For me, a lifelong sports fan, it is a unique joy to watch Roger Federer play tennis. He is so good, commanding and versatile that, often, he can defeat most of his opponents when one part of his game is "off."
Except when he plays against Rafael Nadal, his nemesis.
Nadal, at the moment, appears to have Federer's number - both physically, on the court, and, psychologically. Of course, Nadal has strengthened and perfected his game at such a frightening speed that he is now the top-ranked player in the world at 22. Yet, still, even with Nadal playing more consistently in the past year, the two stars seem close enough in talent to create suspense and uncertainty any time they meet.
So, if that's true, why has Nadal beaten Federer in five of the seven times they've met in Grand Slam events - and, 13 of their 19 total matches? Why did Nadal win yesterday's 2009 Australian Open finals - even though, coming in - Federer was playing very well and Nadal had endured an exhausting, five-set semi-final? And, why did Federer, after appearing to have "momentum" at the end of the fourth set, seem to "lose it" and play worse in the fifth set? This intrigues me and I can only hope they keep meeting in tournament finals so I can analyze it more
Here are my "ten points" on why yesterday's final turned out as it did:
1) Federer's first serve - in a baffling, extraordinary twist - was really bad for much of the match. He rarely got it in. As a result, he rarely was in his normal, powerful "flow" when he hits winners off his great serve. Instead, Nadal often made Federer work hard just to win many of his service games -- a truly unusual and damaging aspect of the match.
2) Nadal had a great game plan - to hit it virtually non-stop to Federer's backhand - keeping Federer from using his strong forehand nearly as much. Sometimes, I think Nadal's success at this simple, precise part of their matchup is why he beats Federer so often. When Federer plays everyone else, he finds a way to run around his backhand a lot more. Nadal is too good with his precise placement to allow Federer to do that.
3) Relatedly, Nadal was able - for much of the match - to run Federer all over the court. He kept Federer on the defensive - often because he gained an edge from belting some of Federer's "average" backhand returns.
4) Federer, in contrast, seemed to have no game plan. Often, he hit his returns too near the center of the court. Often, he was unable to pounce on Nadal's average second serves. If Federer wants to start beating Nadal, it's fairly clear now, that his strategy has not worked. He cannot outrally Nadal - No player can.
5) A part of Federer's strategy, in the future, must be to try to hit more winners. His best moments yesterday came when he went for broke and hit winners. I, for one, think the only way to beat Nadal is to hit many winners - the way Verdasco did vs. Nadal in their great semi-final match. Why does Federer play so cautiously against Nadal? Why does he seem to think he can get away with shots down the middle of the court? It's as if Federer has a bit of "denial" about how good Nadal has become OR that he's trying to prove he can beat Nadal at his (Nadal's) own game.
6) I believe - as others have noted - that Federer has become so accustomed to having an advantage over his opponents - and playing that way - that he is unaccustomed to know how to defeat someone at his same level talentwise. Federer can often dominate with his serve and win matches while outrallying his inferior opponents. Nadal doesn't lose rallies or make unforced errors and Federer, stubbornly, has failed to acknowledge this by significantly changing his strategy. Federer is a terrific "frontrunner," often winning after he gets a lead. He's not used to going toe-to-toe with an opponent like Nadal. But, he HAS to change to beat Nadal - period.
7) Federer, in several parts of the match, seemed to "tighten up," and be "thinking too much" on the court. He seemed to be psyching himself out. This was particularly true in the fifth set, when Federer made a variety of unforced errors and seemed to "hand" the set to Nadal. How could that happen so abruptly? Maybe part it is simply that Federer felt pressure and knew Nadal was unlikekly to make mistakes - so, it was all on him. I think there is more to it. I think that despite the score being even - going into the fifth set - that Federer had become "worn down" by Nadal. He hadn't won any easy points. Nadal kept forcing him to hit backhands - and he couldn't hit his backhand flawlessly for five sets. (I think he was sick of hitting his backhand - That Nadal's relentless barrage of high topspin shots into his backhand had driven him a bit crazy) So, when Federer "lost it," it was partly that he had already been forced to play "uphill" for much of the match --- without his first serve and without his forehand.
8) It's time for Federer to ADJUST - finally to the reality that Nadal, right now, is outplaying him every time - and, is the best in the world. Federer has to try new approaches and take new risks. The most obvious challenge: He has to figure out how he can hit more forehands against Nadal -- Perhaps he has to run around his backhand on Nadal's second serve or go to the net once in a while.
9) Federer reminds me of Pedro Martinez when he was on the Red Sox. When Pedro was just past his prime - but still great - he'd often have to "ad-lib" more on the pitcher's mound. He'd find ways to win when he didn't have all his pitches. He was so good, that, often, he still won his share of important games. However, when Pedro stubbornly refused to adjust -and, for instance, kept trying to get his diminishing fastball by good hitters, he would fail - and act a bit surprised. Federer, like Pedro, must adjust to the new realities of what his nemisis, Nadal, brings - and how to use his skills to win by using a bit more creativity.
10) Nadal has improved his game faster (and at a younger age) than any player I've ever seen. He's transformed his backhand from an average stroke to a lethal weapon. (He flicked incredible backhand winners throughout yesterday's match). If Nadal stays healthy and keeps improving, he may go down as what Federer had hoped to -- the best player in the history of tennis. Indeed, if Federer has been like "Superman," it seems he has met the one opponent who affects him like Kryptonite. Will Superman become "super" again? It's intriguing to wonder.