There’s a phenomenon in basketball where a team gets behind, scraps hard and expends maximum mental and physical energy catching up, evens the score, and then immediately deflates. It isn’t just that they’ve exhausted themselves physically. The psychology of the game changes as well. There’s no longer a target out in front, urging them on.
Something like that happened to Rafael Nadal today, and it happened in the second point of the third set. He had begun the match, as he had begun the tournament, on the flat side, and his opponent, Roger Federer, had succeeded in changing the usual dynamics of their encounters by nudging him out of the patterns he likes. Nadal forced himself to find some more energy in the second, and his dedication to aggressiveness tilted the rallies back in his favor. The first point of the third went the same way, as Nadal ran Federer along the baseline to go up 0-15. Federer’s early confidence had vanished, and he looked as if were groping for an answer. Getting broken here would extend Nadal’s momentum and begin to make Federer’s first-set performance look like a mirage. Now Nadal had him on the run again in the second point. Rafa moved inside the baseline and lined up for an open down the line backhand. He had the lead in his sights for the first time all day. It must have blinded him, because he caught the ball late and fanned it into the alley. He put his hands to his head in disbelief. Federer held. While Nadal would put together a strong hold of his own in the next game, Federer had evened the scales back up. Nadal’s run was over.
And that’s all it took. Federer began to serve well, as he had in the first set, and he had the confidence on Nadal’s next service game to chip and charge successfully on one point, and then break serve by cracking an aggressive return, a tactic that he had been trying to employ, with various degrees of success, all afternoon. He was, as they say, in full flight from there, and Nadal couldn't turn the tide a second time.
This was a quality match, but not an intense one by Federer-Nadal standards. Points and games went by quickly; it took just 90-some minutes to get through three sets. What can we take from it? As far as the play itself, the most intriguing element was Federer’s determination in the first and third sets not to let Nadal lock his forehand into his backhand and dictate the terms of the rallies. This is as effective as Federer has ever been with his topspin crosscourt backhand against Rafa. Just at the point in the rally when he usually loses control, Federer stepped forward and sent a surprised Nadal scrambling to his left. In the crucial game of the first set, with Nadal serving at 3-4, Federer fended off a ground stroke assault with his backhand, and then broke serve by snapping off a sharp crosscourt backhand angle, an angle that stunned Nadal.
Is the topspin crosscourt backhand the answer for Federer? Notice that Nadal changed things up in the second and had success going wide to Federer’s forehand. Nevertheless, along with the backhand, two other gambits that Federer tried today worked. He won points serving wide to Nadal’s backhand in the deuce court, and his commitment to returning aggressively, while it resulted in a quite a few free points for Nadal, worked when he really needed it. It's a gamble, yes, but one he almost certainly needs to take in the future.
So we end the year exactly where we’ve ended it for the last five seasons. With Nadal and Federer at 1 and 2, and with another big title going to one of them. This event felt more like déjà vu than normal, though. Federer capped a post-U.S. Open stretch where he went 21-2, and looked as sharp as he’s looked over any extended period in the last three years. He seems energized, and more important, more narrowly focused on what wins for him, after a few months with a new coach. There’s a sense of slashing urgency to his game right now, particularly on the return side. While Nadal was able, as he usually is, to throw a wrench in his plans, Federer was simply playing too well all week to be stopped for long, even by Rafa. Maybe it was the lighting or the bright red shirt or his attacking game, but Federer seemed to stand a little taller in London. He’s brushed aside all talk of decline, added a new wrinkle to his match-up with Nadal with his backhand and his return, and made 2011 a two-man race to start. Still, my favorite Federer moment of the tournament came in his semi-rambling and highly excited victory speech. He thanked the ball boys and said that if the players had to pick up their own balls, the matches would go on forever. How does that come to his mind right then? Brilliant and goofy, Federer goes out like the Federer of old.
Nadal, on the other hand, looked weary in his runner-up speech. Weary from winning, I guess; he did a lot of this year. Whatever happened today, 2010 still belonged to him. He lost the final, but it was a characteristic tournament for him—there was a sense of deja vu to his performance as well. In every major event aside from the French Open, Nadal has struggled at first, improved over the course of a couple of years, and finally won it. In Australia, he reached the semis in 2008 before bringing home the trophy in 2009. At Wimbedon, he lost two finals to Federer before winning the third. After semifinal appearances in 2008 and ’09 at the U.S. Open, he struck gold this summer. Nadal had never been to the final of the WTF, and he started this one looking like he never would get to the final of it. Now he has—after his first-set loss to Andy Roddick on Monday, he seemed to will himself to believe that he could. If history tells us anything, we know what will come next for him here.
Nadal also gave us what he usually gives us: a classic, grueling, back-and-forth, emotionally draining match. His semifinal with Andy Murray may have been the best of 2010, and it ended with what was the highlight of the week for me. Nadal was nearly apologetic when he hugged Murray at the end. As Murray walked away to his chair, Nadal gave him one extra pat on the back, with a look of commiseration that his opponent would never see. It was, on a smaller-scale, similar to the arm he threw around Federer’s neck after their 2009 Aussie Open final. Brilliant and empathetic, Nadal went out of that match, and out of the best season of his career, like the Nadal of old.