On the 25-odd occasions that they have faced eachother, never has their rivalry been as downplayed and almost insignificant in the larger scheme of things- as is the case at this point in 2011. For once, an individual transcended the sport- an individual other than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, a person who was destined to remain in their shadows forever- and this legendary rivalry was relegated to a backseat all year.
Nadal has had the upper hand in this rather mentally-sapping rivalry over the years, even pulling off a few wins on the North American Hard courts- thus suspending all talks of an all-clay advantage. But, the fact is that they have faced eachother 15 times out of 26 on Clay, with the Swiss artist being able to win only 2 of those. Straight off, this statistics reeks of two possibilities:
-Roger Federer has been the second best player in the world on Clay for quite a long time. The fact that he reaches most finals, and falls against the relentless Nadal- itself is quite an indication of the overwhelming numbers. Most of the 15 matches have been finals, with Federer enjoying the sweetest of Clay victories only last year at Madrid. The rivalry, basically, has taken form because of Federer’s continuous probing and his abilities on the surface. Most of the times, Federer has not lost a set till he reaches the final, and faces a salivating Spaniard- who obviously holds the mental edge due to such clashes.
-Secondly, Nadal is probably not the second best player in the world at MOST times on any other surface. There is always a Murray or a Djokovic who fancies their chances against him once they have figured him out, and hence, the remaining 12 non-clay clashes have brought out 7 Federer wins and 5 Nadal wins. Seemingly not bad, for a Clay King, but the 5 wins have been more due to Federer’s unexplainable mental anguish in the face of an inhuman defensive game.
Nadal has not been able to reach most hard-court finals, hence giving a lot of his fans a reason to shout from rooftops that the only reason Federer wins a tournament is IF Nadal crashes out in an early upset. The fact is, that happens quite a lot- which does not say a lot about Nadal’s strength on other courts. The Swiss star is way more consistent on hard courts, inspite of being mauled at Miami earlier this year.
Also, a massive indicator of the rivalry creating an illusion of lop-sidedness is the fact that Nadal has lost all 3 of his World Tour Finals matches against Federer- the last, and arguably most prestigious title of the year. The Spaniard may surely be running out of steam after an extremely physical season, but that is the drawback of his game. Going full-tilt during the Slams seems to pay off more often that not, but not having a season-ending trophy to show for his efforts may bug him just a bit by now. After all, Federer has won 5 of them, and looks primed for a sixth.
The record stands at 17-9 now, but it does not feel like Rafael Nadal is on top of the world. Neither is Roger Federer, but on form, it is hard to argue that he doesn’t belong in the top two. For the first time in his career, Nadal has not been the best player in the world at ANY point of time throughout a playing season. It has been only Novak Djokovic, even when the Spaniard won an inevitable French Open title. When Djokovic took some time off, it was Murray for an entire month, and when Murray faded (as he would), it is now Roger Federer who is the man to beat.
The latest instalment of the famed rivalry has entered a stage where fans, from both sides, have been thirsting for some more action- considering the sheer dominance of the Serb this year. There have been only 4 clashes this year (2 semi-finals surprisingly, thanks to the Swiss’s inability to climb back into the top two), with the fourth occurring yesterday at the World Tour Finals in London.
Downplay the relevance of the group stages if you may, but the fact is, that Roger Federer looked like the best player in the world once again while facing his greatest fear across the net. 6-3, 6-0 does not begin to tell the story of Nadal’s sudden descent to mortal madness, because there was a lot more than mere numbers to that scoreline.
Federer has, time and again, after losing a semi-final he had NO business to lose against Djokovic in the US Open, stated that he is deteremined- now more than ever- to climb back to the top of the rankings for one last time. Taking his free-flowing, aggressive and high-risk game into consideration, it was always difficult to see him taking back his spot against the bull-dozing, often-unattractive games of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Slugfests are common between the 3 of them, but when Federer plays- expect something out of the ordinary- either for or against him. He will produce some gasp-worthy tennis- and even take it down to the wire if he is not at his best- thanks to his ability to grind out crucial points over the years…except against Rafael Nadal.
Hence, one could pardon the smirks and sniggers of the cynics once Federer entered the O2 arena saying that he felt in the best possible shape and was ready to beat the best once again. A faulty, flawed performance against Tsonga did nothing to ease nerves- but he has overcome that ONE aspect of the game that has deserted him for a year now. He won the game that mattered, and held on for a close win. Analyze the man’s losses this year- and he has lost TWO Grand Slam matches after winning the first two sets. That is NOT Roger Federer- because he is the greatest front-runner in the game’s history. Something was wrong.
A mauling that lasted only 60 minutes may have handed him a place in the semi-finals against either Djokovic or Ferrer, and may have propelled Nadal into a winner-takes-all quarter-final against the fiery Frenchman Tsonga. Federer even invented a new shot in the form of a backhand cross-court flick- taking the ball on the volley- making sure that he connects at the bottom right sweet spot of his racket- and gets as much angle as possible on his shot- all this in NORMAL play. No, he didn’t decimate Nadal’s drop shots or lobs like that, he decimated Nadal’s top-spinning deep forehands like that. It was almost surreal to watch. On current form, it is hard to see anybody but Federer take the title, but it is only a matter of time before Djokovic decides to test his own mental mettle at the top…
Roger Federer, though, will be waiting.
And Nadal, as many say, will be back for the next season with a new weapon: Confidence.