Catching the Tape: Roger & Rafa in Miami

Thursday, March 21, 2013 /by
Getty Images
Getty Images

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, as you surely know by now, aren’t playing in Key Biscayne this year. Each of them recently cut ties with the agency that runs the tournament, IMG; put that together with Nadal’s skittishness about playing on hard courts, and it’s conceivable that neither of them will ever play it again.

Which is unfortunate, considering the history that they have in Miami. This is the place where they first played, in 2004, and where they staged a classic five-set final the following year. For those of you who need a Fedal fix after their last match, in Indian Wells, turned out to be a dud, here are highlights of each of those ancient contests from Key Biscayne.

*****

—A 17-year-old Nadal’s 6-3, 6-3 win over Federer in their round of 32 match in 2004 has always reminded me of 18-year-old John McEnroe’s win, by a similar 6-3, 6-4 score, in his first match against Bjorn Borg, in front of the King of Sweden in Stockholm in 1978. In both cases, the upstart ambushed the older No. 1 player. In both cases, the upstart knew right away that he could play with, and beat, the legend. That knowledge would help both Nadal and McEnroe throughout their careers.

—Federer was sick during this tournament, and you can see he’s not at his best from the first point in this clip, a forehand volley that he drills into the net. Nadal said afterward (his pressers were translated from Spanish then), “Obviously, he didn’t play his best tennis and that’s the reason why I could win. I mean, if he had played his best tennis, I would have had no chance. But that’s what happens in tennis. If a player like me plays at a very, very high level, and a top player like Roger doesn’t play his best tennis, I can win."

Some things never change, do they? As Federer said of Rafa that night, “He looks at me as an incredible great player.” But he also knew about Nadal. “I’ve heard a lot about him,” Federer said, “and saw some matches of his. I think this [result] is not a big surprise for everybody.”

—Nadal said he tried to dictate the points and not let Federer play his game. A baby-faced Rafa looks loose here, hitting with more abandon then he normally does. His backhand was on, he was stepping in and hitting return winners with his forehand, he was sneaking into the net. He even served well that night. As Rafa said afterward, “I’m very happy because I play one of the best matches of my life.” I hope so; it would have been a little weird if he had said that he'd played much better in the Little Aces junior championship the year before.

—Federer was coming off a dominant performance at that year’s Australian Open. He had pretty much toyed with the field. But Nadal, who had lost to Lleyton Hewitt in Melbourne that year, was obviously something new. Here, Federer does get looks at forehands; there wasn’t a lot of the stereotypical Nadal forehand to Federer backhand dynamic, at least in these highlights. Federer doesn’t do much with his chances, doesn’t create many opportunities. Afterward, he said of Nadal’s shots, “He hits more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce high, and that’s a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it, but kind of couldn’t.”

Last week Rafa said that this match felt like it happened "100 years ago." But a lasting tone was set for many more, and better, encounters to come. It didn't, however, set much of a tone for the rest of Rafa's tournament. He would lose his next match, in three sets, to Fernando Gonzalez.

*****

—The next year the two would meet in the Miami final. Masters finals were three-of-five in those days, so Federer had a little more time to “get out of” the same fix against Rafa, and he used that time well. This match may rank as Federer’s greatest comeback, at least against another Hall of Fame opponent. He lost the first set 6-2, was up 5-2 in the second but wound up losing it in a tiebreaker, and went down 1-4 in the third. Nadal, despite his win over Federer there the previous year, got tight, and Federer turned it around completely to win going away, 2-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-1.

—Nadal was on fire to start this match, but he was farther back in the court than he had been the previous year. He’s obviously playing well, but he’s not as loose as he was in 2004. This was Rafa’s first career Masters final; he would play four more that season and win them all. Nadal was also not serving as well in this match, and he was grunting a good deal more; but he used his drop shot exceptionally well for a hard-court match. The best Rafa moment comes when he hits a passing shot winner and the camera flashes to Toni Nadal, who can't do anything but laugh. 

—It’s hard to tell here, but to the best of my recollection, Federer began going toe to toe with Rafa over the last two sets and, believe it or not, wore the 18-year-old down. You also don’t see it in this clip, but Federer lets loose with a huge roundhouse fist-pump at some point at the end of the second set—maybe when he wins the breaker. It was a spontaneous show of happiness and relief that he had escaped his younger opponent this time.

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