There is always tremendous anticipation when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet, with fans anxious for early indications to how things might go. There were positive signs from Federer when he won the opening game of their Miami semifinal convincingly, finishing with a crisp backhand volley winner.
But things turned rapidly as Nadal then held serve at love, taking the last point with two rocket inside-out forehands, the second of which Federer couldn’t reach. Nadal’s superiority in power was obvious and would later be reflected in winning 48 of the match’s 69 baseline points. Then disaster struck Federer in the third game—he lost his serve, mishitting a wild forehand to go down 15-40 and then a backhand into the net, as Nadal pinned him with his signature, wicked top-spin, cross-court forehand.
Everyone knows Federer detests that axis in their matches, and early on, he seemed to be doing everything he could do to keep the ball to Nadal’s backhand. But when Nadal is on his game, and Federer is missing, there is really no tactic that is going to deny the strong-willed Spaniard.
After that early break, there was only one time when it appeared Federer might get back into the match—when he held a break point (his only one of the match) in the opening game of the second set, with Nadal serving at 30-40. Here he was unlucky, as Nadal hit a tentative smash that tipped the top of the net, resulting in an awkward forehand that Federer struck wide.
There were the occasional flashes of Federer brilliance, but he wound up taking a sound beating, 6-3, 6-2 in 78 minutes.
It was interesting to listen to Federer after his abbreviated victory over an injured Gilles Simon on Thursday. He spoke about various matches over the last couple of years, labeling some as “proper matches,” ones that weren’t affected by factors such as injury (i.e. his loss to Simon in Shanghai, in 2008, when Federer had a back problem). Federer has often cited his wins in last year’s World Tour Finals over Nadal and Novak Djokovic in defending himself of his three recent losses to the Serb, but it may be time to suggest those weren’t “proper matches,” either—Nadal was exhausted from a three-hour marathon against Andy Murray the previous day, and Djokovic’s mind was elsewhere with the Davis Cup final looming the following week.
There’s also something that has been verboten until now—maybe Federer has to accept that Nadal and Djokovic are better than him. This may be a gross simplification, but instead of beating himself up with the question, “Why am I losing to these guys?”—an understandable reaction after his phenomenal career—maybe it should be more of a “don’t worry, be happy” approach.
As long as Federer maintains an appetite for competition, he could be better off just letting things flow and not worrying about losses to these two. He seemed to be jumpy as early as the terrible third game today, and maybe that was because he is still living in a past reality and can’t deal with the prospect of failure.
Federer should have a few good years left, but is more likely to maximize his results by learning to deal with the current landscape, rather than fighting it—learning to feel that the pressure is on the other guy, not on him anymore.