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.”