Throughout the years, the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has been a staple of tennis. Now totaling 37 meetings, Nadal has led and dominated the rivalry so often- at least until now. While Nadal leads their head-to-head 23-14, Federer has won their past four meetings, including their most recent one today. This is the first time ever that Federer has done so in their meetings.
Since the beginning of 2017, Federer has been on fire, with only one defeat to date, and winning all three major tournaments to start the year. Ever since losing the Australian Open final, Nadal has failed to even make a dent in Federer’s game. While breaking Federer’s serve was no difficult task for the Spaniard in the past, he just cannot seem to do it these days. So what has changed?
Federer’s new and improved backhand
Federer’s backhand has never been terrible, but it has always been his weakness. Nadal’s game plan for every meeting has been simple: pulverize Fed’s backhand. For the most part it worked; Nadal’s insanely high topspin on Federer’s one-handed backhand created many problems for the Swiss. In the ad court, every serve was to the backhand. Federer knew exactly what Nadal’s game plan was, and yet just could not beat it.
Now Federer is hitting his backhand with more swagger than ever. When Nadal leaves a floater up high, Federer strikes with a powerful, flat backhand. This is different from in the past when he had the tendency to slice his backhand to Nadal’s forehand and have it crushed right back at him. What this does is take away Nadal’s main strategy, and leave him scrambling for a way to penetrate Federer’s game.
Nadal just is not quite Nadal any more
While Federer taking a few months off is the reason behind his unusually low ranking, Nadal’s reason is quite different. Nadal has not played to his normal levels ever since 2014. As result, he has not broken the top 4 since.
From 2015 onwards, it has been one thing or another for the Spaniard. For a time it was injuries. Then it was confidence, and now it seems that inconsistency plagues his play these days. The main problem out of all those seems to be the injuries. Now aged 30, Nadal’s hardcore, intense style of play has taken its toll.
One of the other key elements to Nadal’s game was his ability to grind and make Federer work. There was no ball Rafa could not return. Time and time again, Federer would hit a tremendous, carefully calculated shot, and Rafa would an amazing, superb shot that no one could believe. This shot would be a “demoralizer” of sorts.
These shots came from Nadal’s sheer speed, stamina, and strength. It would seem that Federer did everything right during that point, only to be rewarded with a screaming on-the-run winner off the racquet of Nadal. It seemed that every single time Rafa hit one of these shots, it was a crushing blow to Federer.
In watching today’s match, things were quite different. At one point, Nadal lost 15 points in a row on Federer’s serve. This is not like their previous encounters where he would constantly apply pressure on the Swiss’s serve. Instead, Federer breezed through.
Later on, with the Swiss serving for the match, Nadal had an opportunity and wasted it with a wide backhand at 15-30. There was also a scintillating backhand that Federer struck down the line that Rafa did not try to return despite being only a meter away from.
What this means is that his speed and agility has diminished- diminished to the point that he cannot dominate Federer they way he used to. His forehand to the backhand were devastating, but his speed was really where his game was centered. Without that, he lacks the tools necessary to beat Federer with his current tactics.
Who is more to blame for the turnaround?
I would say 60% of the turnaround is from Federer’s adjustments, while 40% is from a decrease in Rafa’s playing level.
It is absolutely true that Federer has made an adjustment that has been successful in this matchup of heavyweights. He appears more confident; appears not to fear Nadal, and most important of all, strikes the backhand with strength. For this, the Swiss legend earns a great deal of credit for finally slaying his demons.
On the other hand, we have a declining Nadal who does not possess the same weapons he had a few years ago. His speed and ability to pulverize the Federer backhand made for a combination that the Swiss could not beat. Keep in mind too that Federer was playing top 3 tennis before his injury, while Nadal was not before his respective injury. Nadal still could not beat Djokovic last season. Maybe all Nadal needs is time; time to find himself; time to reach his true potential. Until then though, or until he makes an adjustment to his new playing skills, Federer goes into their matchups the favorite.