Their story last year and into 2018 had become almost as compelling as the double-headed dominance that their rivalry built through much of this century’s first 10 years. Between 2004 and 2010, they won 24 of the 28 Majors, and between early 2004 and mid 2011, they owned the No1 ranking—indeed for 99 percent of that time, they held both No1 and No2 between them.
Yet 2016 found both suffering from injuries, both barely scratching the surface in terms of titles and finals.
Federer, after the Australian Open, underwent career-first surgery at the age of 34 to repair his knee. He played only five more tournaments before disappearing from the tour for over six months.
Nadal played no grass season, and then only four matches after the US Open following persistent wrist problems. Their greatest rivals, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, put clear water between them to hold the top ranking spots. However, in the space of six months or so, the roles were reversed again. With Murray and Djokovic hit by hip and elbow injuries respectively, Nadal and Federer elbowed out any young pretenders to grab the silverware and top the ranks again.
2017 set the stage right at the start: a first Major meeting in three years; a first Major final in almost six years; a first five-set thriller since their back-to-back matches in the final of Wimbledon 2008, and at the 2009 Australian Open final. And it would be Federer’s first Major win over Nadal since the previous five-setter in the 2007 Wimbledon final.
Nadal rose from No9 to No1 by August. Federer would come back from No17 to No2 by September. And they have held the top two places ever since, this year adding two of the three Majors, and eight titles from 11 finals.
So even though both took long stretches out of the schedule this year—Nadal between Australia and the clay season, Federer for the entire clay swing—come the US Open, it was actually possible for the duo to leave New York still at No1 and 2 despite the return of Djokovic to the top table at Wimbledon and then Cincinnati.
Federer needed to reach Round 3 to stave off Juan Martin del Potro and Alexander Zverev—and should he win the title and Nadal fail to make the semis, he would regain the No1 ranking. But while the first target was achieved, the latter came unstuck on two hot nights in New York.
Both men encountered exhausting challenges that extended past midnight, but while Nadal’s 2am conclusion was a spectacular triumph of physical and mental strength over a man ranked in the top 10, Dominic Thiem, Federer’s was an uncomfortable, unexpected exit from the tournament against one of only two men ranked outside the top 50 to beat him in a Major since 2003, John Millman.
It was not, though, the calibre of Millman that came as a surprise. The Australian has overcome multiple injury setbacks including shoulder surgery in 2013 and groin surgery last year, and garnered great respect and affection from fans and fellow players for his good humour and work ethic. He started the year ranked 128, reverted to the Challenger circuit with great success, and made his first main-tour final in Budapest only this March.
Federer was the first to understand the 55-ranked Aussie’s qualities. They had spent a training block together in Switzerland in June: “We had a great few days, a good time together… I love his intensity… He’s got a positive demeanour on and off the court.”
No, the surprise was in the tennis of Federer. It is rare to see him pour sweat as he poured it on Monday night. It is rare to see him going for energy-saving tactics in the early stages of a match, and many of his drop shots fell short of the mark. It is rare that he struggles to get an easy ride on his first serve.
Federer put only 45 percent into the box in the first set, but still broke a nervy Millman, 6-3. However, with the humidity approaching 80 percent and the temperature still touching the mid-30s at 11pm, the Swiss lacked the zip that had thrilled fans and pundits alike against the more-highly-feared Nick Kyrgios.
The cool Swiss looked hot and heavy-legged, and the errors were leaking from his racket. Serving for the second set, he failed to seal a 40-15 advantage, and was punished, broken twice, and lost the set, 7-5. His serving was now down to 31 percent.
The third set saw better serving, and marginally fewer errors than the 22 of the previous set, and he had a set point in the tie-breaker, but failed to convert. Meanwhile, Millman took care of his side of things, playing clean, making few errors—only four in that third set—and going for his points.
So to the denouement, and a break by Federer countered by a break back. As a drained, sweat-saturated Federer cranked up 77 errors to Millman’s 28, the Aussie swept through the tie-break, 7-6(3).
Federer admitted: “I thought it was very hot tonight. Was just one of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all. For some reason, I just struggled in the conditions… At some point I was just happy the match was over.”
Now it was, at close to 1am, though he did not make it to press for another hour. According to ESPN reporter and former player, Mary Joe Fernandez, Federer was in such poor shape, “He didn’t make it to the locker room, but went to the holding area to the right of the entrance. He was checked out by medical staff and had to lay down to catch his breath.”
And so to last night, and another hot and humid early-hours affair for Nadal that, in the first 30 minutes, suggested another upset. Nadal made just three winners to Thiem’s 13, nine errors to the Austrian’s two. The Spaniard was bageled.
But it was a misleading overture to what ATPWorldTour.com went on to describe thus:
“Epic. That’s the only way to describe three-time champion Nadal’s 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5) quarter-final victory against over No9 seed Thiem, a four-hour, 49-minute marathon that ended at 2:04am.”
Thiem was outstanding, going after his shots, acing 18 times, and matching the super-athlete on the other side of the net with an average of 13 metres per point—and there 337 of them.
Indeed Thiem won five more points than Nadal, but the defending champion was up to his opponent and the conditions. He stayed mentally resolute, too, after failing to break Thiem at 5-5 in the third, when offered up 0-40. But if there is one aspect of Nadal’s tennis that is the equal of his physical resilience, it is his mental resolve, and he will need both qualities now.
Nadal will most likely face the same two men he faced in his last two matches at Wimbledon. In the semis will be del Potro, who took Nadal via four hours 48 minutes to five sets in the quarters in London, followed by, in all likelihood, Djokovic, who beat Nadal in five and a quarter hours in the semis. But already, Nadal is assured of the No1 ranking for a while yet, unlike Federer.
The Swiss has more titles to defend in the coming two months, but so far in 2018, New York has been just the latest sign that the Swiss man’s superlative form of 2017 is proving hard to maintain as the physical and mental toil of two decades in this increasingly demanding sport begins to bite harder.
He seemed to run out of steam in the closing stages of his Indian Wells final against del Potro—maybe not surprising after winning the Hopman Cup, Australian Open and Rotterdam titles.
Then he did not convert vital set points against Borna Coric in Halle, losing the final in three, and he led by two sets and a match point before losing in five to Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon. A brutal, rain-disrupted schedule in Cincinnati did him no favours, but he never looked like beating Djokovic in the final.
It should be no surprise that the mighty Swiss, who turned 37 last month, seems to have lost a fraction of his foot speed as this season marched on, but frustrating losses can steal a fragment of confidence too.
His match against Kyrgios proved that, when fresh in mind and body, he plays with the same flair, focus, and explosion that he always has. But with a career of almost 1,500 matches, 98 titles, and 310 weeks at No1, with four young children, with the rounds of interviews and press conferences in multiple languages—plus the constant ‘retirement’ question, posed at least three times in New York—fatigue will take many forms.
And 80 percent humidity at midnight, even under the lights of Flushing Meadows’ famous giant stage, is sometimes one step too far.
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