A Step, a Thought, a Shot—and Three Sets—Ahead

Friday, January 24, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—There are always a few points in any tennis match that can be pulled out and held up as representative, as microcosms of the contest as a whole. And there were plenty in Rafael Nadal’s 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 win over Roger Federer here on Friday night.

There was the sitter swing volley that Federer drilled into the tape from point-blank range late in the third set. He knew from experience that he couldn't just play a safe putaway shot against Rafa.

There was the reflex forehand flick pass, hit at full stretch, by Nadal to give himself two break points at 2-3 in the third set. All night he had been reacting and feeling the ball well.

And, in the end, there was the final forehand over the baseline from Federer, which is how umpteen—or more—matches between these two have concluded in the past. That shot is the Fedal Rafa-Rog rivalry in a nutshell: Nadal makes Federer press, and miss.

But the moment that I thought summed up Nadal’s 23rd win in their 33 matches wasn’t one that will likely live on in anyone else’s memory. Rafa was already up two sets, and Federer was serving at 3-5 in the third. At 15-0, Federer tossed the ball to hit a second serve, but before it reached its peak, before it was at all clear to anyone else where he would hit it, Nadal had already taken a huge step to his right to look for a forehand. On cue, Federer’s serve spun right into Rafa’s strike zone. He hit his return like he had all the time in the world, and seemed to place the ball with a little extra precision and care in the corner, far from Federer’s reach. There it was again, the same scenario after all of these years: Federer comes into a match against Rafa looking like the champion of old, looking like he might have the answer this time, only to find that Nadal is still one step, one shot, one thought, ahead of him.

Nadal was timing the ball crisply from the start tonight; he had, as they in the NBA, “good energy.” His forehand, as always, was heavy and controlling, but he also used his backhand to neutralize the Federer attack. Best of all were his passing shots, which were as accurate as they’ve ever been. Federer had dominated the net in his last two matches, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray, but he was just 23 of 42 up there tonight. Despite making only 64 percent of his first serves, Nadal was able to avoid facing a break point until the third set.

The first question Nadal was asked afterward was: “You couldn’t play much better out there tonight. Can you agree?”

Rafa, never one for self-satisfaction, seemed to consider disputing the reporter for a second, then said the hell with it and admitted:

“I played well tonight.”

By the second question, Nadal had thrown all of his usual caution out the window and revised his assessment upward:

“I think I played great.”

It was apparent from the start, in case we had forgotten, that Rafael Nadal is not Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Nor is he Andy Murray. In the first set, the forays to the net that worked for Federer against those two weren’t working anymore. By the middle of the second set, Federer was struggling to get to the net at all. The player who had come in looking to take back the forecourt was stuck behind the baseline retrieving Nadal’s diving and hooking sidespin, exactly where he didn’t want to be. Nadal said that he paid special attention to his service placement and the depth of his ground strokes tonight, in order to “resist,” as he said, any Federer assault.

“It’s a totally different match,” Federer said when asked what had gone wrong tonight, after so much went so right earlier this week. “I don’t know how to explain to you guys. It’s totally different playing Rafa over anybody else. Playing Murray or Rafa is day or night. It’s not because of the level necessarily, but it’s just every point is played in a completely different fashion, and I have to totally change my game. No excuse. It’s just a fact.”

For Nadal’s part, he said he wasn’t overly worried about any new forms of aggression from Federer. Rafa had spent the morning watching the semifinal they played here in 2012, and he couldn’t imagine Federer being able to attack more than he had that evening.

“If you go to YouTube”—I never thought I’d hear Rafa open a sentence with those words—“and you see the video of the 2012 match, you’ll see that he was playing very, very aggressive, too. So nothing is completely new. I saw that video today; I see the way that he will try to play again.”

Nadal also understood why it would be tough for Federer to keep the guns blazing all night.

“When the match is longer, that’s more difficult,” Nadal said, “because physically is very difficult for me, for him, for everybody to play that aggressive [for] a few hours.”

It's true even before a match has gone a few hours. In the middle of the first set, Federer came forward and forced Nadal to hit a very good backhand passing shot to win the point. My colleague Tom Perrotta and I both said, “This could be tough for him if he has to hit a lot of those.” But on the next two points, when he tried to approach again, Federer hit a forehand long and a backhand long—Rafa won the points without having to hit any good shots at all. It’s hard to find the right balance between the audacious and the prudent; it’s especially hard, after all the years and all the losses, for Federer to find the right balance against Nadal.

Nadal-Federer XXXIII was mostly not close, and it won’t rank high among their matches, even though it was one of Rafa’s best performances against Roger. It’s also Nadal’s fifth straight win in their series—he’s won 10 of their last 11 sets. Federer was so frustrated tonight that he spent one changeover complaining about Nadal’s grunting, and snapped at chair umpire Jake Garner, “Do your job.”

That happened at the start of the second set. Perhaps Federer was unhappy with what had happened at the end of the first, and was feeling the futility of his match-up with Rafa.

For most of the first set Nadal was the better player, but for a second it looked as if Federer might steal it in a tiebreaker, when he came back from a 1-5 deficit to make it 4-5. Nadal took the balls to serve and did what he always does against Federer. On the first point, he hit a good wide first ball into the ad court and followed it with a forehand winner. On the second, a set point, Nadal powered his forehand from side to side and eventually watched as a Federer backhand sailed long. 

Call it another microcosm of this match, and this rivalry. Federer got himself back on his feet in Melbourne, but Nadal remained a step, a thought, a shot—and three sets—ahead.

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