Australian OpenGrand SlamsRoger Federer

Federer falters against Nadal

It's always tough writing a post after Roger loses in a slam, and this one is no different. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 3 days then you'll know that Nadal beat Federer in 4 sets to make the final – 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4.

It's been 3 years since these 2 last met in Australia, Nadal triumphant in that match, winning the title in an epic 5 sets. A lot of Federer fans thought Roger was going to reverse the result of that match on Thursday, and after watching him breeze through a tough 4th round and Quarter final with ease – it certainly looked possible. But as we all know, playing well in previous rounds often has no bearing on what can happen on any given day, and this semi final was no different.

In terms of how the match panned out, it pretty much followed the exact blueprint of every Fedal Grand Slam match. You could probably overlay their matches on a screen and they'd be practically identical. Roger, once again got out of the blocks fast, and played strong attacking tennis. He managed to break early and forge a 4-1 lead. Now against anyone else on tour, you'd think that would easily be enough to take the first set with. But as usual Roger was broken back and Nadal leveled up at 4-4. This no doubt evoked memories of last years French Open final where Federer blew a 5-2 first set lead.

This time around though, Federer managed to take the set in the tie break, 7 points to 5. Fed played pretty good tennis throughout the first set, he stuck to what looked like an effective plan of hitting to the Nadal backhand and not allowing him to get the upper hand in any of the rallies. It was of course disappointing to see Fed get pegged back to 4-4, but to win the tie break must surely have given him a mental boost.

With the wind somewhat in his sails, Roger broke Nadal in the opening service game of the second set, it was the perfect start. I knew winning the first set for Federer was key, but it was also key he won the second set, because from there on I knew he would be able to put the match to bed. As everyone in the tennis world says, a break is not a break until it's consolidated, and on Thursday night this was something Roger failed to do. Nadal broke back, and then pulled away as Roger seemed to lose all focus and all clarity of thought. He lost the set 6-2. From there, I knew he faced an uphill task.

I'm not going to cover the final 2 sets in depth, as the analysis is a simple one; Nadal won more big points than Roger. Roger had many chances, but failed to take them when they presented themselves. The one thing you must do when playing Nadal is take your chances, he plays break points with such high intensity, you have to keep your head, not rush points, not play too defensive. In other words, you have to play a somewhat near peRFect point. If you don't, then these chances pass you by, and before you know it, you're down break points yourself.

Roger has had huge success playing his brand of tennis across the world for the last 10 years, yet when he plays Nadal, his forehands keep coming back over the net, Nadal threads the eye of a needle to pass him up the line when he's played a near perfect approach shot. This breaks Roger down, it makes him doubt himself, makes him go for more and ultimately makes him play the wrong shot, or even worse, make bad bad errors. In fact, I think it makes Roger think too much, rather than playing his instinctive best, he thinks about the end result -“if I play shot a.) he might be able to “insert shot here”. By the time your brain has processed these negative thoughts, you are rushed, and ultimately make the wrong decision.

A prime example of this was in the 4th set where Nadal was serving for the match at 5-4. Roger fashioned himself a break point after taking some chances and coming out on top. This time he constructed what looked like the perfect point, he creamed a forehand down the line that Nadal could only just get a racket to and play a defensive lob. The ball hung in the air for what seemed an eternity, it dropped down and found the line. Roger, somewhat stunned, played a sliced smash that curled miles wide. His chance was gone. The approach shot would have won Fed the point 9 times out 10, but when Nadal got it back in play, Roger folded. It's like he was in disbelief, and rather than focus and play an instinctive flat smash, he played a sliced smash and missed it.

I think it's tough for Roger to believe this can happen, if this style of tennis has been good enough to beat everyone that's ever been put in front of him – then surely it should be enough to see off Nadal. Except, when Roger isn't at his very best, and the surface isn't totally favorable – it isn't. We saw at the World Tour finals what can happen when Roger plays to his best – he destroyed Nadal in straight sets. He started the Semi Final in similar style, but when his level dropped, Nadal had weathered the storm and used all his defensive qualities to hustle point after point.

Federer deep in thought

It's easy, as a Federer fan to criticise Nadal, anyone who reads this blog will know I don't have much time for him. Mainly due to his false humbleness, but after watching this match – I cannot take anything away from his match play. Whilst perhaps not most attractive player to watch, whenever he plays Federer he is able to up his level considerably. His defense is world class, his passing shots from stupid angles are unbelievable, so for that, he deserves a great deal of credit. He is able to do to Federer consistently what nobody ever before him has managed.

Whilst I accept that on the day, Nadal was the better player, I disagree with most that say tactics were irrelevant here – at the start of the match Roger stayed away from the Nadal forehand, he targetted the backhand either by hitting inside in, or hitting the backhand down the line. And this tactic worked. As the match wore on, Roger pretty much deserted this tactic, he played the inside out forehand time and time again, he made all his approach shots on the dangerous Nadal forehand side. I struggle to see what made Roger do this, is it stubborness? Is he trying to get too smart and overthinking points? Is it than when he's under pressure he can only revert back to what he knows through muscle memory and playing similar points many many times? Perhaps as fellow tennis/Federer fan Boo Jay pointed out – Roger is only human so is a creature of habit. Whatever it is, slipping into the same pattern of play was one of the reasons this match was lost.

The other reason this match was lost was execution, 63 unforced errors and 5 double faults from Roger's racket head are testament to this. The only reason for this is pressure, and the fact Nadal is in Roger's head in Grand Slam play. Time and time again Roger makes questionable decisions. Nadal comes up with great shots, there is no doubt, but Federer plays too big a part in this. He leaves the door open for Rafa to make these shots, when it should be totally shut. Even on many of the points Roger won – Nadal could have won them if he hadn't made errors. I realised this on Thursday where Federer ended up at the net with Nadal – in a point that should have been won easily – he somehow managed to hit the ball straight into Nadal's path and give him another bite of the cherry – fortunately Nadal didn't hit it clean and Roger won the point. But that type of point summed up the match for me. Roger gives Nadal too many chances to create brilliance. And these moments of brilliance only serve to knock Roger's confidence more and more.

So what happens next? Over the past few days since the defeat I've read a lot of tweets and blogs saying we must accept the Federer and Nadal rivalry for what it is, and accept that Nadal is always going to be able to do to Federer what nobody else can seem to. This basically says to me we should have to accept Roger cannot beat Nadal in a Grand Slam ever again and just be happy with what Roger has achieved and be happy he's still playing on tour.

However, I can't accept that, and that's because I don't think Roger can accept that either. The day he starts thinking along those lines is the day he should retire. Roger should never head into a match and just purely think “this is a great spectacle and a great rivalry, pity it's a bad matchup for me but hey I've had a good career” and for that reason, neither should any of his fans.

Whilst his self doubt is at an all time high against Nadal, I also believe his desire to win is also at an all time high too and that's why I can't accept that Roger and Rafa is just one of those matchups that nothing can be done about. Federer's legacy is undoubtedly set in stone, but for my peace of mind and perhaps his own, I think he has to defeat Nadal in a Grand Slam again. I don't care when or where, but purely for the fact he's the GOAT, I believe he can.

How does he do it? I guess we'll have to wait and find out. But my personal take is that he must approach the overall match with his eyes firmly fixed on winning it, but in what sounds slightly contradictory – he must approach each individual point with indifference. This indifference on each and every point will allow him to play freely and instinctively, and if he's not scared to a lose a point, then I think that removes the one edge that Nadal has over him.


Huge fan of Roger Federer. I watch all his matches from Grand Slam level right down to ATP 250. When I'm not watching or writing about tennis I play regularly myself and have a keen interest in tactics, equipment and technicalties of the sport.

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  1. Nice post Jonathan. I am one of those people who said that I accept that Nadal owns Roger. That doesn’t mean that Roger should accept it. I totally agree with you that if that was his mindset he should retire. I also don’t exclude the possibility that Roger can beat Nadal in a slam again. I just think it’s unlikely and I don’t feel he needs to do so to prove he is the GOAT. As long as Djokovic keeps owning Nadal then it doesn’t matter, but that is leaving his fate up to someone else. So in the end you are right. He should obviously keep trying to get that illusive slam win over Nadal. But if it doesn’t happen it wouldn’t necessarily mean he isn’t the GOAT. As long as he wins more slams than Nadal he would be the GOAT. He has so many other records that Nadal doesn’t have.

    1. Thanks for the comment man.

      I don’t think he has to beat Nadal to prove he is the GOAT either, it’s not even close. However I think he wants to prove it to himself to put his mind at ease.

      Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. I just hope he can.

  2. Great Post, I think if Federer would have stuck to attacking Nadal’s backhand and kept sending Nadal out wide to open up the court he would have won. I believe that Roger will have to work really hard to stick with this plan in order to defeat Nadal. Nadal didn’t win, Roger lost. Rafa’s game is specifically tailored to wear down Federer and attack any weakness he may have.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you’re definitely right on attacking Nadal’s backhand, it was a good tactic but he just failed to keep it up. Still not sure why.

      I think it’s abit harsh to say Nadal didn’t win and Roger lost it though, because I never really felt he had the match within touching distance. In the 2009 final I thought he definitely threw that one away. But here it was different, he had a lot of chances, but never really got in front after the first set. It was probably closer than a 4 set match, but Nadal was too consistent as usual and deserved to get through.

      The only positive for me was that Roger could have broken in at 4-5 in the 4th set, just a shame he missed the overhead. But he should have made it. Maybe if a few points went another way he may have won, but he lacked the fortitude to make them.

  3. I think your comments were “right on” as well. Rafa came out of the blocks for the “kill”. Every ball he hit was for a “winner”, which isn’t unusual for him but this time he made less errors. It wasn’t the “force” of the ball as Roger had proved himself already against some huge guys with big serves.Something happened late in the 2nd set and things got worse as it went on. I could see him drop “f” bomb to himself which I have never seen him say; nor have I ever seen the mumbling he was doing to himself as he was making so many unforced errors and double faults .It was 4 & 5 a.m. for me and I could physically feel his emotions and really it was over as he lost complete focus. So sad…where did Roger go? Seemed that Rafa’s delays on his serves, going to the towel too much, stopping for the fireworks, all upset his normal composed, cool self. Why? Was it because he could “feel” Rafa’s determination to get back at him for his beat down in London? We’ll never know.
    I looked up the meaning of “fortitude” your used because I wanted to see how it compared to lack of confidence. Fortitude: Strength, Firmness of Mind, Resolute Endurance & Courage. Wow, you really hit the nail on the head with that comment!
    As someone who used to compete, I know how much tennis is a “head” game and Roger’s mind must have run amuck (“to lose self control”). His pressure: we are all believing and hoping he can take this tournament, the unbelieving commentators have now changed their minds and finally believe he can and probably will win the Open, his twins are sitting up in the stands with their nanny watching dad, the world is watching and it’s his friend and nemesis, Rafa he’s playing! Whew.
    We believe he is still the GOAT and always will be. Rafa’s style of play will never hold up over the years, physically, as Roger’s style has.Whether he ever beats Rafa again (and I think he will), does not deter one bit from his brilliance. Roger, we all feel your pain and it’s ok. You are human!

    1. Hey Kathleen,

      Thanks for the great comment!

      I agree, Nadal can’t really overpower Federer with his ground strokes, he just breaks him down mentally. I didn’t see him start swearing to himself, but that can never be a good thing. Very Murray-esque and look where that gets him.

      Everything about Nadal from his game style to his mannerisms is a bad match up for Roger, so he has to overcome those barriers to beat him. I’m not sure it’s the external pressure that gets to Roger, just the pressure Nadal exerts on his groundstrokes – making him play 1 more ball.

      I’m glad you think he’ll beat Nadal again in a slam though, I do too.

      On the plus side – I hope that if Roger ever wants to deck out his wine cellar then he comes to you, they look awesome!

  4. Thanks for letting me post my thoughts! You & I are of the same mind re Roger. Don’t understand today why there were no coaches allowed at the fireworks break when they could have during the closing of the roof @ final; neither situation was player’s decision & Annacone could have helped Roger as he fell apart right after that! Comments by Rafa that prior week about his “friend” didn’t help either.
    Hey, you read my mind on the wine cellar; Roger needs a cellar @ his new home being built in the Alps by one of his biggest fans, just don’t know how to contact his builder or him! Any ideas?

    1. No worries, my blog is always open to guest posts should any Fed fans want to write something. Or any tennis fans for that matter.

      I didn’t realise coaching happened when the roof closed. But for Roger’s match I doubt it would have made a difference. There was that rain delay in the French Open final last year where they went off, and him and Annacone were in the locker room – but that made no difference. All preparation has to be done before I think.

      Haha if I had a path of contact I’d be using it for my own advantage. I guess the only thing you can do is try! Email a few photos to his website and see what happens. Tweet Annacone and tell him to show it to RF.

  5. watching the match live, I could not believe how many unforced errors Roger hit. 60 off his racquet in only 4 sets, his forehand was a failure that match, his serve wasn’t that bad, and his backhand was, again, feeble.

    1. Very true mate. I guess errors are always going to come off his forehand as he really does have to push it. But 63 is a crazy number, and many of them were very uncharacteristic. ALl down to the matchup, Nadal exploits Roger’s mental game, and his backhand. That will never change, it’s just up to Roger to strengthen in both those areas and then he will surely come out on top.

  6. I think you’re right that it’s startlingly odd that Fed has such a lopsided record against Rafa at Grand Slams. I’m also in the camp that thinks that Fed still has it in him to defeat Rafa at a Grand Slam.

    Nevertheless, I also think there are adjustments he needs to make. If the Rafa-Novak final was any indication, it shows that the “new wave” of tennis requires a heavy commitment to fitness and physicality. While Fed definitely has these assets in droves, he may have to “up” this aspect of his game while finding new methods to defeat Rafa. I don’t pretend to know everything about what he should do better, but he definitely needs to work on timing his forehand attacks so that they achieve the intended effect. Fed seemed to net a lot of his forehands in his loss to Rafa.

    As a tennis fan, one thing on my tennis-wishlist is for Fed and Rafa to have one epic battle in a Grand Slam final. I would like each player to push the other to the absolute limit again…

    1. I know is it like 8-2 now in Rafas favour? Crazy.

      For sure, his forehand made way too many errors in the semi’s. He has to red line it to an extent, but many of the errors were off half court balls. The physicality of the game is crazy now, but thats kinda due to the court speeds and racket/string technology. I much prefer watching an all court attacking game.

  7. It’s just so disappointing. I bet Roger is even more gutted about this whole situation. Fortunately, the Djock has come to add an added dimension to all of this.

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