By now, after 37 meetings, the early signs in a match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are easy to read. At the start of the Shanghai final on Sunday, those early signs were all pointing one way. The roof was closed, the court was at its quickest, and Federer was sharper than he had been since he won Wimbledon three months ago. Can you guess the result?

Federer couldn’t have asked or hoped for a more auspicious beginning. He broke serve in the opening game with a backhand pass that we might call Vintage Early 2017. He bent low, finished his follow-through high, and passed Nadal with a down-the-line screamer. In the run-up to this match, many of us had wondered how well Federer would hit his backhand. The newly improved shot had been a big key to his three wins over Nadal earlier in the year, but he hadn’t cracked it as crisply over the second half of the season. Now we knew: it was crisp again.

The same couldn’t be said for Nadal. While the signs were good for Federer early, there was one glaringly bad one for Rafa: the thick white band of tape that had materialized just below his right knee. This was his 10th match in 14 days, and the wear and tear had obviously taken a toll. Even during his peak seasons, his knees had balked at having to pound their way through the fall season, and the problem seems to have arisen again. Rafa said the tape was more than just a “precaution,” and that he’s not sure he’ll be able to play his next scheduled events, in Basel and Paris.

But Rafa also said of Federer, “he played very fast and he played well...he just played too good, that’s my point of view.”


An in-form Federer won his fifth straight match over Nadal in Shanghai

An in-form Federer won his fifth straight match over Nadal in Shanghai

It’s hard to argue. Even a full-strength Nadal—or a full-strength anyone—would have faced long odds against Federer on this day, on this surface. If the Swiss' backhand was sharp, his forehand was a scythe cutting through the court. Three times, Nadal hit his backhand as hard and deep as he could, only to see Federer stand his ground and flick an unreturnable forehand past him anyway.

After breaking Rafa to begin, Federer dominated on his own serve, hitting 10 aces and winning 83 percent of his first-serve points. The biggest threat Nadal could mount was to reach 30-30 on Federer’s serve early in the second set. Federer quickly countered by serving and volleying, and taking advantage of Rafa’s deep return position. It was as if Federer had been holding that play in reserve until he needed it. Federer finished with 28 winners, 11 from the backhand side, against just 11 errors. Nadal didn’t serve or hit the ball badly, but Federer still had the all time in the world to make his shots.

“I had no nerves really before the match, which is nice,” Federer said after his 71-minute, 6-4, 6-3 win. “I was pretty clear about how I wanted to play the match. And then I came out and started off very well.”


The title was Federer’s 94th, which ties him for second on the ATP list with Ivan Lendl, behind only Jimmy Connors with 109—there’s a career goal that could keep him around for a while. It was also his fifth straight win over Nadal, his longest so far against his rival, and it brought him to within 2,000 points of the Spaniard for the year-end No. 1 ranking. If Nadal isn’t fit for Basel or Paris, that race could get much tighter heading into the season-ender in London.

In 2006, in his best season, Federer lost just five matches; four of them were to Nadal. In 2017, Nadal, in perhaps his most consistent season, has lost 10 matches so far; four of them have been to Federer. Turnabout is only fair play, after all, in a rivalry that’s lasted as long as this one. Now the 2017 season, which this duo has tossed back and forth like a football, has taken another turn, this time in Federer’s direction.

In their 13-year, 38-match dialogue, Federer and Nadal have never ceased forcing and inspiring each other to become better players. Judging by the heights they reached at the four Grand Slams in 2017, and which Federer reached again on Sunday in Shanghai, they’re not finished yet.