but even guys such as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, and Marin Cilic were coming in Federer’s way of winning Majors. The only thing we Federer fans had on our side in debates of who is the greatest of all time was his Major tally, which was mostly accumulated in the previous decade, and it was only a matter of time before either Nadal or Djokovic usurped him. Before the 2017 season began, Federer had won only two of his 17 Majors in the 2010s – the 2010 Australian Open and the 2012 Wimbledon. Then, the 2017 season began.
Federer currently holds a 19-1 win-loss record this year. Current world No 103 Evgeny Donskoy is the only man who has beaten him – at the Dubai Open – in 2017 so far. Federer has beaten Nadal three times this year and four on the trot, if you count his Basel 2015 final win. And it’s not just the fact that he is winning – it’s also about how he is winning. I never thought I would ever see Roger Federer win baseline rallies against Rafael Nadal. I also never thought I would ever see Nadal trying to survive only on his serves against Federer.
The most discernible improvement in Federer’s game this season has been his backhand. One of the few players on the circuit who uses only one hand to play the shot, a lot of adjectives have been used to describe Federer’s backhand: Graceful, fluent, effortless, smooth, elegant, but never has it been called accurate. Not until 2017.
What was once Federer’s biggest weakness, especially against Nadal, has now become one of his main weapons. The Indian Wells second-round match between the two saw Federer’s backhand boss the show, as the Swiss coasted to a 6-2, 6-3 win. “I think by coming over my backhand on the return from the get-go in the point, I can then dominate points from the start,” he had said after the match, indicating that he was now using the shot as an attacking move.
What was also discernible in the Miami final was that Nadal hardly went for Federer’s backhand while serving. In the peak of their rivalry, targeting Federer’s backhand used to be one of Rafa’s main ploys. Not anymore. Nadal’s game is nowhere near its peak, but Federer and his new coach Ivan Ljubicic deserve credit for working on what was once the biggest flaw in the Swiss’ game and making it so effective in his favour. There are also no more half-hearted slices and dip shots, well, apart from the occasional gems such as this one at the Miami Open against Tomas Berdych:
Will clay make a difference?
Federer announced after the Miami Open final that he would be taking a break from the Tour during the clay season and will probably play only the French Open before the grass- and hard-court seasons. “When I am healthy and feeling good, I can produce tennis like this,” he said. “When I am not feeling this good there is no chance I will be in the finals competing with Rafa.”
How Federer fares against Nadal on the latter’s preferred clay surface will be a true test, but considering both Indian Wells and Miami aren’t the fastest of hard-courts on the circuit, the Swiss would perhaps not be in too much of a disadvantage if he meets his great rival at the French Open. Federer surprised everyone following his six-month break and came back with a rejuvenated backhand. What will he pull out of the hat at the French Open?
If Federer’s Australian Open win surprised even himself, the Sunshine Double would have boosted his confidence to a level where he probably thinks anything is achievable, whether it is winning 20 Majors by the end of the season, or extending his tally of 302 weeks as world No 1 (he is currently fourth), or catching up with Nadal in their head-to-head. An overtly optimistic Reddit user was quick to point out that if Federer beats Nadal at the French Open, Halle, Wimbledon, Cincinnati, the US Open, Shanghai, Paris, Basel, and the World Tour Finals, they will be tied on head-to-head by the end of the year.
Can Roger Federer actually avenge his 2008 Wimbledon loss by beating Rafa Nadal in the French Open, and bring their rivalry a full circle? I’m sure I’m not the only Federer supporter who is still trying to figure out what exactly is happening here. How are we even contemplating such as a scenario? Has Federer finally got the monkey off his back? Is there an impostor playing in Federer’s or Nadal’s place? Or is this some cruel joke that the universe is playing on us? Whatever it is, I’m just going to enjoy it while it lasts.