Another Rafa encounter, another disappointing loss for the Swiss. It seems to me that, at least in best-of-fives, their battles invariably follow a familiar pattern: (1) Roger gets hot and streaks ahead, while Rafa doggedly holds on. (2) Mistakes creep in, Rafa makes a couple of incredible gets, demoralising his opponent. (3) Roger forces a tie-break or laboriously conjures a break, but Rafa then goes on a rampage and sweeps an easy set. (4) Eventually the weight of inevitability slowly squeezes the life out of Fed’s game.
What could Roger have done? As I noted, going into the game the odds were stacked firmly against him. No right-handed, single-backhand player should stand a chance against Nadal, but Fed being Fed, he is able to produce brilliant tennis at times. The problem is Nadal just needs to play his normal game to win, while Federer needs to play consistently at an exceptional level.
Looking at the stats, Federer served well (64% first serves, a supreme improvement over the devastating 2009 Aus Open loss in which he served barely 50%, if I recall). However, he was only able to win 66% of the time, which is really really low for Fed. Full credit to Nadal, who applied constant pressure and made some mind-blowing gets. Federer also made a lot of unforced errors, which is understandable given that he needs to go for more against Rafa. However, last night he dumped too many forehands into the net. It’s a vicious cycle — the harder he tries, the more mistakes he’ll make (and the more incredible Rafa’s returns get!), which shakes his confidence and leads to more mistakes.
Overall, Fed’s strategy seems to have been hit hard and deep to Rafa’s backhand, taking him off the court and negating his forehand, then going for the winner down the ad court. It was going great while Fed was hot. His one problem was coming in off an approach shot that is hit to the ad court (Rafa’s forehand) that wasn’t going to be a winner. As this astute tennis observer noted, Rafa gobbled them up, inflicting damage not only on the scoreboard but Fed’s psyche. When Fed approached off an approach shot to Nadal’s backhand, he had much more success.
If Federer makes that tactical change and execute his shots better, I think he definitely has a shot of taking Nadal down at a Slam event. There were some encouraging signs — he played with positive, aggressive intent and his backhand held up pretty well under the onslaught. Then again, people have been saying that Fed can beat Nadal in best-of-five for ages now and it hasn’t happened since 2007…