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I hardly know where to start with the Federer – Nadal final. The beautiful spirit of both players in their respect for each other, their teams, the sponsors, and the game, or the superlative tennis itself. Let’s start with the tennis and do a separate post on the personal aspects.
The crucial aspects that interested me were the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies of both players. In the distant past, Nadal had made a good living spinning in his first serve to Federer’s weaker backhand, getting a chipped return, running around it to hit a forehand, and putting Federer on the trolley for a bit of unproductive roadwork. Federer, meanwhile, stayed in, somewhat, with his fleetness of foot, first serve and forehand. It was a particularly bad situation for Federer when Nadal served to the backhand court. Here the wide slice took Federer off the court, and the sliced return allowed Nadal to hit forehands into the open court for winners or wrong-foot Federer to start a forehand to backhand rally in which Nadal had a huge advantage.
But in the last few years Federer has been improving his backhand topspin. It is hit with a bit of topspin, but relatively flat and hard, and though slightly unstable, it was the crucial aspect of this victory. In this match (and throughout the tournament) Federer rarely chipped his backhand. And he hit it aggressively enough to win points outright or set up situations where he could bring his forehand into play in less than desperate situations. Fortunately for Federer, he is now a more complete player than in his younger days, though unfortunately for Federer, he is also an older one and not as able to defend by just running balls down while waiting for an opportunity to hit forehands. Now he can get control of points with his topspin backhand, which saves him a lot of running, though he did plenty of it anyway.
Another tactical point is with their respective serving advantages. Both had advantages serving wide with their slice serves, Federer to the deuce court and Nadal to the ad court. In either case, the receiver was pulled off the court, had a lot of ground to cover to recover, and, therefore, had to hit a severe serve return in order to avoid getting blown out immediately. Each would have to do it with backhand returns, and Federer was somewhat disadvantaged, having historically had a weaker backhand return. On the other hand, Nadal was hindered by returning from such a deep position that he could be pulled even wider than Fed or Fed could serve-volley him. A second disadvantage for Federer was that Nadal’s serving advantage occurred in the ad court, where most of the important points were played. In any case, Federer now returned serves with backhand drives instead of chips, and in the end, this saved him.
But Federer isn’t the only player who has improved his game over the last years. Nadal has also. He has added pace to his serve and is now able to hit aces to the forehand side instead of just spinning the ball in to the backhand. In addition, he can now hit very aggressive flat backhands crosscourt, which makes it dangerous for opponents to hit backhands up the line. And finally, he is now one of the best volleyers on the tour and will come in whenever he gets a chance off of short balls.
No need to spend time on the quality of play. I’ve never seen better. And the dogged competitiveness of the players was extraordinary. Federer came out of the box firing on all cylinders with quick-strike tennis and blew through the first set. His first serve was getting in consistently, providing him with free points or short returns, and this allowed him get immediately on the offence and play short, successful points.
In the second set, however, he started missing his first serve, shanking a few forehands, and Nadal got on top quickly. But Federer didn’t let the set go, made a bit of a fight of it, lost it anyway, showed no signs of discouragement, bounced back, and made short work of the third. The fourth set, which I didn’t see, went to Nadal, setting up the incredibly dramatic fifth.
Here Federer, missing first serves, lost his opening serve. But he was immediately on top of Nadal’s serve and, after having opportunities to break back, lost a heartbreaking game. I was afraid of a Federer collapse, but it didn’t happen, and he held serve handily. Again he had Nadal down on serve (15-40, I believe), and again Nadal fought back to deuce with an ace and groundstroke winner. Unbowed, Federer fought his way to more break points, and each time Nadal came up with the goods – an ace down the center or a short return and winner forehand. There was a bit of choking going on but no wavering of purpose. (Examples: Nadal got an ad and immediately missed a forehand; or Federer shanked serve returns or returned timidly short or down the center.) Nadal finally held for 3-1.
Old, maybe slightly injured, and probably tiring, Federer would have seemed to be on his way to the showers. But he wasn’t. He held serve easily and was immediately on top of Nadal’s serve for a third time. Again Nadal fought his way back to deuce, and again Fed was undeterred and able to get more ads. But this time he was finally successful and broke back to even the score at 3-3. After a quick hold Federer, for the fourth time in a row, got ahead on Nadal’s serve, this time 0-40. And for the fourth time, Nadal pulled back to deuce. The game see-sawed with both players alternately playing great points, until Federer finally got one more ad and hit an incredible backhand crosscourt serve return winner to go ahead 5-3 and serve for the match.
What pressure – four more points for the Championship. Of course the pressure got to Fed’s first serve and it went away again. He tried a serve-volley and got stung by a Nadal backhand return. Soon he was down 15-40, Nadal was pumped, and it looked like they would be back on serve. But Fed climbed back to deuce with an ace down the center and a forehand winner. A missed serve return gave Fed his first match point. He again missed a first serve (Nervous? Who wouldn’t be.) Nadal deuced it. But Federer’s first serve returned. (There is a general tendency, after one gets tight on a couple of big points, loses them but doesn’t get rattled, to finally loosen up under pressure and come through.) A couple of good serves, a final forehand winner that clipped the line, and the miracle was complete.
Federer had defeated his nemesis, in spite of being five years his senior, not having played a tournament for six months, and having to fight off the memories of those many past matches with where Nadal, in the closing seconds, came up with miracle shots to beat him. I believe this settles, at least for the moment, the question of who is the best player of all time!