On Sunday at the second ATP Masters 1000 event of the year in Miami, Roger Federer wrote another time-defying chapter in his glorious 2017 book of comebacks. He has done a lot of things in the last three months, and playing eleven matches in the last twenty-one days of a hot West-American summer is right up there with the rest. For the third time in his illustrious career, the Swiss master won the “Sunshine Double” – the back-to-back Indian Wells and Miami Masters, after 2005 and 2006. This was also his twenty-sixth career Masters title, and his ninety-first career ATP title.
The last time he won the Australian Open as well as these two tournaments after that, he had gone on to win Wimbledon in 2006 – defeating a familiar white three-fourths-wearing boyish opponent in a four-set final. It was to be their first of three straight Wimbledon final battles.
It was the third time he defeated Rafael Nadal, his great rival, this year alone – and the fourth time consecutively since late 2014. He had never done this before. Their head-to-head now reads a marginally less lop-sided 23-14 in Nadal’s favour – as compared to 23-10 when he defeated Federer in the semifinals of the 2014 Australian Open. Ever since Federer has come back from his six-month layoff in January this year, Nadal has found himself in a position Federer had occupied for the last decade in this rivalry – looking for answers, instead of asking questions. Thinking instead of attacking. Defending instead of winning.
There has arguably never been such a drastic turnaround in an individual sport. Federer, who was Nadal’s bunny till three months ago, is now the man making Bunny Chow out of Nadal – who has begun to fear everything that was “weak” about the Federer game.
Here are the five main reasons this rivalry has turned for good:
A BACKHANDED COMPLIMENT
Much has been written about Federer’s flatter, quicker backhand since his return – the fact that he takes it earlier, and may have “single-handedly” made this alteration and improvement in the six months he was away, almost two decades into his storied career. Thanks to Ivan Ljubicic, ex-Miami finalist and his new coach, who must have wanted to instill in Federer’s backhand the power that he had in his own, combined with the unrelenting accuracy of Stan Wawrinka’s single hander. But never has this change been more visible than in his “strategic play” against Nadal. For years, Nadal had peppered his backhand high with his cross-court top-spinning forehand, almost always getting a point this way when he wished. Federer could have altered his game earlier, but it was still the backhand and style that had gotten him seventeen Slam titles – even if it was defeated consistently by Nadal and Nadal only. Yet, almost five years without winning one, and a career-threatening injury later, with nothing to lose, Federer gave in to “adaptation” at this late stage in his career. In his thirty-sixth year of existence, he turned his backhand into a line of offense – very visible in the way Nadal refused to pepper his “weak” side in the Miami final on Sunday, instead hoping for a bad day on the Federer forehand. It never came, and as a result, it put even Nadal’s serving (spinning away from Federer’s backhand) into disarray towards the end of the second set. At 0-15 down while serving for the match at 5-4, Federer then got into a 15-shot rally with Nadal, with the southpaw powering a final backhand to Federer’s backhand, forcing the Swiss legend to slice it back while Nadal lined him up for a deep almost-volley in the far court to his backhand. The Federer of old would have sliced it back to remain in play, but this one went over it on the volley and slammed it back with interest deep in the corner, inches from Nadal yet not leaving him with time to react. It was a crucial point – one that symbolized Federer’s intent, and the intense skill and ability to go with it. The ‘mental demons’ have been banished.
It’s easy to say that because the first three months have seen only hard courts, Federer automatically had an edge over Nadal because of the quickness compared to clay. But Nadal had beaten him on hard courts more over the last few years, and is almost five years younger, helping him to adapt to the heat and humidity in Australia and USA better despite his physical style of play. However, by the end of the Miami final, it was Nadal who was sweating and panting a bit more. Federer’s fitness is a highly underrated aspect of his game, just because he doesn’t look like he sweats. The heat over the last three months, though, has suited his aggressive style more, not because of the quicker courts but because of the heavier balls – that seem to skid through (different from speed) when he flattens out his shots, or even goes to the net. It has afforded his opponents less time and more runs around the court. Yet, after Federer’s marathon three-hour semifinal against Nick Kyrgios on Friday, he did look a little tired in the final – and intended to keep the rallies short in the stifling heat. If he had lost any one of the break points in the first set, it could well have been curtains, given that the last thing he needed was a third consecutive three-set match since Thursday morning. This made him more desperate, and going-for-broke, than he’d have otherwise been in a cooler night match.
After the Serb’s dip in form since the French Open last year, players like Nadal and Federer – who had consistently been losing to him in every tournament at his peak – could eliminate the ‘mental’ factor of having to come up against Djokovic as a last hurdle every second week. He had turned his rivalry with Federer into a winning one (23-22), and had defeated Nadal so often since 2014 that it had almost broken the Spaniard’s career. But with him exiting early in the Australian Open and Indian Wells (after finding a new tormentor in Kyrgios), the draw invariably opens up for the “lower-ranked” superstars like these two. Djokovic has hurt Federer the maximum since 2014, too, beating him in two Wimbledon finals and one US Open final. He has also defeated Nadal at the French Open in 2015, but Federer is the one who has decided to change his game a little to be able to defeat the stamina and consistency of Djokovic and Andy Murray; Nadal’s losses came as a bonus.
Federer was ranked seventeenth when he entered the Australian Open this year, facing the top-ten-ranked Tomas Berdych as early as the fourth round. That put him into “match-play” form very early in a Slam as compared to previous years, when he’d enter ranked in the top three, not needing to face a top-ten opponent till the semifinal. Every draw has seemed frightening for Federer fans, but he has taken it up as a challenge to eliminate the higher-ranked players early, so that by the time he reaches the final he is beyond the anxiety and pressure of having to raise his game suddenly against a top player. As a result, his hoodoo against Nadal has seemed less consequential, and he has begun winning the bigger points and saving breaks far more often than he would have earlier. His low ranking, though, is no more; now he is back in the top five, ranked at four after his latest tournament victory. He could well be ranked one at age thirty-six in August, the way he’s going. But he wants more titles, not higher rankings.
Moments after winning his third title of the year, and going 19-1 for the season already, Federer declared that he may miss the entire claycourt swing and play directly at the French Open at the end of May. That is a two-month layoff after a LOT of winning. But his body “needs healing” and he recognizes that he can only continue enjoy playing the tennis he is playing if he chooses his time carefully – instead of going after ranking points, as tempting as it may seem right now. He has climbed from seventeen to four since January, and will now miss the trifecta of claycourt European Masters tournaments at Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome (he has never won at Rome). This decision could let him begin the French Open on fresh legs, though low on match-practice – a risk he is willing to take so that he can launch an all-out attack on the second half of the season, Wimbledon onwards. He wants Wimbledon badly, and he only has points to gain after that, because he missed the entire second-half of the season in 2016, as well as the claycourt swing. His semifinal appearances at Melbourne and Wimbledon were two of the only four he played all year. Nadal, though, will play every clay event over the next two months, hoping to build on his momentum – perhaps relieved that he may not have to face Federer on his own surface. Because a loss on clay would be damning – like Federer losing on grass to Nadal, as he did in the 2008 Wimbledon final.