Just as we’ve become so cosily reacquainted with the idea of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dominating men’s tennis, even while adjusting to the surprise twist in the tale that has seen Federer winning the past five matches in this storied and now not-quite-so-one-sided rivalry, reality insists on intruding.
“We didn’t think maybe we are going to have the year we did – I definitely didn’t,” Federer said to the current No.1 during Sunday’s Shanghai Masters presentation ceremony. “So it’s just nice to share this court with you here today and hopefully there’s more to come in the tournaments we’ve got left.” There. That last bit… in the tournaments we’ve got left. Mood killer.
It can’t go on forever, of course, and how wild even just the idea of a near-equal split of the grand slam spoils and five of the eight Masters 1000 crowns decided so far in 2017 had seemed when it all began at the Australian Open in January.
Yet as impossible it is to quantify just how much turned on that sliding doors moment when Nadal led 3-1 in the fifth set of that final, there has clearly been a seismic shift in ascendancy in the three matches since. In Indian Wells, Miami and now on the slick Shanghai surface, Federer has not conceded a set against his old nemesis while trimming the career deficit to 23-15.
The Swiss star’s imposing serve has had much to do with it, with a strike rate of at least 75 per cent of total service points a common statistic across all three matches, and zero break points faced among 10 aces in the latest. His larger-headed racquet has not just helped in that regard, Federer admitted, but obviated the need for as much slice, and helped him to dictate more from the baseline.
Asked about the secret to his most recent successes, the 36-year-old quipped that it had much to do with not playing “so much” – well, not at all, in fact – on clay. Indeed, as Robbie Koenig had earlier pondered from the commentary box, perhaps Nadal’s dominant surface has hosted its last fixture between the renaissance men now boasting a combined 35 singles majors.
For it is not just the physical wear of the clay court grind, but the mental toll of facing the greatest ever in his favourite environment when your personal loss-win ratio against him is 2-13. “Maybe my head is screwed on a better way just because I haven’t lost so much of those clay-court matches like I have in the past,” said the world No.2.
Yet some of the more interesting insights into their increasingly chummy duels came before the final, when Federer spoke of the special significance of meeting so many times in tournament deciders, of their contrasting game styles and “also, the attitude, the way we go through our lives, it’s all very different in some ways.”
Their doubles partnership at the recent Laver Cup helped reveal one shared trait, however: a similar mindset in the big moments. “There is no sense of urgency or panic, I don’t want to say ever, but you could tell we have been there many, many times before,” Federer said.
“He’s a great champ, and I enjoy playing against him, even though the head-to-head is maybe not in my favour. I think he’s definitely one of the guys that make me a better player… It’s nice at this late stage of the career that we still have these matches going on.”
Personally, their relationship has always been one of mutual respect, Federer stressed, with the shy, quiet young Spaniard initially deferring to his elder “especially at the ATP level that ‘whatever Roger thinks, I’m his opinion, too’. Then as time went by, he had his own opinion, which I thought was great. His character grew and became more confident.
“In the process our relationship became bigger, I guess, because we had to – we had some arguments, we had some disagreements, but for the most part, it was always good, you know, and very nice.”
The pair has apparently bonded, too, over injuries that the more fortunate Federer could never quite relate to when he was able to avoid the physical issues that frequently plagued Nadal, as well as through their individual efforts to defy the doomsayers, and then as Laver Cup teammates. “It’s been great for both of us,” said Federer. “I’m happy to call him a friend today.”
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