For years, we’ve heard that the crux of the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer is the forehand to the backhand. By which we've meant, Nadal controls the rallies in their matches by hitting his high-kicking lefty forehand into Federer’s vulnerable one-handed backhand. And that was once how it worked, and how it may work again. But in match 32 between the two of them, which Nadal won 7-5, 6-3 on Sunday in London, Rafa did much more than go to the backhand, while Roger missed much more than just that one shot.
In their previous two encounters here, Federer had turned the tables and used his crosscourt backhand as a weapon. This time Nadal turned the tables in the other direction, by going straight into Federer’s forehand with his own forehand whenever he could. Rafa started the match with a series of strong inside-out forehands, and, as Novak Djokovic had done earlier in the week, he forced Federer to cover the entire baseline. Nadal saved two break points at 2-3 with inside-out forehand winners, and broke at 4-4 by moving Federer to his right with one forehand, then going behind him with the next one.
Nadal first tried this tactical change when the two played at the 2012 Australian Open. Then it was seen as an attempt to mix things up; now it could be seen a sign of Federer’s forehand decline. Federer was flat in general in this match, and he missed a number of putaway forehands after setting the point up the way he wanted. He finished with 32 errors to Nadal’s 14, and could only win five of the 11 points he played at the net.
At 2-2 in the second, Federer opened his service game by serving and volleying; Nadal put a backhand return at his feet, won the point, and went on to record the decisive break of serve. Federer also closed the match with two missed volleys. In general, Federer played with too much aggression and not enough commitment to that aggression; his forehand sailed, his slice backhand approach didn't bite, and he missed an ill-advised drop volley at a big moment. Federer broke Nadal’s serve at 4-5 in the first set by being more patient; he won a 30-shot rally in that game. But he must not have felt like that was a winning plan in the long run. It’s hard to blame him: Federer played for two-and-a-half hours yesterday, while Rafa rested. The final game, in which he was broken, was Federer’s flattest of the match.
Nadal, on the other hand, knew what he wanted to do and executed that plan. While he was willing to go to Federer’s forehand during rallies, he kept his serve to the backhand side, and he kept getting it in. Rafa made 77 percent of his first serves, but he also varied his spins and speeds at crucial moments. His first serve at 6-5, 30-15, was his hardest of the first set, and he closed out that set with three service winners in the final game. On the return side, Nadal varied his position, passed well, and was opportunistic. He was four for four on break points.
Rafa goes to 22-10 in the fabled Fedal rivalry; more significantly, he beats Federer for the first time in five tries indoors. He’ll move on to play his second World Tour Final Monday evening.