For most of his career Rafael Nadal has enjoyed dominance in his rivalry with Roger Federer. After beating him in their first meeting in 2004, the Spaniard has gone on to score some devastating wins against the great Swiss. That included defeating him four French Open finals, including three in a row between 2006 and 2008. Indeed, in 2008 Federer managed to win just four games. Nadal has also triumphed over Federer on the hallowed lawns at Wimbledon, dethroning him in 2008 and in the final of the Australian Open in 2009, after which Federer was left in tears. But in 2017, something has changed.
A different beginning
When Federer and Nadal met in a hotly anticipated Australian Open, the logical bet seemed to be on Nadal. After all, the two had met three times previously in Melbourne, in 2009, 2012 and 2014 and Nadal had won all of them, dropping just two sets. But it was Federer who won the title after a thrilling five set battle, which saw him recover from a break down in the decider. It was an impressive, win, but even more impressive were Federer’s back-to-back destructions of Nadal in Indian Wells and Miami. The Spaniard lost those matches 2-6 3-6 and 3-6 4-6 respectively. He never looked like winning either of them. Most recently, in Shanghai, with the chance to seal the year end #1 Nadal put in a strangely listless performance against his great rival, losing in straight sets.
It’s difficult to know how much Nadal’s confidence has suffered after those losses, but Federer’s is clearly sky high. Indeed, the Swiss said as much after lifting the trophy in Shanghai. Where once it felt like Federer had to play at the very peak of his powers just to stand a chance against Nadal, now he walks on to court to face him with confidence.
What has caused the change?
Much has been made of Federer’s switch to a larger racquet frame, and rightly so. It allows him to hit through the backhand more cleanly, whereas once mishits were a regular feature of his game. That has been key in allowing him to stand up to Nadal’s attempts to attack that wing. It was long the expected pattern of play when the two met for Nadal’s forehand to break down the Federer backhand forcing an error or hitting into the open court on Federer’s forehand side. But with Federer driving through his backhands more instead of slicing them that pattern of play is no longer bearing fruit for the Spaniard. But there is more to the changed dynamic of their rivalry than just a larger racquet face.
Whilst Federer has always been most comfortable playing from right on the baseline, a trait Novak Djokovic seems to have learned from him. Nadal, however, has typically played from deep, even on a hard court. But, with his body no longer what it once was, he now generally plays further up the court. Against Federer this equates to him meeting fire with fire. But with less time to react to his opponent’s shots, Nadal’s skills as a ball striker are of greater importance. And in that department he is not even close to being the equal of Federer. There are few who are.
Thus is the Swiss able to out rally the Spaniard from the baseline. Federer is also a great front runner in matches, and his belief in his last three matches with Nadal has increased as they have gone on. It also gives the world #2 the confidence to exploit the angles when Nadal try to play from deep. All that leaves the Spaniard facing a difficult proposition.
What does Nadal need to do to turn it around?
On a clay court Nadal would still likely dominate Federer. But there is a strong chance that we will never see Federer playing on a clay court again. On the other hand, on a grass court it is hard to see Nadal being a real force again in his career. The fast court surface and uncertain bounces would give Federer a major advantage over him should they meet again at Wimbledon or elsewhere on the grass. It is on hard courts that their rivalry will continue to be decided, and it is on hard courts where Nadal must seek to reassert his dominance.
Nadal is clearly aware that his old patterns of play will not work against Federer now. But as one could see in Shanghai he does not seem to have figured out an alternative. But the solution is a weapon that is already in Nadal’s armoury, the forehand down the line. On a hard court it is a crucial shot for the Spaniard, but it is one he appeared afraid to use against Federer in Shanghai. If Nadal is willing to go down the line with forehand early in the point he will be able to exploit the open space that Federer often leaves by leaning slightly to his backhand side. It would also give him the element of surprise with Federer so used to having his backhand targeted. Have the courage to attack first where Federer is strongest, and the rewards for Nadal could be significant indeed.
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