September 28, 2023

Open Court


Fedal XXXIII: the song remains the same

MELBOURNE – Chapter 33 of the Roger Federer – Rafael Nadal novella followed a formula that has become far too familiar over the last dozen chapters or so.

First, comes the hope.

The hope that this epic rivalry has a few more standout moments in it. The hope from Federer’s legion of fans that this is the night he’ll turn around its recent one-sided nature.

Then, there’s the pre-match buildup, a nostalgic formula in which ancient history is weighted far more heavily than recent results.

Then, there’s Nadal, always so deferential to his older rival, who insists playing Federer is just about the most difficult thing he has to do in his life.

But then, the two protagonists finally take to the court. And that’s when reality sets in.


Nadal has had Federer’s number for a long time now. And unless he somehow falters on a given night, there’s no reason to think that will change – especially not in a best-of-five set match.

What sealed Federer’s fate in the Australian Open semifinal between the two Friday night was that Nadal’s performance was the antithesis of “faltering”

He was superb, practically perfect in a 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory that only for brief moments seemed less than inevitable.

“I think I am quick today.  I am moving quick.  I am able to come back from a difficult situations, you know.  With great shots of the opponent I am able to keep producing power on the shots.  And produce great shots from very difficult positions,” said Nadal, who doesn’t typically compliment his own play to this extent – especially not after he’s played Federer.

Not that every word he said wasn’t the exact, true, honest truth.

“That’s because the movements are ready and because I feel the power in the legs when I arrive in tough positions, and, sure, the confidence on the shots.  I hit a few passing shots today that if  (you are not) quick and playing with confidence, you cannot hit (those) shots.,” he added.

For nearly a fortnight, there were more symbols of hope than usual in Federer nation.

For one, their man was healthy again after a 2013 marred by back issues not severe enough to take him out, but bad enough to significantly hamper him.

Then, there was the arrival of serve-and-volley legend – and Federer idol – Stefan Edberg to the team.

Oh, so much ink and bandwidth spilled on what the Swede’s mere presence might do – as if somehow, by osmosis, in just one short week, he could work bloody miracles.

Blister-Gate turned out not to be a game-changer, as many had hoped.

Then there was the commitment to the larger racquet frame. Fans and opinionators had the highest hopes for this one because, if indeed it was the difference-maker, their conviction that Federer’s stubborn insistence on sticking with the tiny-headed Wilson was his biggest problem would be confirmed.

There was BlisterGate, and the fact that Nadal had struggled against the consistent Kei Nishikori and the Federer-like Grigor Dimitrov.

Last, and certainly not least, there was Federer’s sterling play during this Australian Open. His emphatic victories over top-10 players Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (which was vintage 2006 Fed) and Andy Murray were yet another reason to hope.

But, as Federer put it succinctly after Friday’s loss, playing Andy Murray has nothing whatsoever in common with playing Rafael Nadal. Absolutely nothing.

“It’s not because of the level necessarily, but it’s just every point is played in a completely different fashion and I have to totally change my game (against Nadal),” Federer said.

There it is, right there.

Nadal grew up formulating a plan to take on the legendary player in whose path he was following. In the beginning, Federer was able to beat him by doing his thing. Now, his thing isn’t good enough and he has to do something different.

That’s a serious challenge; no wonder it’s been such a difficult task.

Friday night, Federer also proved he’s quite capable of shanking a ball even with the more forgiving sweet spot.  So there goes that theory.

Before the match, Federer said new mentor Edberg had a few ideas about what to do against Nadal.

The problem Friday night was that Federer was unable to implement them.

“I mean, I tried a few things, you know. Then again, like I said, I think Rafa does a good job of neutralizing you. The problem was that because I wasn’t getting into enough service games, you’re not going to try out a crazy amount of things on your own service games.  There you need to play tough and aggressive and you just have to be solid,” he said. “So I guess at times I couldn’t quite do what I wanted to do, but that’s because of Rafa.”

The super-aggressiveness Federer displayed earlier in the tournament was absent here. Certainly, tactically, he approached far too much to Nadal’s forehand, and got burned.

But the scarier thought was how many times Federer wrested the baseline rallies to favorable terms –

Edberg had a great career, but he's not a miracle worker.
Edberg had a great career, but he’s not a miracle worker.

his forehand to Nadal’s backhand, not the reverse – and lost those rallies. Nadal’s backhand was spot on in this one, and he was cranking it. Federer’s forehand let him down.

In the end, the match was like so many other recent Federer-Nadal encounters. It starts off close. But then, one misstep, and Nadal takes over. And Federer has to hang onto the ledge by the tips of his fingers.

Those subliminal fears that Federer might actually get embarrassed rarely materialize; he’s too good a player. But in the end, the result is the same.

When Federer writes his tournament report, he will be able to take out a lot of positives.

For one thing, he made a Grand Slam semifinal. For another, he held up well physically.

If he can’t ever beat Nadal again, that’s all right. If that seems like heresy, it’s reality. Few can. The last 12 months of the Spaniard’s career, since his return from the long absence because of his knee, have shown that.

The effect of that one fail on Federer’s permanent legacy, his position as the imaginary and theoretical “greatest of all time”, will no doubt be endlessly debated. But the control of that effect was wrested from his grasp long ago.

If 2014 is indeed the comeback season that Federer expects, it’s certainly acceptable if he, on a given day, can beat anyone ELSE in the world. For a player who turns 33 this summer – even one who set such crazy-high standards during his prime years – that’s pretty good.

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