No more Nole, and now, no more Nadal. After John Isner defeated Novak Djokovic in a close three-setter, Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal in opposite fashion, dominating his career rival from nearly start to finish. To suggest today signaled a changing of the guard is ludicrous, but between these two showings and Andy Murray’s fine play at the Australian Open, we can at least say that the two stars of 2011 are facing greater challenges in 2012.
It's not unreasonable to think that both of today’s winners played their best match of the year. In Federer’s case, it was enough to keep the usually energetic, relentless Nadal at bay, doing so with forceful forehands and backhands. In past matches with Nadal, the Spaniard has made Federer leave his comfort zone and show off his defensive and drop-shot skills, with his groundstrokes having varying degrees of success. Today, it was vintage Federer, as they say, taking the ball early and dictating where Nadal went, not the other way around. It resulted in a sub-par performance from Nadal, who looked nothing like the Federer-tormentor he usually is.
That is the main reason for the 6-3, 6-4 final score, which could have been even more lopsided had Federer served out the second set when up 5-2. One of Nadal’s only surges of strength came then, when he was nearly out of it, but he made Federer and his fans sweat it out. And rightfully so—it’s been a while since Federer has beaten Nadal in a tournament of such importance (sorry, the year-end championships don’t qualify, for me at least). Federer needed this win after losing to Nadal in both the French Open final and Australian Open semifinals, matches he played well but ultimately not well enough. Today, he closed it out.
The other reason for Nadal’s shortcomings? I think you have to acknowledge the conditions, at least to some degree. There was breeze throughout the match, at times quite heavy. While Federer hit through the wind, and in turn Nadal, Rafa’s shots sat up, allowing his opponent to pounce. Nadal found himself well behind the baseline tonight, but we didn't see the jaw-dropping winners from that position we're accustomed to. His serve, totally ineffective in this match, didn’t help matters. Nadal was broken four times in all.
But if this sounds like it was an easy evening for Federer, remember that a match against Nadal is always going to pose him problems, if not physically, than mentally. After righting the ship at 5-4 and earning his first match point, raindrops came, and the players, incredibly, had to go to their seats. This match was delayed for hours because of the weather, and for a minute it looked as if Federer would be in the locker room for an indeterminate amount of time, waiting to play a match point.
But the gods, if not the sunshine, smiled on Federer today. After a three- or four-minute pause, Federer and Nadal returned to their places, and play resumed. Not for long, though—Federer smacked his sixth ace of the match to end a long day, even if the match itself took just an hour and 31 minutes to play.