There are some tennis matches that are so good they bear a closer look, even three weeks later. So let’s look at the 2005 Nasdaq 100 final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Federer has won 47 of his last 48 matches, 17 straight finals and is, of course, ranked number 1 in the world. Nadal has won 15 straight matches, beat Federer 6-3, 6-3, in this event last year and is number 31 in the world – a ranking that will be bumped up to the top 20 after this tournament.
Before the match, the only question seems to be, “How long will it take Federer to adjust to the lefty Nadal’s spin?” After that, it appears to be a pretty routine 18th straight finals win.
True to Federer’s statement before the match that he might be down a set and a break by the time he adjusts to the lefty’s spin, Nadal breaks him in the first game. Federer’s strategy seems to focus on attacking Nadal’s backhand, it’s not the high looping shot that his forehand is, and coming to the net at any opportunity.
There are two problems with this approach. It’s hard to attack off high looping shots and Nadal is fast enough to run around his backhand, hit a high looping forehand then cover when you try to hit to what looks like open court. The second problem is that, early on, Nadal is hitting wicked backhand passing shots and manages to break Roger a second time to go up 5-2. At this point, Federer has 13 unforced errors and 5 winners.
Nadal serves out at love to win the first set 6-2 and breaks Federer in the first game in the second set. One set and a break. Time is up, has Federer adjusted yet?
At the moment Federer seems prophetic. He breaks Nadal’s next two service games and hits 4 winners to serve at love in the fifth game and go up 4-1. This is a bit misleading, you can see that Federer is still uncomfortable. He’s making errors on easy shots and hardly looks like his usual gazelle-like self smoothly covering all parts of the court. In the seventh game he completely mishits an overhead, it doesn’t even go over the net, and mishits the next shot as both players hold serve to get to 5-2.
Part of Federer’s problem is the constant pressure from Nadal, another part is physical. He has bandages on both feet to cover blisters and visits with a trainer early in the set. He also had blisters when he played Marat Safin at the Australian Open in January, his only loss since the U.S. Open last year.
Federer seems a bit unnerved by the shanked overhead and even more unnerved by his opponent. Nadal runs down everything and hits 3 winners in the next game to break Federer. Then Nadal gets angry over a questionable but correct line call and starts hitting the ball even harder.
It works. A 4-1 lead is now 6-6 and the second set goes to a tiebreaker. A very unFederer like train of events for a Sunday afternoon. And a good indication of Nadal’s mental strength that he can use adversity to improve his game.
In between adjusting his socks, he does this most points, and performing wedgie removal – those pirate pants look good but they seem a little tight to be playing tennis in – Nadal senses the importance of the moment and goes for more big shots. He gets a service winner, hits some big inside out forehands and passes Federer again to win the tiebreaker, 7-4, and the second set.
Federer’s skill? That he could turn such a disastrous day into his eighteenth straight finals win just adds to his legend.
What can Federer pull out of his well-rounded game bag of tricks now that he is two sets down? How about getting mad. Very mad.
He is beside himself when he mishits yet another volley in the third game of the third set. In the fourth game, Nadal breaks Federer to go up 3-1 after he gets to a Federer drop volley and hits a passing shot. In the next game Federer doesn’t even go after a passing shot hit behind him, he just keeps sauntering towards the net. At break point on Nadal’s serve in the fifth game, Federer untypically screams at an easy error after Nadal weakly returns a very difficult low wide shot. This shot would normally be low and outside to a two-hander’s backhand forcing a one-handed stab at the ball but Nadal is left-handed, did I tell you that already?, and very quick so it’s a forehand get for him.
In the sixth game, Nadal approaches the net unexpectedly and gets a few volleys back before Federer misses an easy passing shot. As he gets ready to serve on the next point, somone yells out to Federer, “Wake up!” Federer stops his service motion and has a few words with the guy. But it seems to work as Federer manages to hold serve.
Sequences in the next two games show the brilliance and personality of both players. In the seventh game, Nadal makes like Boris Becker and dives in an unsuccessful attempt to return a Federer forehand volley. In the eighth game, Nadal makes two stellar gets off wide balls before Federer wins the point with a volley. On the next point, Nadal hits a drop dead drop shot for a winner. Federer is slowly beginning to find his game plan and Nadal is never ever going to give up. They are now even at 4-4 in the third set.
After Federer hits behind him then runs him wide, Nadal puts up a defensive lob only to see Federer hit the overhead long. Federer is now so pissed off that he slams his racket to the ground. Whoa, when do we ever see that? Nadal holds to go up 5-4.
After a few more screams by Federer, an olè wave by the crowd, we are in Miami after all, and, finally, a fist pump from Federer, it’s time for another tiebreak. With Nadal ahead 5-4 in the tiebreak, Federer hits a huge forehand to the corner that stays in by inches. If he misses, he gives Nadal match pont. On the next point he goes for and makes a big serve wide on second serve. It’s a fearless display of tennis. He has 5 unforced errors and gets his fourth double fault of the set, but it’s worth it as he hits a ton of huge forehands and wins the tiebreaker 7-5.
Both players are on serve in the fourth set through the first three games but Nadal is starting to look tired. He’s not sprinting to the baseline from his chair or bouncing around anymore, instead, he seems to be swaying. When he is pulled wide in the fourth game he hits a backhand to keep the ball in play. Earlier in the match he was blasting winners down the line from that position.
Federer is starting to impose his game on Nadal. He repeatedly pulls Nadal wide on the serve then goes to the net but Nadal is still scrambling and there are still some incredible tennis points being played. Five of the six points in the fifth game were won by forced errors or winners. Federer’s break in the fourth game holds up and he wins the fourth set 6-3.
What should Nadal do here? He should give Federer a different look on the serve or at least anticipate the serve wide much better. He also should take a bathroom or clothing break to get a much needed rest. Instead, he receives a time violation from the chair umpire in the third game of the fifth set for taking too long to rewrap the grip on his racket. After this brief, unofficial time out, Nadal recovers enough for a few long rallies but he only wins 5 points in the last 4 games as Federer wins the fifth set and match, 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Was Federer unduly bothered by Nadal’s spin? There were likely three things contributing to Federer’s mishitting ways:
1. Nadal’s spin and lefthandedness.
2. Blisters on his feet.
3. Sometimes it’s just not your day.
Oh, and Nadal’s speed. Spin and speed, a lethal combination. Nadal hit a number of shots off retrievals that turned into offensive shots. They dipped low over the net or went down the line or turned into passing shots. It’s a different game than Federer’s but a tough game for him because he depends on surgically putting the ball where you are not. Federer has a 100mph forehand, that’s power, but his strategy is to find a weakness, not pound you into submission.
Nadal is a young, emotional player. He’s like a young bunny hopping around until he tires himself out But he’s mentally strong and he’ll learn how to pace himself better in a big match five-setter. He already learned a lot when he beat Roddick in four sets in last year’s Davis Cup championship in Spain and he no doubt used his experience in today’s match to beat Guillermo Coria and win Monte Carlo in four sets after losing the third set at love.
Federer is still incorporating attacking the net into his game. He acquired his new part time coach, Tony Roche, in January specifically to help with this. He can expect some bad days at the net.
I remember reading his website early last year and reading that he didn’t believe in drop shots. Of course that has changed, especially if he wants to win the French Open. But here he was playing against a clay court player who was backed up behind the baseline and he put only one drop shot on him from the baseline during the entire match. See, there are ways that he can improve.
When I used to get dressed up and go out to a party my roommate Lenore would always shout down, “I hope you get lucky!” as I walked out the door. I always turned back and answered, “It takes luck and skill, luck and skill.”
Except for a few inches in the third set tiebreaker, this could have been a straight set victory for Nadal. Federer’s skill? That he could turn such a disastrous day into his eighteenth straight finals win just adds to his legend.