That’s the quickest way I know to sum up what has changed in the dynamic between the Swiss and the Spaniard over the first three months of 2017.
From 2004 to 2015, the opposite was true. Then, Nadal knew exactly what he needed to do to win: Hit his heavy left-handed forehand, and curl his left-handed serve, into Federer’s one-handed backhand as often as he could. He did other things, of course, but when he needed a point, he didn’t have to worry or think twice or hesitate. And when it didn’t happen to work, he never had to second-guess himself.
Federer, meanwhile, was left with decisions to make on virtually every swing. Should he rush the net at the first chance, as so many experts counseled? Should he stand in and drive his backhand deep, or step back and slice it short? Should he launch an all-out attack, or should he bide his time? Federer knew that any time he gave Rafa a chance to hit a forehand into his backhand, he was in trouble. Because of that, because he pressed and hesitated, Federer missed shots against Nadal he wouldn’t miss against anyone else. How many times did a match of theirs end with Federer sending a routine forehand long?
In 2017, Federer has changed all of that when he transformed his backhand from a vulnerability into a weapon. In their matches in Melbourne and Indian Wells, Federer didn’t hesitate to swing out and drive that shot for jolting winners. Nadal denied that anything had changed between them, but on Sunday in Miami he knew he needed a different game plan. Two hours and a 6-3, 6-4 loss to Federer later, he still hadn’t found one. Welcome, Roger might have been thinking by the end, to my world.
Rafa came out determined to step into the court and dictate, and to use his crosscourt backhand, rather than his crosscourt forehand, to open up the court. The trouble with that tactic, of course, is that he was hitting into Federer’s strength, his forehand. An energized Nadal played well to start, and reached break point four times in Federer’s first three service games. On one of them, at 3-3, Federer hit a ball that clipped the tape. Afterward, Federer said saving those break points changed the tone of the match.
“I thought it was totally key,” Federer told Brad Gilbert of ESPN, “because [Nadal] looked good from the get-go. I think he was playing big tennis, stepping in...It was a very intense first set.”
But while Nadal was playing with as much intensity and positivity as he could muster, his new strategy ended up helping Federer find his groove on his forehand. With Rafa serving at 3-4, Federer opened with two forehand winners. When Nadal tried to go back to his bread and butter, a heavy forehand into Federer’s backhand, Federer snapped his backhand crosscourt with pace, and finished the point with another forehand winner.
“He had his chances in the first set,” Federer said. “I was bit better on the big points, don’t know why.”
By the middle of the second set, Federer was flowing and Nadal appeared to be trying to decide what to do from one shot to the next. Backhands he had been making started sailing long. Forehands he usually put away ended up in the net. After stepping back and overhitting an inside-out forehand by 10 feet, Rafa bopped himself in the head. It was an uncharacteristically ill-chosen shot from him.
Federer only got better. At 3-3, he hit three forehand winners, and another jolting crosscourt backhand. At 4-4, he came up with a perfect lob-volley and broke. Serving at 5-4, he took a deep, hard-hit ground stroke from Rafa and short-hopped it back into the corner for a winner. Finally, to reach match point, he flipped an inside-out forehand that—naturally—landed smack on the sideline for another winner. Rafa looked up at the sky in disbelief, while the hint of a smile appeared to cross Federer’s face.
Afterward, Rafa and Roger agreed that Federer is in a “confident state” after winning the Australian Open.
Nadal says it’s a feeling he knows well. Today, though, Rafa knew a different feeling, one that Federer described when he lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final in 2009. Federer said the most frustrating aspect of that five-setter was feeling like he had gotten closer to beating his rival, yet still feeling very far away from making it happen. In Miami on Sunday, Rafa insisted that this match was closer than the scores indicated, and in a way it was. But he still won just two more games than he won in Indian Wells. Nadal has never believed he’s a better all-around player than Federer, but he always knew he had a way to beat him. For the moment, that way has been blocked.
“I played the right way,” Federer said, “the way I have so many times this year, very committed.”
In the past, Federer couldn’t be confident that committing to his normal game and trusting his instincts would work against Nadal, the way it worked against virtually everyone else. Now he can be. Now, instead of thinking, he can play.
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