Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Federer Beat Nadal

It's time to stuff a healthy helping of humble pie in my mouth. Just over a month ago, I had lost my faith in Roger Federer's ability to be the best - over even a top-three - player. Then, on Sunday he defeated Rafael Nadal. On a clay court. In straight sets. Without having his serve broken even once.

As an aside, I have waited a few days to post this because on Sunday I would have done nothing but gloat and express joy.

First the caveats. The final was played the day after Nadal survived three match points in a gruelling four-hour marathon against Novak Djokovic. And the clay in Madrid is much faster than it will be at Roland Garros next week. But since Nadal was able to beat Federer in five sets at the Australian Open after an even longer semi against Verdasco, I wouldn't discount Federer's victory on these grounds.

Here's why he did win:

1) Federer has always considered himself above the gamesmanship employed by Nadal, who seems to be adjusting a wedgie between every point. Not this time. On Sunday, Federer refused to take the court before Rafa, making him wait a good 40 seconds before he was ready to recieve. I'm sure Rafa has taken note of this, and the next time they play, expect a 10-minute staring contest before the match begins.

2) The toss has always been pointless in Roger-Rafa matches. Federer prefers serving first; Rafa wants to recieve. Finally, Federer made Rafa serve first. This was the first of many signs that Federer is willing to get out his comfort zone if it'll also unsettle Rafa.

3) Keeping the points short. Roger is just not good enough to slug it out against Rafa. Consider this: the final took only five minutes more than the second set between Rafa and Djokovic and was actually shorter than the third set. Federer went for the big winners and he got it right enough of the time to win.

4) Which brings me to my next point. Unforced errors. Federer still made a bunch of them - more than 20 - but as a result of his more aggressive strategy, he compensated with even more winners.

5) Federer also seems to have realized that he is going to lose if he keeps allowing Rafa to hit shot after shot to his backhand. Instead of trying to hit incredible backhands against Rafa's top-spin forehands, he ran around his backhand and went for winners on his stronger side.

6) But none of this will matter in the French Open if Federer is unable to serve like he did on Monday. He was aggressive on his second serve (which excuses his four double faults) and got tons of free points on his first serve against the best returner in the world.

This final has me super-excited about the French Open, which starts next Sunday. The first week should be a relative breeze for Roger and Rafa and I suspect both are more tense about Friday, when the draw is announced. Andy Murray is improving on clay but it isn't much of a threat. Neither will want Djokovic on their side of the draw.


Ahsan said...

There are few things that would give me greater sporting pleasure than Federer beating Nadal at the French. It would be like Barca getting past Chelsea all over again.

Sadly, it will not happen.

sidrah said...

i always find it discerning when people claim nadal's wedgie pulling, bottle positioning, hair fixing etc. is gamesmenship. i believe it to be nothing but an acquired nuerotic routine that he is used too. old habits die hard. but he's worked on cutting dfown the time he takes on serves, and thats a considerable ask.

frankly, the verdasco-dJERKovic back-to-back monster matches were the main reason federer won. nadal was impossibly unlike his usual tireless self throughout the match. but i agree with what you noted - he needs to adjust his gameplan, federer. he needs to stop trying harder and harder on the older tactics, and embrace the forehand more, focus on more power to his shots, take advantage of the serve (which is more superior then nadals).

can't wait for roland garros. it might be safin's last run here, and i want my boy to do good.

bubs said...

Ahsan: We can always dream.

Sidrah: Perhaps Nadal has OCD. Not that I have anything against gamesmanship. There is nothing I would enjoy more than Federer purposely mishitting a forehand and knocking down those damn water bottles.
And if you're hoping for a Safin run surely Wimbledon is his best bet. His run there was last year was so close to magical and easily the best he has played since his Aussie Open win.