The Shanghai Masters will play host to the 38th edition of the ‘Fedal’ rivalry as world #1 Rafael Nadal meets world #2 Roger Federer in the final. Nadal will be looking to add to his trophy cabinet having never won in Shanghai before and further tighten his grip on the world #1 ranking. For Federer, meanwhile, time is running out to overhaul the Spaniard in his quest to finish as the year-end #1. If he manages to do so then he will equal Pete Sampras’ record of six year-end top spots. But which man will triumph?
The rivalry, one of the greatest of all time, began 13 years ago in the heat of Miami in the round of 32. A then teenage Nadal entered the match as a good prospect for the future but was not expected to seriously trouble Federer. The Swiss was already a two-time Grand Slam champion and the world #1. But it was Nadal who pulled off the shock win, coming through 6-3 6-3. Federer had his revenge a year later in Miami but had to rally from two sets down against the Spaniard to do so. Nadal then took decisive control of their head to head, beginning a run of five straight victories at Roland Garros in the semifinals in 2005. He continued to dominate the head-to-head, with Federer holding him off on the grass and generally losing elsewhere.
Heading into their famous 2008 Wimbledon final Nadal had an 11-6 lead in their head-to-head, which included a destruction of Federer in the 2008 French Open final. Nadal backed up that win with a thrilling five-set victory over Federer to complete the Channel Slam. That win marked a change in the rivalry. Whilst Nadal remained supreme on clay, Federer having beaten the Spaniard on the surface just twice, Nadal proved able to defeat Federer on every surface, although he has struggles indoors. Indeed, coming into 2017 Nadal was utterly dominant in a rivalry that though looked upon fondly seemed to have faded in relevance. But it burst back into the spotlight at the Australian Open where they contested the final. Federer won that match in five sets before backing it up with wins in Indian Wells.Indeed, coming into 2017 Nadal was utterly dominant in a rivalry that though looked upon fondly seemed to have faded in relevance. But it burst back into the spotlight at the Australian Open where they contested the final. Federer won that match in five sets before backing it up with wins in Indian Wells.
But with Nadal and Federer back at the top of the game, who will come out on top in Shanghai?
Nadal’s path to the finals
Nadal began his Shanghai Masters in the second round after receiving a bye in the first as the top seed. He opened against America’s Jared Donaldson who he outclassed 6-2 6-1. He next faced old foe Fabio Fognini who has troubled him in the past, notably upsetting him at the US Open in 2015. But in Shanghai Nadal crushed the Italian, dropping just four games in a 6-3 6-1 win. His next opponent marked a significant step up in quality. It was Grigor Dimitrov, who recently extended Nadal to three sets in Beijing, and the Bulgarian did the same again in Shanghai. Indeed, when Dimitrov levelled the match in a second set tiebreaker the momentum was with him and he nearly capitalised on it, forcing break points midway through the decider. But Nadal held firm, breaking himself instead and saw out a hard-fought 6-4 6-7 6-3 win.
That earned him a spot in the last four where he met world #5 Marin Cilic. Cilic could have secured his place at the season-ending World Tour Finals with the title in Shanghai and he came out swinging. After resisting some early Nadal pressure, he forced two set points up 5-4 with a huge forehand down the line. But Nadal didn’t it make to world #1 by bending under pressure, and he held off both and then one more to hold serve. Somewhat unsurprisingly he backed that up with a break of his own and held serve to take the set. Nadal then broke early in the second, but Cilic fought his way back into contention. Nadal broke Cilic again at 4-4 to serve for the match but the Croatian rescued himself again. He limped into a tiebreak, but there, at last, his resistance was decisively broken as Nadal won through.
Federer’s path to the final
Federer, seeded second, also enjoyed a first-round bye and began against Diego Schwartzman in the second. Schwartzman battled hard as he always does, and though he rarely looked capable of beating Federer he prevented the match from becoming a procession. Eventually though, the Swiss’ quality told and he completed a 7-6 6-4 victory. He backed that up with straight sets victories over Dolgopolov and Gasquet to reach the semifinals. Whilst Dolgopolov was brushed aside by Federer, Gasquet worked the Swiss hard in their match. In the semifinals, he faced Juan Martin del Potro who recently defeated him in New York at the US Open. The Argentine’s participation was in doubt after an awkward fall against Troicki in the quarterfinals. But he began well, holding off early Federer pressure. He then capitalised on a loose Federer service game to break through decisively and sealed the first set shortly afterwards.
But Federer wasn’t ready to leave Shanghai early. He began to press again, and del Potro’s attacking potency faded somewhat. A 14-minute-long del Potro service game in the second set was crucial, and when Federer broke through he did not look back. The second set swiftly followed, and Federer forced another break early in the decider. Del Potro continued to resist as best he could, but the brute power that had taken him to the first set was spent. Federer broke again at 5-3 to seal his spot in the final.
How do they match up?
For most of their rivalry, their match up was dominated by Federer’s inability to protect his backhand against Nadal’s driven topspin forehands. The Spaniard broke Federer down time and time again by resorting to that simple tactic. But Federer’s switch to a larger racquet frame and the coaching advice of Ivan Ljubicic seem to have given him increased confidence to drive through that backhand. He has seen the rewards of it three times already this year, particularly in Indian Wells and Miami where Nadal could not lay a glove on him.
But Nadal is playing better on hard courts than he was earlier in the year. His forehand was short of much of its potency then, particularly up the line. That shot is the key for Nadal on a hard court. Whilst on clay he is capable of grinding down opponents in gruelling cross court battles, on a hard court against the best that does not work for the Spaniard. Djokovic in particular, but others as well, have shown that if they are willing to go down the line early in rallies there is a path to victory against the Spaniard. By taking that option out of their hands with his own forehand Nadal strengthens his position immeasurably.
How well Federer serves will also be important. Against del Potro, his famed delivery was lacking somewhat, and he will have to hit it better against Nadal. It is crucial that the Swiss is able to get the upper hand early on in as many rallies as possible and the serve is the best route to do this. Targeting Nadal’s forehand is likely the best way to achieve this, as it can break down on the return due to the Spaniard’s typically thin contact point.
Federer may have had the best of it earlier in the year. But this tournament has seen Nadal playing better than his old rival. He also has the added confidence of title runs in New York and Beijing to draw upon. As a result, expect Nadal to strengthen his hold on the top spot and win a three set Shanghai battle.
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