I had thoughts on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s fourth collision of the 2017 season in the Shanghai Rolex Masters Final. So I sat down for an hour or so to share them with you. Enjoy.
If anything is going to stand against Roger Federer in the GOAT debate, it is his losing 23-14 head-to-head record against Rafael Nadal.
Apparently the Swiss maestro had the title officially locked down only recently, after racing to a record 18th Grand Slam title off the back of injury in January. Indeed, for the vast majority, the 36-year-old maintains this invisible crown. His Australian Open triumph was stunning and full of meaning, and his ensuing Wimbledon victory was an unintentional fist in the face of every pundit and player and casual bystander who had said – over the course of the previous four years – that he was done. Finished. Over. Gone.
But the steering wheel of tennis’ GOAT debate is really in the hands of the media – who essentially created the original discussion. And it seems many of the fidgety mob cannot resist continually turning this wheel from side to side. When Federer experienced his lone major slip-up of the year – stumbling against Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open quarter-finals – French Open champion Rafael Nadal was there to take advantage. And thus, the Spaniard was back in the running for GOAT status, aided by 15 major trophies.
The past nine months have proven that Federer at his best, most lethal and brilliant standard is better than anyone else. It is often forgotten that during Novak Djokovic’s incredible 2015 season, Federer was still tied at 3-3 in his hard-court meetings with the Serb – his mentality holding him back during close best-of-five set encounters. Recent world no. 1 Andy Murray has been reduced to tears by the legend after multiple Grand Slam finals. But perhaps the most telling supporter of the above statement is the way Federer has dominated Nadal this season. The Spaniard has been enjoying a viciously resurgent year of his own, and yet sheer brilliance from the 31-year-old has only left him the clear-cut second best player of 2017. And this is even as he sits at world no. 1 by over 2000 ranking points.
Two things specifically leap out in favour of Federer being the best player of the current twelve month period. Initially, there is the fact that he skipped the entire clay court season: forfeiting thousands of ranking points, and opening up the draw for Nadal. And then there is his 3-0 2017 record against the aforementioned star.
Because for all the stories of breakthroughs and injuries and rising threats and thrilling upsets, this season has really boiled down to two men: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
If he wanted to, the Spaniard could take some credit for his Swiss rival’s magnificent season. Federer has basically confessed it himself, hailing Nadal’s strategies of old for building up his current game. From his teenage years, Nadal pounded topspin forehand after topspin forehand to the sometimes beautiful, often fragile Federer one-handed-backhand. The simple tactic – the basis for many of Nadal’s game plans – put the 19-time major winner on the losing side of many of their meetings. It left him in some dark places. It even caused him to break down in tears after a particularly painful 2009 Melbourne final loss – his opponent and friend even moving over to offer consolation for the blows he had himself inflicted.
Ten years ago, Nadal probably had not banked on Federer sticking around for so long. All this time down the line, his own handiwork is turning back to bite him.
Everyone has someone who is a great match-up for their particular gamestyle. On the women’s circuit, Serena Williams’ dominance over Maria Sharapova stands out by a mile. Because of his natural ability to play the game to such high standards, no one was ever going to own Roger Federer in such a fashion, with that level of unrelenting ferocity. Unfortunately for him, the man that came closest to doing so just happened to be his biggest rival of the last decade.
Nevertheless, partway through the Australian Open final – a five-set epic that made the other one-sided 2017 finals look like walks in the park – Federer finally solved the riddle that had been puzzling him since a young Nadal arrived on the scene. The Swiss backhand was solid as it cracked down on the Spaniard’s trademark topspin. It found the depth, and it found the lines, and it combined the two findings for some breathtaking winners. And after it had come from a break down in the deciding set to win the championship, it continued along that theme for the next two-and-a-bit months.
In order to avoid exaggeration, it should be said that Federer’s backhand alone did not see him to his three recent victories over Nadal. His versatile serve summoned a reliability that plunged him onto the front foot. His return game was sharp, daring and calculated. And while his thought power was displayed in every winning point, he did not overthink, either. Federer entered the season with an air that he had nothing to lose, no pressure on his shoulders and no stress on himself. And consequently, he was freed up to play a fear-inflicting game of tennis.
That shining armour was never going to stay undented all year – whether that was to do with simple inconsistent showings, weariness, or injury. It seems fair to say that the latest of these factors was more prevalent in the Swiss hero’s recent ‘wobble’. Evgeny Donskoy’s shock match-point saving upset of the Melbourne champ in February merely instigated a dominant sweep of the Indian Wells/Miami double. Tommy Haas’ Stuttgart heroics were the springboard for triumph in Halle and Wimbledon. It was only after his latest two tournaments – in Montreal and New York City – where the aura surrounding Federer changed. At both venues he claimed to feel the effects of a back injury, eventually going down to quality players in 20-year-old Alexander Zverev and 2009 Flushing Meadows victor del Potro. Hampered he may have been, but two losses in as many tournaments was enough to make him look beatable – and hint at fatigue.
That is why the Shanghai Masters final is Nadal’s best shot at defeating his rival this season. Should they clash at the ATP World Tour Finals – an indoor hard-court event that the Spaniard has never conquered – the Swiss star would undoubtedly be fired up (and potentially crowd-backed) to end a dream season on a high. Their last three meetings saw Federer in his best condition of the past four years, never needing speedy courts to dictate the clashes.
But now, Nadal is arguably playing with more confidence than the world no. 2. And confidence equals quality. The self-made lefty is lossless since before Flushing Meadows, and has shown that he has the head game to cope with polar opposites of situations. The Spaniard began his Beijing campaign last week by saving match points against a zoning Lucas Pouille, and he ended it by pulverizing the insanely talented Nick Kyrgios. His defence is a work of art, transitioning to attack so unexpectedly and fluidly that one hardly notices it happening before it’s too late. His forehand has rediscovered its potency, his consistency in rallies outdoes that of any other competitor, and his fire and passion remains unmatched. The most articulate player on tour, the Spaniard clearly pays intricate detail to every particle of his game – and acts upon his findings.
Federer struggled to avenge his New York loss to del Potro in Saturday’s Shanghai Masters semifinals. Something of a mess by his lofty standards, he showed no resistance when dropping serve in the opener, and verbally revealed his frustration in the early stages of an initially tight second set – betraying the tension he felt. Even as he broke in the third game of the decider, his fist-pump was intense, his yells of approval an unusual mixture of annoyance, tightness and relief.
Nadal, meanwhile, was broken while serving for triumph against Wimbledon finalist and fourth seed Marin Cilic, but he recovered quickly to close out the win in straight sets. Big servers have often been an issue for the Spaniard in times gone by – with some dark memories coming all too recently – and Asian hard-courts are an uncomfortable surface on which to meet these foes. Nevertheless, the top seed’s 7-5 7-6(3) victory means that he has only dropped one set in Shanghai, and is virtually on the brink of securing the year-end world no. 1 ranking.
Still, Federer might look with interest at the man who managed to prise a set from the top seed for the second straight week. It was Grigor Dimitrov: the Bulgarian with the one-handed backhand who is regularly compared to Federer himself.
Skip ahead 30 years, and Roger Federer could easily still be holding the record for most Grand Slam titles ever won by a male tennis player. While the break for the off-season and the mental effect a new season has – on all players – is unlikely to work in his favour, the maestro shows little sign of truly slowing down. One thing that verges on impossible, however, is Federer leap-frogging Nadal in their historic head-to-head record. However many majors he claims or Masters 1000s he wins or ATP trophies he raises, it’s likely he’ll walk away from the sport as the loser in that particular rivalry. A rivalry with the man who remains, for now, his closest competitor.
But if he whitewashes the Spaniard in 2017, he could go a long way to changing future tennis fans’ perception of that head-to-head record. And the next step of that quest is a win on Sunday.
It is their most unpredictable 2017 battle yet.
Thanks for reading! Who do you think has had the best season to date, and who do you see coming out on top in the Shanghai Masters final? Let me know in the comments!