The Man Again

by: Steve Tignor | May 21, 2007

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Fedhamburg“If I have to lose to someone, he is the man, no?” Rafael Nadal asked in a gracious and not-totally-devastated concession speech yesterday in Hamburg. He was right in two senses. As the world’s best player, Federer was indeed the man to end Nadal’s (borderline insane) 81-match clay-court win streak. It was dramatic, historic, appropriate—and it makes the French Open a whole new kettle of fish. But Federer was also The Man once again in the Michael Jordan-Tiger Woods sense of the word, something he hasn’t been for months. It was actually surprising to seem him bring his best. (Maybe it was the Awful Red Shirt—seeing him in that thing again naturally made me recall all of his recent debacles.) As the third set rolled on and he hit winner after winner and won game after game, I found myself asking the television, “Is this really happening?” The TV kept saying yes.

In my reviews of their past clay-court duels, I found myself describing many brilliant individual plays by Nadal. The sneaky aces at big moments, the clever net game, the spectacular scrambling. Eventually I started to wonder when—or if—I would have an opportunity to itemize Federer’s brilliance. Yesterday he finally gave me a chance.

This time it was Federer standing on top of the baseline and controlling the rallies, sliding across the back of the court to track a sure winner down, making well-timed forays to the net, and using his serve to get him out of trouble.

Take a look at the game Federer played at 2-0 in the third set, when he had just grabbed the final bit of momentum he would need to make his run to a 6-0 final set. On the first point, he made two instinctive sliding volleys, the second of which he put past Nadal—these cat-and-mouse duels have almost always gone the Spaniard’s way in the past. At 15-0 Federer stepped into a Nadal return of serve and drilled a forehand into the opposite corner for a winner; I hadn’t seen anything that aggressive, that blatant from him in any of their matches on clay. At 30-15, Federer fooled Nadal with a wide kick second serve that landed dead in the corner and won him the point. The table had been turned.

After the last Federer-Nadal match, when Nadal tuned him up in Monte Carlo, I wrote an eight-point plan for success for Federer. Now he’s had the success. Does he owe me Tony Roche’s final weekly paycheck? Let’s take a look.

1. Don't change your game, but use more of it
You're a complete player, but usually you don't need to be. You can win by rallying and waiting for a mistake or drilling a forehand. That doesn't cut it against Nadal on clay. He doesn't miss enough, and when you play defense, he bullies you.

Learn from James Blake (I know that's tough to swallow, but just do it) and use combinations. Go hard to the forehand to push Nadal back and open up the backhand, or slice low to his two-hander to get a short ball. Your forcing shots don't need to be perfect. Make him beat you with a pass; it's better than sailing a forehand long.

Federer did go at Nadal’s forehand, though I don’t agree with the Tennis Channel’s Aussie color commentator that this was the single decisive maneuver. And the slice backhand to Nadal’s backhand that we’ve heard so much about? Didn’t need it.

What was key was Federer’s willingness and ability to stand in and take high-bouncing Nadal shots early. He did this at the beginning of the match, fending off two break points in the first game by going after his forehand. In the last two sets, I thought his extension through the ball on both sides was much better and more complete than it had been against Nadal in the past; Federer looked like a man let out of a cramped cell, suddenly free to swing away and take full cuts at the ball.

2. Guess on the return
Nadal almost always serves to your backhand, yet you miss many of those returns. Lean that way and try to get in after the return early in the match; you might get in his head.

I don’t know whether Federer guessed more often on his returns, but he was in better position for the backhand in general and missed far fewer in the last two sets. He came over many of them and snuck them into Nadal’s backhand rather than letting him come around for an inside-out forehand, which is how Nadal has so often gained the advantage in the past. At 5-2 and deuce in the second, Federer put a punctuation mark on his set-long resurgence by stepping into a second serve up the middle and ripping it past Nadal.

3. Think first-serve percentage
You made 55 percent of first serves Sunday. That's too low. Nadal attacks second serves, but on first serves he often sends back a hacked, floating slice backhand. Get the first serve in.

This was clearly not necessary yesterday. Federer served an even lower percentage than he did in Monte Carlo, 51 percent, and he didn’t appear to be taking anything off his first one. He did use it well on a few crucial points in the ad court.

Federer will need a higher percentage if he meets Nadal at the French Open. Nadal failed to take advantage of second serves in the second and third sets, but Federer doesn’t want to have to rely on his ground strokes to save him from mediocre serving over three out of five sets against the Spaniard.

4. Push him back, not wide
It's hard to beat Nadal out wide. But his long strokes mean he can be handcuffed by a deep drive down the middle, even on his forehand side. This may earn you a high, short mishit.

I suppose you could say Federer did this. He didn’t use the hook forehand to stretch Nadal wide to his backhand side the way Nikolay Davydenko did in Rome last week. Federer went after both forehand and backhand with flatter, deeper, driving strokes. These didn’t elicit a lot of short mishits from Nadal, but they kept Federer in control of most rallies.

5. Listen to Pete
You're a baseliner, so it's hard to become a net-rusher. But consider Pete Sampras' words about Nadal. He says he would have liked his chances because he could have gotten to the net on him. This is difficult on clay, but Sampras' confidence and mindset shouldn't be ignored.

Again, Federer was not all over the net on every point, but the aggressiveness he showed yesterday put him there regularly. On what may have been the biggest point of the match, at 2-6, 15-40, with another break and another disaster waiting to happen, Federer hit big from the ground, flew forward behind his strokes, and ended the point by knocking off a running forehand volley. It was as athletic a play as he's made against Nadal this year. It was a different mentality from Federer, and, from that point on, it was a different match.

6. Change the routine
Nadal pumps his fists, you hang your head. Don't let him monopolize the intensity in the arena. You're going for history -- getting pumped up now and then will remind you of that, and change a negative dynamic.

On the point following the one I just mentioned above, at 2-6, 1-1, break point, Federer moved in behind a good serve and wrong-footed Nadal with a forehand for a winner. The score was deuce and Federer yelled, “Come on!” (or something like that). Is it a coincidence that this first show of any sort of emotion from Federer against Nadal in either of their matches this spring would signal the beginning of a turnaround? Rather than accept the routine, Federer had used the opportunity of a saved break point and a second straight winner to send a message to himself that he was still in the match.

7. Have no regrets
Try everything in your arsenal. If he beats you after that, it wasn't meant to be. Remember this is all easier said than done. You're still No. 1, and surface variety is the spice of tennis.

I’m sure he doesn’t

8. Go win Wimbledon
And let us not speak of clay until next year.

As of this moment, it feels like his Hamburg win could help Federer through the rest of the year. It gets him past the Roche situation and the “slump” in one fell swoop. Of course, that goes straight out the window if he loses badly at the French Open.

What about Nadal? How did he let this happen? How tired was he? I saw him get more weary with each match in Rome last week, and then he had to do it all over again in Hamburg. He played five matches in five days there, including an exhausting three-set push fest against Lleyton Hewitt on Saturday. So, as he said afterward, he must have been somewhat mentally weary.

That said, if I hadn’t known this, I wouldn’t have said Nadal was overly tired. He was breathing heavily as he served at 2-5 in the second, but that’s the only time I noticed anything unusual. His performance over the last two sets reminded me of the first set of the French Open last year, which he lost 6-1. Both times he was pulling his backhand wide, which he rarely does, and which to me indicates sudden, surprised panic at the turn in his fortunes. There’s simply no reason for him to miss that shot in that manner.

Nadal took the defeat well. He smiled and talked easily with the tournament director Walter Knapper, who gave both Nadal and Federer a big hug of thanks for rescuing his event this year (good luck downgrading Hamburg now!). Nadal’s Uncle Toni also seemed at ease with the defeat, more so than Federer’s girlfriend, Mirka, ever appears to be when Federer loses. It was sad to see Nadal lose his streak by eating a bagel, but it may be the best thing for him at Roland Garros. There will be pressure enough trying to win a third straight title there.

How will all this otherwise affect the French Open? I don’t think it hurts Nadal until he meets Federer in the final. As I said, there will be less pressure, and now that he’s lost he may come out like a caged animal in his first few rounds.

But it helps Federer immensely, not just in a possible final against Nadal, but in his confidence through the earlier rounds. After struggling through a few three-setters last week, he has to feel that he can win on clay again. More important, now that he’s reasserted his No. 1 status, Federer may, for the first time, go to Paris thinking he should win.

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