In the ’73 questions’ video that Roger Federer did before Wimbledon, the 37-year-old was asked who is the player he dreads to face. “Rafael Nadal”, was the answer. When asked who is his favourite opponent, the answer was the same.
This playful rejoinder kind of sums up the rivalry the two all-time greats have developed over the years. The rivalry started in the early 2000s but it turned legendary in the Wimbledon final 11 years ago. When 22-year-old Nadal beat 26-year-old Federer in 2008, the epic five-setter instantly went down in history as one of the greatest matches of all times.
Since then, their head to head went to a lopsided at 24-15 (before this match) and the Spaniard was practically the favourite every time the two met. Till, another epic Grand Slam final. The five-set win over Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final changed the dynamics of the rivalry. And since then, one can’t go into a #Fedal match predicting a winner unless it is on clay. The 37-year-old Federer has won six of their last seven contests with the lone exception being the French Open semi-finals.
When they met in their second straight Grand Slam semi-final on Friday, fans expected a Wimbledon classic like 2008. What transpired was a match not as storied, but one that showed why Federer is the most successful man in grass court tennis.
The Swiss second seed – given the billing above world No 2 Nadal in a call that irked the Spaniard – reached his 12th Wimbledon final with a 7-6 (7/3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 win.
Except for a strange blip in the second set, the eight-time champion was imperious through the contest, winning it in a manner least expected from someone who is a month away for his 38th birthday.
So what changed? How was Federer able to dominate Nadal?
Simply put, everything.
Federer did everything one has to do on grass. Everything went right for Federer.
The 37-year-old went for broke from the start of the match with the surface rewarding his aggression, the aggression rewarding his strategic gameplan. He out served the Spaniard, his returns were better to Nadal’s improved serve, he stayed in points even when his opponent put the extra ball in play, he punched deep from the baseline, he parried swift at the net and most importantly, he didn’t let his one-handed backhand break down.
True, he also made harrowing errors, wasted early break chances but then came up with some outrageous winners and showed deft touch at the net. Through it all, he believed that he could win this even when he lost serve in the tiebreak, even after managing just one game in the strange second set, even when his level dropped. In short, Federer kept the match on his racquet.
The Swiss made 27 errors, two more than his opponent but cracked 51 winners to Nadal’s 32. He was 62% on his second-serve points and won 25 off the 33 net points he played and had more winners from the baseline as well.
The most telling statistic was the length of rallies. The 37-year-old won the longer rallies, beating the one gameplan the 33-year-old has often used. Significantly, he stayed in points even when the returns came to his backhand, setting up winners to dictate the flow. Federer actually outlasted Nadal through a three-hour, four-set match.
The most crucial of this was when the Swiss got an early break in the third after dramatically collapsing in the second.
He had just got his first break of the match after four failed chances, set up with sizzling backhand and forehand winners. But he gave up three break points in the next game, before saving two with rallies that lasted 23 and 25 shots. Had he failed to consolidate that break, the match could have ended differently. But with the speed that even a 27-year-old would find tough, he ran all over the court to dominate the big points.
He would channel this same resilience and agility to clinch the match on his fifth match point, a year after he lost in the quarter-finals to Kevin Anderson despite having a match point in the third set.
Making it look easy
The other factor that made a big difference was his backhand. Too often in the past (more than the 24 losses on paper) we have seen Federer’s one-hander give in to the topspin attack from Nadal’s trusty lefty forehand. This tactic paid rich dividends in the past, but RF 2.0 – with the larger racquet head – has eliminated this chink.
While the 33-year-old insisted he did not go for the backhand strategically in the post-match chat, the result was there to see as Federer made 11 winners on backhand and countless more while running around it to position his forehand. For the Spaniard though, the variations on his forehand didn’t work when he needed it the most and he was unable to construct points to suit his rhythm.
Before the match, Nadal’s coach Carlos Moya had all but predicted the flow.
“Defending and second-guessing on grass are more complicated… The one who strikes first is the one who has more options to win the point…. Whoever is more aggressive will have the upper hand in dictating the rhythm and flow of the match. Whoever goes on the attack in an ultra-aggressive manner will emerge victorious,” he told ATP Tour.com before the match.
It’s exactly what Federer did: attacked, created options for himself and took control of the points, whether error or winner.
The best compliment came from his opponent and good friend himself. “He is always able to do the most difficult things easy.”
The celebration at the end said it all, this win meant the world to him and he worked hard for it. But even at 37 and against his toughest rival, Federer was able to make tennis look easy.