Rewinding to the 2009 Madrid final, one is immediately struck by the vastly different situations in which both gladiators find themselves now compared to where they found themselves before the match a year ago. Then, Nadal stood at the peak of his powers and the pinnacle of the tennis hierarchy, having vanquished Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, achieved the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, attained the #1 ranking, and reduced his rival to tears in Australia just a few months before. Cast adrift from his moorings and deposed from his pedestal, Federer not only had endured a mediocre beginning to 2009 but appeared to have surrendered almost all of his domain to the Spanish rebel; commentators were beginning to write the obituary of the Federer Era while wondering whether the rivalry still existed…
After he scored a startling victory in that final, the Swiss has since reclaimed every territory conceded to Nadal in addition to conquering Rafa’s clay citadel in Paris (admittedly with the aid of a Swedish saboteur). In fact, Federer came within one set of holding every Slam title at the same time, forestalled from this goal by the Tower of Tandil. Following the Greatest Upset Ever, meanwhile, Nadal faded from the tennis scene during Wimbledon before resurfacing in diluted form on the summer and fall hard courts, where he absorbed a series of deflating defeats that culminated in a gruesome debacle at the year-end championships. Slowly returning to form this season despite retiring from the Australian Open, Rafa has found his footing on the clay but still has yet to threaten Federer’s renewed stranglehold over the game. To some extent, he won’t be able to do so until he wins his next major, for success is measured in Slams, yet a win in a Masters 1000 final over his archrival would deliver a timely message just before the crucial Roland Garros-Wimbledon sequence. On the other hand, a Federer win would confirm his unchallenged ascendancy above the competition.
Although Federer is the top seed, the pressure in this match rests largely on Nadal’s shoulders, since he not only is striving to break Agassi’s Masters 1000 record but is seeking revenge for last year’s loss while fulfilling the lofty expectations of his compatriots. Consequently, the Swiss should feel relaxed and free to swing with abandon, unburdened with the internal anxiety that dogged him in many of their previous meetings. Permanently consolidated last summer, his legacy would not be tarnished even if he failed to win another title or defeat Nadal again. Vital to his success here last year was an outstanding serving performance and unflinching aggression, enhanced by the Madrid altitude. In addition to repeating this excellence, he’ll need to keep his mind flexible and prepare to make adjustments to his game plan as the situation demands; one senses that both of their games have altered a bit in the past year. Among the modulations in Nadal’s game is his movement pattern, which formerly favored his backhand side while opening up his forehand corner. Now, the Spaniard more often leans towards his forehand while exposing his backhand corner. During their previous confrontations, Federer often seemed stubbornly rooted in a monochrome set of tactics from which he rarely deviated, a tendency that increased as Nadal gradually but steadily gained the momentum in the rivalry. Rather than temporarily reducing the pace on his first serve when the percentage sagged in Melbourne last year, for example, he continued to bomb, bomb, and bomb some more…until he bombed out. This time, he should consider varying his serving patterns while refraining from rushing his shots (another characteristic sign of his nerves against Nadal); instead, he should continue to patiently construct points as meticulously as he has through the rest of this week until openings develop. Armed with a vast range of weapons, Federer should exploit everything in his arsenal in order to keep Rafa guessing. Tactics might include occasional serve-and-volley on second serve, forehand second-serve returns in the ad court, an occasional kick serve on the first ball, and (horror of horrors) a few of the drop shots that he once maligned as unworthy of his powerful game. The Swiss #1 needs to stay positive when stunning passing shots fly past him or when returns sail slightly wide. Such things will happen occasionally, but the mental battle has been vital in this rivalry, and, for the first time in recent memory, Federer could win it.
Just as much the clay GOAT as Federer is the GOAT, Nadal doubtless will revive his familiar tactics of serving to Federer’s backhand and smothering his own forehand with spin that creates the high bounce far above the world #1′s comfortable strike zone. In addition to these ploys, Rafa might want to integrate a number of body serves on important points, for Roger struggled to position his feet with the necessary alacrity when his previous opponents this week have attempted that strategy. If Federer takes the above advice and chooses to run around backhands in the ad court to hit forehand returns, Nadal would be well-served (haha) to occasionally serve towards the forehand side in the ad court, which would be left open by Federer’s anticipatory shift towards the sideline; a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse could then unfold on serves and returns. As always, we would like to see the Spaniard position himself closer to the baseline on second serves and stay near it during neutral rallies, thereby preventing the Swiss from opening up the court with approach shots. During these rallies, he should strive to place the ball deep down the center of the court, from where Federer can construct few angles. The world #1′s forehand on the run has looked breathtaking in this tournament, and his movement along the baseline has been as fluid as ever on this surface; by minimizing his opportunities to hit jaw-dropping winners, Nadal could frustrate Federer or dull his focus. Regarding the issue of focus, in fact, Rafa has lacked his relentless concentration for prolonged, pivotal stretches when facing top-tier players since his French Open demise. Unable to maintain his intensity against those upon whom he once preyed, such as Ljubicic and Roddick, the Spaniard can’t afford these concentration lapses when dueling with Federer. Despite his brilliant championship runs in Monte Carlo and Rome, he hasn’t toppled anyone more imposing than Verdasco, permanently in awe of his talents. On Sunday, he must not relinquish his focus between the last practice serve and the ceremony. It’s much easier said than done, of course, but the magnificent has become routine from both players as their rivalry has evolved.
A year ago, the rivalry seemed to be growing increasingly stale with each meeting, perhaps partly because of the inevitable comparison with the unsurpassable 2008 Wimbledon final. After Federer’s routine win here against a Djokovic-deadened Nadal, we hoped to see the emergence of new stars, new rivalries, and new champions. Well, the new stars didn’t produce any new rivalries and rarely produced new champions, with the notable exception of Del Potro at the US Open. Instead of seizing the opportunity with both hands, Djokovic, Murray, and their peers mostly seized the opportunity with both hands…and respectfully passed it to Federer. Now we’re eagerly anticipating Federer-Nadal XXI. Let the bullfight begin!