Monday, July 07, 2008

Thoughts On Federer-Nadal III

If I'm still recovering from last night's match, I think we can safely assume that Federer and Nadal are too. Hereunder are some reflections on last night:

1. Federer took a while longer than Nadal to get going. He was notably absent until the latter stages of the first set, when he was already down a break. Nadal was on his game right off the bat, and of course, secured the vital first break early, in just the third game.

Nadal's intensity overshadows others' at the best of times, including Federer's, but the difference is particularly marked at the beginning of each match. In large part, I think this has to do with Nadal's pre-match ritual. This is old news for real tennis fans, but for causals like me, it really is fascinating to see the extent to which Nadal's body language is intimidating before the match even starts. Think about how at the toss, most players will stand around and sort of shuffle their feet uncomfortably while the umpire is doing what (s)he does, while Nadal will be jumping up and down, swaying his head like a boxer, making his presence felt starkly. Or think about how once the toss is done, Nadal will race to the basline, towel off (and quite naturally, flex his biceps while doing so), and get in position. Everything he does, he does aggressively. He is easily the most physically imposing player in the game, and all it starts before it even starts.

2. Federer played probably his best tennis - and yes, I'm including the sets he won - from about the last couple of games of the first set to the point when he was up 4-1 in the second. He had gotten a measure of Nadal's groundstrokes, he played intelligently, and he was sort of cruising. This was the only time in the match, at least for me, when Federer looked like he might win it. At all other points during the night, you just felt like Nadal was in control, and that the title was his to lose. Of course, after this little purple patch, he absolutely fell apart mentally, and I (and more importantly, Federer) will go thinking to the grave that that five game swing, from being up 4-1 to losing the set 6-4, cost him the match.

3. The rain delay obviously hurt Nadal. It was instructive, if not altogether surprising at 5-4 in the third, that Nadal wanted to stay and Federer didn't really look like he minded leaving. Nadal even waved his hands about, but to little avail. Anyway, at the time I remember thinking that it wouldn't really matter, and that Nadal would come back and finish him off after the break. Federer looked completely deflated and outmatched. But one important thing happened after the rain: Federer started serving better, and getting easier points on his serve, thus releasing some of the pressure Nadal had on him since the start, and giving him the opportunity to challenge Nadal's serve regularly for the first time all night. He still didn't look like himself, but he squeezed that third set tie-breaker out somehow, and I think for the first time thought that he could actually beat Nadal.

4. I don't know if you can call it a choke because Nadal's one of the most mentally tough athletes I've ever seen, but man, double-faulting up 5-2 in the fourth set tiebreak with two serves to come...what can you say? Everyone watching, including Federer, probably saw some nerves there, and Federer capitalized to gain ascendancy in the tiebreak. Of course, this being the crazy night that it was, Federer lost said ascendancy very quickly, and was down match point twice - once on Nadal's serve. But again, somehow, some way, he survived - and really, that's all he did: survive.

5. I was squirming through every single point in the fifth set. Every. Single. Point. I'm really not kidding. Each moment was so unambiguously important, each shot so vital, that I was a complete bag of nerves. Add to that, the quality of the tennis simply reached new heights. The fifth set - the whole of it - was the only in the match when both Federer and Nadal were at their bests, at the same time. It really was a sight to behold. They were playing unbelievable tennis. If you didn't watch it, I really can't adequately explain this to you: the standard of tennis was almost literally out of this world. When all is said and done, these could be the two best players in the history of the game, and they went mano-a-mano for more than an hour in that fifth set. It's very rare that a sporting event with this much hype even meets expectations, let alone go beyond them. This one did. No one who watched it will ever forget it.

6. I really hope the guardians of tennis understand just what they have here. They have a real No.1 vs. No. 2 rivalry, key in any sport. But it's not just that. They have a rivalry where both players are exceptionally talented, at the absolute peak of their powers, with very different playing styles, backgrounds, and personalities. Moreover, both players are courteous and mild-mannered in their interactions with the media and fans. They contribute to a positive atmosphere in the locker room, where according to Jon Wertheim (sorry, too lazy to find a link), they treat the top-5 players as nicely as they do those outside the top 500. In other words, men's tennis has hit upon a goldmine; unfathomably talented players, who work hard, respect each other and the sport in general, and can put on a show - as demonstrated last night - that outshines any other on their day (seriously, anyone watch India-Sri Lanka? Even in India and Sri Lanka? Anyone at all?). I simply hope those in charge of men's tennis understand this and are competent and forward-looking enough to properly reap the benefits from it, because this status quo certainly isn't going to last forever.

7. Speaking of lasting forever, AKS and I were talking yesterday about how Federer - despite being four years older than Nadal - is probably more likely to beat Nadal in five years than he is today. Right now, Nadal can simply overpower and out-hustle him. His speed and his strength, particularly from his forehand to Federer's backhand, are simply too much. If they play ten days straight on four different surfaces, I don't think Federer takes more than two or three.

The key is that while Nadal's gifts are more likely to suffer due to the ravages of time, Federer's are more likely to last into his late 20s. Federer's strengths are an uncanny ability to manufacture shots, a strong and well-directed serve, and a silky grace about the court. He doesn't so much hustle along the baseline as glide. From a distance, it certainly seems to me that Nadal - despite his peak physical condition - will not have as long and unrocky a reign atop men's tennis as Federer. This is not to say I wish anything but the best for this guy - he's a great ambassador for the sport, as I said, and deserves everything he gets. It's just that his style of play looks like it has to take a toll. But then again, that's what they said about this guy, and he's still going strong, so who the hell knows?

8. All that said, you have to wonder about the mental toll this is going to take on Federer. At first, he could tell himself that Nadal could only beat him on clay. Then Nadal starting beating him on other surfaces. Then, the defense was that he was more of all-round player, because he did better on Nadal's surface (clay) than Nadal did on his (grass). So Nadal starting winning on grass, reaching the final at Wimbledon in '06, and taking Federer to five sets last year. Then, the thinking went that no matter what happened elsewhere, Federer was still number 1 in the world, and that grass courts in particular were for him an impregnable fortress. So now Nadal runs him ragged for the first two sets, and ultimately prevails in five. Meanwhile, unlike Nadal's steady progress on grass, Federer is slipping away from Nadal on clay, getting demolished in Paris earlier this year. Not to mention, you've got other guys, like Jokeovich, rising and posing serious threats to Federer on hard courts.

I think this loss would have represented career-long implications if he had lost in three sets. That he fought back - against a mentally superior opponent - and showed a rough-and-tumble ability to grind out sets when playing under his best stands him in good stead. I think he's probably telling himself right now that he can beat Nadal if the chips fall right and he shows up for five sets. He probably wouldn't have been able to tell himself that if he lost in straight sets last night. In some respects, you could credibly argue that the rain saved Federer's career. I mean, how mentally debilitating must it be to be so good, and yet know that you can't beat someone even before you get on court with them? The rain probably indirectly prevented Federer from having those anguished thoughts.


Farooq said...

I know the commentators already mentioned this minor point but its worth bringing up gain, in line with your point about how humble these guys are.

I was really impressed by how Nadal did not unfurl the Spanish flag which was tossed onto him while he was hugging his parents. With all that adrenalin, excitment and euphoria flowing through you it would only seem natural to stretch out your flag and let out a patriotic yell. But Nadal just kept it inconspicuously at his side, probably thinking it'd be a tacky thing to do.

Nice for a guy to be able to show that kind of restraint in that moment.

Ahsan said...

Yeah, excellent point.

ali bic said...

or maybe in that euphoric moment all he could think about was his parents, family, coach, wimbledon, federer, etc that a flag was the last thing he could ever be concerned with.