Interesting analysis probably one more to my liking
No "just" about it
by Steve Tignor
Let the Happy Rivalry begin. After facing each other 14 times, standing alone together on the tennis mountaintop for three years, and fending off—for the moment—an upstart partycrasher, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal deserve to enjoy a little friendly competition along the Mediterranean. But you kind of miss the edge, don’t you? The days of “one-dimensional game,” accusations of illegal coaching, and Toni vs. Tony? Now it’s Federer and Djokovic who get to have the nasty fun. For all the stellar points in their semifinal, wasn't the best part when Federer told Djokovic’s family to “keep quiet” after a bad line call?
We didn’t get any of that on Sunday. Instead we saw two seasoned champions restored to their customary places in a Masters final. They smiled together during the pre-match photo at the net, and again at the handshake. In between, they made up for the lack of hate by giving us one of their more intriguing, varied, even experimental contests. Then it ended the way it always does.
In the first game, it seemed that Nadal might succumb to rivalry fatigue. I saw a little of the same look on his face that I'd seen on Federer's in the Australian Open semifinals, the one that says, “Do I really have to do this again?” Nadal dumped two easy forehands in the net on the first two points and was broken. As they changed sides, I wondered if Federer’s mediocre start to the season and escape from the jaws of defeat early in the week would leave him feeling like he had nothing to lose in this final—and consequently allow him to win.
I didn't think it for long. In what became the defining pattern of the match, Federer was broken back after two backhand errors and a wild forehand. But after that temporary freak out, he righted himself and began to play some of the most intelligent tennis I’ve seen from him against Nadal. A slice backhand down the line forced the Spaniard to hit up severely on his backhand and drew a shank. A rally where Federer changed the direction of the ball with each shot, rather than trying to match crosscourts with Nadal, earned him a point. And he used the drop shot more effectively than he had before in this rivalry. At 3-3, Federer broke and swung the momentum in his favor after winning two points with elegant backhand-drop, forehand-volley combinations. For a moment, he had Rafa on a string.
Then Federer did something uncharacteristic: He failed to capitalize on his momentum. The weight of his losses to Nadal on clay seemed to fall on him again, as he made two unforced errors to be broken. On Nadal’s serve at 4-4, Federer tried to vary his attack again, this time by approaching the net. He lost two points up there, and the game.
At 5-5, Federer hit two aces to go up 40-0. Then he ventured, again unsuccessfully, to the net. While Nadal didn’t hit outright passing-shot winners, he did enough to spoil Federer’s forays. Three times over the next two games, Federer moved forward only to lose the point. The Tennis Channel’s announcers continued to encourage Federer in these attempts: “It wasn’t a bad play”; or “It’s the right idea.” Meanwhile, Federer lost six of his last seven points at the net, a period in which he squandered a break and was broken to lose the set 7-5. At what stage does coming to the net become the “wrong idea”? Ever?
To his credit, Federer went back to the experimenting table in the second set. He broke Nadal in the opening game by flipping two approaches at sharp angles and following them forward. He consolidated the break with confidence this time, though he was a little lucky to hit reflex a volley that died before Nadal could get to it at 40-30. From there, Federer did something a little more in character: He opened up his game, took over the rallies, and again looked poised to run away from Nadal at 4-0.
But the weight—the dirt?—of history returned once more. Down two breaks at 0-4, Nadal didn’t throw away points, try to end them quickly, or betray any frustration whatsoever. He hit a strong first serve to go up 15-0, and at 30-15 played perhaps his finest, most patient rally of the match. He moved Federer side to side until he had him outside of the doubles line on his forehand side. When Nadal finished the point with an easy crosscourt forehand winner, Federer let out a “whoo-hoo!” He didn’t know that Nadal’s comeback would begin with that shot.
Half an hour later Nadal had won the set 7-5, the match, and his fourth straight title in Monte Carlo. How, exactly, did the No. 1 player and a vaunted front-runner fail to close out it out? It begins with his opponent. Nadal stopped missing. More important, he found his sweet spot against Federer, sending his heavy forehand drives deep, high, a couple feet from the sideline, and straight into Federer’s backhand. Once he had tilted the rally in this direction, the only way Federer could get out of it was to move over far enough to hit a forehand. But his forehand works best when he’s moving into it and taking it on the rise; he’s not used to hitting it off his back foot, and he’s not as accurate with it.
Once that pattern was established, Federer began to miss forehands from all over the court. Serving at 4-3, he missed three of them, then sent a backhand wide to lose his serve, his advantage, and any hope he had of making this match different from (almost) all the others against Nadal on clay. The Spaniard had won 15 of 18 points and gone 21 points without an unforced error.
That’s virtually impossible to beat on clay, no matter what tactics you try. Unlike in his other losses to Nadal, this time Federer wasn't content to stick with his basic baseline game. He used the drop judiciously, came to the net bravely, and carved out angles with his approaches creatively. In the end, the old dynamic—Nadal’s big forehand pushing Federer backward and into errors—reasserted itself. That’s because none of the strategies mentioned above can be sustained, or even employed, long enough to win a clay-court match, particularly a three-out-of-five-setter. Over the last three years, this blog and Pete’s Tennis World have been filled with commenters' tactical advice for Federer on how to beat Nadal on dirt and win the French Open. No subject has been beaten to death, revived, and then beaten to death again quite like this one. But the answer may be this: Hope Nadal misses more. Or loses to someone else.
That brings us to the winner. Nadal is rarely the topic of discussion when he plays Federer, particularly on clay. There’s a sense that he “just” has to play his game to win. Which, by extension, means that he “just” has to put the ball back in the court and wait for Federer to miss. There was some truth to that at last year’s French Open, when Federer sprayed routine shots wide, long, and into the net all afternoon. But it’s usually more complicated, and it was again yesterday. If Nadal just has to put the ball in play against Federer, why has no one else, other than flukey Filippo Volandri, beaten him on clay in the past two years?
Because Nadal does more than that. Rather than coach Federer for today, let’s try to coach someone to do what Nadal does against Federer. It would go something like this: “First, make very, very few errors. While you’re doing that, hit the heaviest-kicking topspin forehand in the world. And put it a foot or so from the sideline and into Federer’s backhand every time—except for the surprise attacks you make down the line. Those should be clean winners to keep him honest. When he comes to the net, make your passes dip at his feet, and when he leaves any approach hanging, drill a winner past him. Your serve? 81 percent first balls in should do. Many of them on the line and all of them into his backhand. When you’re down two breaks, don't let it bother you in any way. And keep doing it, again, and again, and again.”
You get my point. What Nadal does against Federer is always a one-of-a-kind performance. No ifs, ands, buts—or justs—about it.