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.
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.