By Matt Cronin
MELBOURNE – Rafael Nadal says that he gets more emotional for his matches against Roger Federer than against any other player, which is not surprising given that when the Spaniard arrived on the scene that the Swiss was the tour’s dominant competitor and looked unstoppable when he was on.
But since the 2008 Wimbledon final, when Nadal stopped Federer in home away from home, the lefthander has seized control of the rivalry and could soon be blessed with the description of the Greatest Of All Time [GOAT]. In Nadal’s 7-6 6-3 6-2 victory over the Swiss in the 2014 Australian Open semifinals, he sure looked like he’s ready to contender for that moniker.
Federer played fairly well during the semifinal, but still couldn’t get over the hump as Nadal simply waited out his George Foreman-like barrage early on like Muhammad Ali did against the slugger during the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ Federer threw everything he had at Nadal: huge serves, forehands, net rushes – even flat one-handed backhand as hard as he could strike them. But what he could not do was return serve consistently well enough and could not manage to get a break point on Nadal’s serves. While Federer’s whirlwind attack was eye-popping at times and had fans on their feet, Nadal was very consistent and counterpunched with authority. He moved quickly, kept his groundstrokes deep and worked the points as hard and long as he could.
He decided upon that strategy because this is what he knew going into the match after watching the tape of their 2012 Australian semifinal in the morning: that Federer would whale away early and as long as Nadal didn’t get down on himself, eventually Federer would begin to punch himself out and then Nadal would be able to throw big body blows of his own when the openings were there and eventually score a knockout.
Federer badly needed to win the first set in order to give himself a chance at victory. He had not dropped the first set against Nadal and come back to win the match since 2007 Hamburg so the odds were clearly against him.
Federer had chance in the tiebreaker after Nadal committed three straight unforced errors and the Swiss drew back to 4-5, but then the Spaniard stung an inside out forehand winner and Federer missed a backhand down the line. The tiebreaker was in Nadal’s pocket at 7-4 and for all intents and purposes, so was the match, as Nadal’s two-handed backhand stood up better against Federer’s forehand than the Swiss’ one-handed backhand stood up against Nadal’s forehand. As the match grew older, Federer had a hard time hitting perfect enough approach shots and Nadal consistently passed him. Federer also could not get enough significant returns into play as Nadal’s blistered hand had improved and he had wicked spin and kick on his favored serves. Simply put, Nadal’s left hook was more powerful and effective that Federer’s right-handed cross.
‘The important thing for me is serve well, resist the beginning,” Nadal said. “I know he will try to go on court going for the winners, taking the ball very early. So when the match is coming and the match is longer, then that’s more difficult. Because physically is very difficult for me, for him, for everybody to play with that intensity of trying to play that aggressive during a few hours, no, because mentally and physically is very tough. So when the match is going on, I know that I will have the chance to hit a little bit more rallies. That’s the position that I want to be. So is very important to resist the score at the beginning.”
Nadal’s record versus Federer now stands at 23-10. He is one victory away from his second Australian Open title, and if he manages to best Stan Wawrinka in the final, he will become the only man in the Open Era to win each major twice – which is glorified Rod Laver territory.
He may or may not go down in history as the GOAT, but with his record against Federer — whom most people currently consider the GOAT — he will likely have something to say about it if he wins another couple of majors.
But that is a discussion for another day, as Nadal still has to best the red-hot Stan Wawrinka for the title, whom he has a 12-0 head to head record against and whom he has never dropped a set to. The other Swiss – whom by the way will pass Federer when the rankings are released next week – has been tagging his one-handed backhand and been serving huge, but can he actually get over on Nadal if the Spaniard is playing his best? That is extremely doubtful as Nadal is No.1 for a reason – he has been at higher level than anyone else at the majors during the past year.
However, Wawrinka did manage to upend the seemingly unbeatable Novak Djokovic in the quarters so that has to give him some belief that he can turn his rivalry around against Nadal, at least on one night. The odds are stacked firmly against him, but he will give it a go. His coach of more than year, Magnus Norman, has impressed upon him that he should try to be relaxed and at the same time go for his shots. He is going to attempt to keep his poor record against Nadal out of his head.
“I don’t care about having lost 14 times,” he said. But it’s more about playing Rafa. He’s the No. 1, the best player. His game is quite tough for me, especially with one‑hand backhand. But I did some good match last year against him, close one. I find few things that I will try tomorrow. I’m playing my best tennis here; physically I’m ready. I had two days off, so that’s perfect for me before final. Going to try everything. Before to beat Djokovic was the same. I was losing 13, 14 times before that. Just the fact that I’m always trying and I always think that I can change all the statistic, that’s positive.”