Australian Open: Nadal d. Federer

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The outstanding feature of the 33rd meeting between rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal was the terrible inevitability of the outcome. For those hoping for a new and perhaps final twist in this saga of mutual greatness, it was less like watching a clash of titans than a B-grade horror movie. With each passing moment, it unfolded with a dispiriting predictability.

Nadal won this match, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3, in two hours and 24 minutes during which he dismantled Federer’s re-tooled and re-energized attacking game piece by piece. It seemed to prove with finality that the match-up so favors Nadal that Federer simply has no way out. His disadvantage is etched in granite.

Of course, some of the details were different this time. In this match—and especially before the loss of the second set sealed Federer’s fate—each man went at the other’s backhand, the soft underbelly for both players. Ultimately, Nadal was far more successful with the strategy, even though the court was marginally quicker than last year, allowing Federer to lash out in his comfort zone slightly more often than when these two men meet on clay or slow hard courts. But it didn’t help much.

Federer didn’t see a break point until the fourth game of the third set, by which time Nadal was up two sets and a break and all was more or less lost. (By that time, Nadal himself had a good 10 break opportunities, a statistic dulled only by the fact that he had converted only two of those chances.) Pounding away at the backhand with the insistence and devastating power of a battering ram, Nadal so contained Federer’s weaker wing that the Swiss champion was able to hit only two winners off that side all night.

Still, the first set was well-played, and it left Federer fans clinging to hope. Over the first few games, Federer played with brio; he was alert, aggressive, and judicious. But Nadal was well-prepared, especially with his serve. He would put 70 percent of his first serves into play in that set, and he didn’t miss one until well into program. 

Federer’s first crisis occurred in the seventh game, when he fell behind 15-40. Hammering Nadal’s backhand no less diligently than his rival attacked his own, Federer dismissed both break points with excellent work up at the net. He was obliged to dodge another break point while serving at 4-all, and this time he hit a forehand that went unreturned. When he went on to hold and leave Nadal serving to stay in it, hope must have flickered in his breast. But Nadal extinguished it with a commanding game punctuated by an ace. Another pair of quick holds brought on the tiebreaker.

In that decider, Federer made two critical errors while serving from 1-2 down. He served-and-volleyed the first point, but his right foot slipped slightly as he approached the net—it was just enough to throw him off, as he smacked an easy volley into the top of the net. Then he made an error on a routine forehand, the first real sign of his resistance cracking, because it’s awfully hard to come back from a 1-4 deficit in a tiebreaker with the other guy serving.

The tiebreaker was played out entirely on Nadal’s terms, and when it ended the omens were clear. As fit and enthusiastic as Federer is, he’s also 32—an advanced age at which to play, potentially, a four- or five-hour match, especially one in which he was committed to embracing the mental strain of constant attacking. 

Federer hung in there early in the second set, usually by the skin of his teeth. While his backhand was constantly under threat, Nadal was methodically tagging winners with his own. He hit his ninth backhand winner of the match to set up his service hold for 3-2, and swiftly scored the key break of the match in the very next game. At 15-40, Federer was able to ward off one break point with an attack that resulted in a netted backhand pass; that dropped Nadal’s break-point efficiency to 0-7. But Nadal had one more chance and he stepped up in a big way, clocking an inside-out forehand winner. That made the score 4-2 for Nadal, and he served out the set after a pair of service holds. 

The game that won Nadal the second set was telling: He fell behind 0-30. His first serve deserted him. And Federer hit his best backhand of the night at 15-30—but Nadal answered with a blazing, down-the-line forehand winner. With the set on the line, Nadal managed to win a game that he had plenty of opportunity to lose, and it effectively slammed the door on Federer’s ambitions. 

For all practical purposes that ended the semifinal, and both men seemed to know it. They played through a ragged and unconvincing third set featuring four breaks of serve, and now it will be up to the other Swiss fella, Stanislas Wawrinka, to try to stop the Nadal juggernaut.

Stat of the Match: Federer made exactly twice as many unforced errors as Nadal, 50 to 25—most of them off the backhand wing.

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