I started closely following Federer sometime in 2006 or 2007 and that was when he began, coincidentally, to lose - consistently - to Nadal in major tournaments. I think I watched part of one match Fed won against the lefty from Majorca, Spain, but, almost all signs during the past few years have suggested that Nadal had Federer's number. Nadal has always dominated Federer on clay, highlighted by his reign of success at the French Open. Plus, in the past two years, when Rafa's overall game has improved amazingly, he caught up to Federer on hard courts, and, even passed him last year, when he won three of the Grand Slam tournaments, including Wimbledon and the US Open, where Roger had been King for years.
Meanwhile, Federer was getting a bit old to remain in "peak" form. He'd won 16 Slams after the 2010 Australian Open. He'd gotten married and had kids. What more could this uniquely talented player from Switzerland do? It seemed his skills were starting to fade a little bit. He seeemed to hit less "winners." His serve was a bit more erratic. Then, strikingly, in 2009 and 2010, Federer began to lose "big" points in pivotal moments -- points he almost always had won in the past. These lapses seemed due to sporadic loss of his tremendous confidence. In the past year, Federer got knocked out of the French Open and Wimbledon before reaching the seminfinals. (Federer, before his loss at the French, previously had reached at least the semifinals in 23 consecutive Grand Slam events dating back to 2004. Remarkable!)
It had gotten to the point where I said to my brother: "Federer either has to adjust the way he plays against Nadal or he may never beat him....."
I remember saying that more than once, but, especially after watching the 2009 Australian Open, when Nadal kept relentlessly hitting the ball deep to Federer's backhand for the entire match and the strategy was key in his winning in five sets.
Then, in the middle of a difficult 2010 - when, Federer was in his rough stretch, he hired tennis coach Paul Annacone, who had previously coached Pete Sampras. This was a Big Deal, to me, because I'd heard, like other tennis fans, that Federer had preferred not having a coach. It seemed, finally, that Fed realized he had to change a few things to stay on top and compete with Rafa and others.
How did Federer do it on Sunday? What was different about his game vs. Nadal?
Federer was more aggressive, overall. He was trying to end rallies with Nadal earlier than in the past, and, he succeeded, to some degree. In fact, commentators noted the match was moving along quicker than most between the two rivals as a result. One reason: Federer hit more "winners" or tried to unsuccessfully, meaning Rafa had far less opportunities to control the outcome. (Other opponents have used this approach vs. Nadal with at least some success.)
Federer tried to return Nadal's second serve noticeably harder. This was striking from the start. In his first game returning serve, Federer hit his first return hard for three unforced errors, but the intent signaled his change in approach. It was a key, pleasant surprise because, unless one takes those kind of chances vs. Nadal, it can be almost impossible to beat him. Nadal wins most long rallies.
Federer tried to hit more backhand winners - and hit a few at key moments. Federer, in past matches with Rafa, has been pinned back on his backhand side, often on the defensive. In this match, Federer kept Nadal off-balance by hitting more backhands cross-court, including a few beautiful shots for winners.
Federer took advantage of moments when he could volley well at net. It's hard to avoid Nadal's terrific passing shots, but, Federer, by coming to the net more often, kept Nadal a bit more off balance, and, he was able to win a number of points from the net. That hasn't always been true in past matches with these two.
Federer didn't hit as many soft shots back in the middle of the court. In the past, Federer's soft returns down the middle have allowed Nadal to tee off, and belt forehands that ended up getting Federer on the run and on the defensive for the rest of the point. In this match Sunday, Federer appeared more focused on the placement of many shots and forced Nadal to move more. This allowed Fed to be the one to belt the winner off an average Nadal return in what was a role reversal.
Federer kept his confidence high for the whole match. There was one point in the match when Nadal was coming on strong to win the second set, and it seemed Federer was losing confidence and focus. In the past year or two, this often was a dynamic that lingered and caused Federer trouble in matches with Nadal or others. This time, Federer came out for the third set on a mission, and stepped up his game, winning 6-1, a surprising, difficult feat vs. Nadal.
Federer's serve was generally excellent. When it was on, he won, and when it wasn't he lost. For Federer to defeat Nadal at this stage of his career, he must serve well - period. Nadal is simply too good, too inexhaustible for Federer to outlast without that strength of his working. Federer, with a good serve, often can cruise through his service games.
Nadal was a bit off his game, giving Federer a good opportunity to win. Nadal had played a tough, three-set match with Andy Murray the day before, and, in certain moments, appeared to play a bit below his normal standards. Nadal didn't keep running in pursuit of a few apparent winning shots Federer hit - a sight we're all unaccustomed to given that he never seems to stop chasing almost every ball. Perhaps he was a bit fatigued.
Hey, I don't know if Sunday's match really will end up signifying real changes in how Federer plays against Nadal in the future. However, I think it suggests that Federer is trying new approaches with Nadal, and, as a result, he should have a greater chance to win. You see, as much as I love watching Federer, no one can dispute Nadal is the better player now. It's a question of whether Federer can compete with Nadal on a handful more occasions - perhaps in a few Slam events - to give the tennis world a bit more sampling of this incredible rivalry.
I wrote months ago that I thought Federer's "window" for potentially defeating Nadal in a major event was narrowing rapidly. I still believe that. In fact, I think by the end of 2011 or early 2012, Federer's chances will have diminished further. However, now, after seeing him try a few improvements that seem inspired by his new coach, I think Federer might have a chance to beat Nadal one more time. I find that exciting and it exemplifies what I love about sports. Just when you think you can predict the outcome, things change unpredictably.
For Roger Federer, at the end of his career, to find new ways to defeat his greatest nemesis, Rafael Nadal, is an unlikely, but intriguing queest that I'll follow very closely.