It seems to be the opinion of most that Roger Federer will win the race to become the top-ranked player at the end of 2017. That race began, in earnest, after he raised his eighth Wimbledon trophy. With the rest of the year taking place on fast and indoor hard courts, it’s difficult to see Federer losing this particular sprint for the line. Although Rafael Nadal may currently sit atop the pile, there’s no escaping the fact that the Swiss is more accomplished on those surfaces.
Nadal’s hard court woes
Nadal’s early exit from Montreal was a disappointing one for the Spaniard, for a number of reasons. He’s referred to it as his ‘worst loss of the year’, losing to a player 13 years his junior and ranked outside the top 100. He may have claimed the top ranking by default after Federer’s withdrawal from Cincinnati but the Toronto loss will still surely trouble Nadal.
Perhaps the worst thing about this defeat from his perspective is that it came at the last tournament he’ll feel truly comfortable in for the rest of the year, considering the schedule list for the close of the season. The high-bouncing, often sun-soaked courts of Canada will now be replaced exclusively by quick North American, and indoor European acrylic surfaces. Many feel his relative unease on these courts when set against Federer’s sure-footedness is cause enough to write him off. Is it that simple?
Claiming Nadal is a poor indoor hard-court player is like saying Federer is no good on clay. Neither statement seems to sit well. The Spaniard has made multiple World Tour Finals title matches, beating the likes of the Swiss and Novak Djokovic along the way. Federer has made five French Open finals in his time and won the title in 2009 against Robin Soderling, who had beaten Nadal that year. The problem for both is that they happen to be playing at a time when some of the best players ever on each respective surface have been busy making history.
Does Federer finally have the mental edge?
In the past, I’ve been reluctant to indulge in the somewhat romanticised notion that a player’s mental edge could overcome the cold realities of physical conditioning. How could that escape the sobering truth that it’s just a game: you’re either good at hitting a fuzzy yellow ball with a racquet or you’re not. But Federer’s three victories over Nadal in 2017 have acted as something of a three punch combo, forcing me to do away with that hesitance and confirming, for my money, that tennis is, after all, a mind-game.
The first of those wins also happened to be one of the most seminal moments in tennis history. In the title match at the Australian Open 2017, Federer and Nadal enjoyed an absence of doubt. Both were on two entirely unexpected final-runs, each as unprecedented and magnificent as the other. The contest went down to the wire but after five riveting sets, the Swiss smacked a forehand winner past his opponent and was crowned champion. At this moment, the doubt began to form in Nadal’s mind.
Their second match this year was of slightly less significance but just as hotly anticipated. Following their monumental clash Down Under, many were expecting a tussle of equal measure in California. That was not what happened. What did happen was one of Federer’s most convincing wins over his great rival to date. The Spaniard appeared to have brushed off his loss to Federer earlier in the year and reverted to a tried-and-tested gameplan: devastatingly deep and viciously top-spun forehands into the Swiss’ backhand corner. This time these shots came back though, with interest. Federer won 6-2, 6-3 and Nadal’s doubt grew.
The Miami Open was the stage for their third and most recent match. If Federer’s utter drubbing of Nadal a few weeks earlier was a surprise, then the Spaniard’s response in this contest may as well be the shock of the century. He almost completely reversed the pattern of play that’s seen him enjoy so much success over his rival in the past. The loopy, fizzing forehands were swapped out for cleanly-struck and unusually flat backhands. Nadal was attempting to breakdown one of the best shots in the game – Federer’s regal forehand. It didn’t work. The Swiss won 6-3, 6-4 in a much harder-fought match than the one prior, but still a one-sided affair. Nadal’s doubt explodes.
The duel for the top spot
We’ve yet to see what would happen should the duo meet for the fourth time this year. But in what’s shaping up to be a duel between Roger and Rafa for number one, it’s unlikely to be too long before we do. Something tells me Federer is a little more excited for that day than his rival. The last time Nadal was forced to completely change his game to beat a single opponent was all the way back in 2011, when Novak Djokovic began redlining his game and his roar hit fever-pitch. It was seven humbling defeats and an end-to-end gameplan evolution before Rafa finally solved the Serbian puzzle. Even now he still trails that head-to-head 26-24.
A process of similar scale seems to be in order here – but with only three months before the end of the season, things look bleak for the Spaniard. In solely the context of their joint matches, Nadal has gradually accommodated doubt and Federer has slowly, but surely gained confidence. The quick courts will help, but in the mind game that is tennis, that cerebral gulf will be the difference between number one and number one come the end of 2017.
Who do you think will finish the year as number 1? Let us know in the comments below!
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