Australian Open 2014: Blistering Nadal takes down Federer again
Australian Open 2014: Rafael Nadal powers past Roger Federer in straight sets to reach the final in Melbourne
It’s easy to focus on the astonishing records put together by the two pin-ups of men’s tennis, world No1 Rafael Nadal and No6 Roger Federer.
That since Federer won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon 2003, the two have taken 30 of the last 42 Majors and reached 42 finals and 56 semi-finals.
That they top the list of Masters titles with a tally of 47, have between them topped the rankings for 421 weeks—that’s eight years—and for around 300 of those, they filled both top spots.
That Federer, just after turning 30, went on a 12-month tear of nine titles and four finals, reclaiming No1 along the way, while Nadal, absent with injury for seven months, returned a year ago to win 10 titles from 14 finals in the space of 10 months.
That Federer has a record six World Tour Finals titles while Nadal has an unparalleled eight French titles.
It’s easy—and it’s jaw-dropping. But all the facts, figures and stats will never do justice to the synergy that has developed through the 100 sets of tennis they had played on their way to this latest meeting.
Polar opposites in looks, tennis style and personality, they seemed always to demand the best from each other on a tennis court while setting standards off-court that are now taken for granted. Mutual respect—friendship, even—has grown out of one of the most intense rivalries of the age, for while simple numbers show that Nadal’s head-to-head with Novak Djokovic has overtaken ‘Rafa-and-Roger’, it is still the meetings between the handsome and charismatic Swiss-Spanish duo that capture the imagination.
There is, however, another long-debated facet to this rivalry, which may indeed be the key to what draws not only tennis enthusiasts but every lover of sporting combat. For Federer may be the ‘senior partner’ in the relationship—in age, Grand Slam titles, years at the top of the rankings—but Nadal has exposed a deep vulnerability ever since their first match a decade ago. The calm, clinical and oh-so-beautiful control with which the Swiss man dominated everyone else was wrenched from his racket by the left-handed, top-spinning jack-hammer of the Spaniard’s forehand and, as the years went on, his serve and backhand too.
Such that, as they engage for a 33rd time in Australia, Nadal had not only beaten Federer 22 times but has beaten him in eight of their 10 Grand Slam meetings, both of their Australian Open meetings and all four of their 2013 meetings.
Last year, seen by many as a final turning point in the story of these two champions, Nadal returned to the fray not just with one of his best ever seasons but with new weapons—bigger serve, better volleys, and an attacking mindset.
Federer meanwhile suffered back problems, early losses, and flagging confidence and rankings. But he was not for turning: far from it. Having put together some decent results at the end of 2013, he trained hard, changed his racket, joined forces with his child-hood hero, Stefan Edberg, and re-emerged in Australia slick, fit, fleet-footed and clearly with burgeoning confidence. Even a draw that threw in a replay of his two five-set dramas last year could not stop him—he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets, Andy Murray in four.
But now came Nadal, and Melbourne ground to a halt to watch.
Each was roared onto Rod Laver under the gloomy skies just visible through the partially closed roof—a feature caused by a malfunction rather than predictions of more rain. But it was a very cool evening—not good news for the fast-paced, serve-and-volley ambitions of the 2014 Federer.
There was another unusual feature as the match got underway: Federer won the toss but chose the end rather than to serve—perhaps an acknowledgement that some blisters on Nadal’s left hand were rumoured to be affecting his serve.
But Nadal was not having any of it: He opted to receive, which looked like good news for Federer in the early stages. He opened with a clean service game and four errors from Nadal. But the Spaniard flattered to deceive, it seemed. He fired in four first serves to hold a love game.
The third game showed more of their cards—Federer making some first forays to the net, Nadal warning him with one vicious passing shot. Federer was the first to open a chance, pushing Nadal to deuce in the fourth game, but could not capitalise. He in turn found himself up against it, facing break point at the set’s mid-point after Nadal slotted two passing shots—one cross-court, one down the line—but Federer resisted.
And he lived with Nadal in a couple of testing baseline rallies, pressing in particular the backhand that was giving up a few errors. It was to no avail, and Federer faced another break point at 4-4, after a double fault and a netted backhand. He looked skyward in despair—the pattern and the result were all too familiar.
The rally of the match, 33-shot humdinger, preluded a spirit-lifting hold from Nadal—Federer noticeably not once attempting a net rush—and the Spaniard carried his momentum into the tie-break with a resounding 7-4 surge to the set. Nadal had stemmed the Federer attack to just 10 winners compared with an albeit ungenerous 24 errors.
It did not bode well, and the huge Nadal forehand continued to do its worst, pinning Federer back into baseline rallies that would favour the Spaniard. Federer made only nine points at the net in the first set, just eight in the second, and earned not a single break point in either.
Federer certainly started the second set aggressively, attacking Nadal in the first game, but wasting a break point chance with a poor drive volley into the net. He was clearly fired up, and unusually vocal, with some fine volley points in the next.
But although he was now making fewer unforced errors, he was still able to make few first-strike winners either, and his frustration levels rose—especially after a long comfort break by Nadal before the second set was followed, at the first change-over, by a long medical time out for repairs to his blisters.
Federer complained to the umpire at the next change of ends, whether about Nadal’s time between points or his gruntings was not clear. Despite good aggression and some great defence, the Swiss could simply not hold off the swinging, deep baseline hitting of Nadal, who broke for a 4-2 lead and took the set 6-3.
The third set was eerily parallel to the second, with Federer opening strongly but Nadal scoring an early break. This time, though, Federer worked his first and only break chance of the match and took it at the second attempt. But his back remained against the wall, and he berated himself into fighting off a break-point in the fifth game. In the seventh, though, a forehand error let him down, Nadal brokd, and made the final coup de grace with a break for set and match, 6-3.
For Nadal, the win takes him to a 19th Grand Slam final where he will have high hopes of equalling Pete Sampras’s tally of 14—a total that seemed almost impossible until beaten by Federer in 2009. High hopes, because Nadal will face first-time finalist, Stan Wawrinka, who he has beaten in all 12 previous matches. Blisters he may have, but pain cannot stop the blistering tennis of Nadal.
Whether Wawrinka wins or not, the Swiss man will for the first time overtake his illustrious compatriot in the rankings as Federer faces the reality of a further drop to No8—his lowest since 2002. But it should not be all gloom for the former champion: His tennis is on the move, and he stayed positive and aggressive throughout this encounter. His relationships with Edberg and his new racket are in their infancy—there is surely more development to come.
But as long as Federer is drawn in the same section as Nadal—whatever the tournament—he will face an uphill battle to that much-longed-for 18th Major.