February 08, 2009

A captivating rivalry

Watching Federer go down against Nadal at the final of the Australian Open was an overbearing experience. An year ago, Nadal had demolished the master at the French garrison and then stole the Wimbledon from right under Federer's nose in one of the greatest matches of the open era. Even so, Nadal had to fight every inch of the way as the fifth set went all the way to 9-7 before laying his hands on the crystal trophy.

The Australian open final was different. It was, as Federer later admitted, a match he should have won. He was the on who hit far more winners, albeit compensated with his higher number of unforced errors, had almost doulble break points to his opponent, and also won two of his sets rather easily - 6-3. So what went wrong?

It was a battle which, more than anything, Federer lost in the mind. He made one bad error in the third game of the fifth set which allowed Nadal to break him, and you could almost recognise that Federer had lost the plot. Though Nadal's immensely powerful top-spinning forehand and his relentless pursuit of the ball are valid technical reasons for Nadal's success, he is the only player in the world who has yet managed to beat Federer psychologically.

Nadal had come on the circuit with Federer firmly confirmed as the next big thing in Tennis, and in his first two years Federer had proven everyone right, winning grand slams all over, at the same time sending purists into raptures with his exquisite play. Nadal was primarily a clay court player with huge shoulders and biceps for a nineteen year old.

While most players tried to play the traditional way to combat Federer's powers, Nadal was building up a game of his own, based on powerful top spinning forehands and exceptional ability to return the most accurate 'winners'. Being left handed also allowed him to attack Federer's relatively weak backhand.

Right from the first time they faced up, Nadal has had an upper hand against Roger. By the time Federer first beat Nadal, at their fourth encounter head to head, the so called clay court player stole a set off Federer in Federer's most hallowed court, that of Wimbledon, in Jul '06.

The next year when they repeated successes at the Roland Garros and Wimbledon, while Federer managed just a set in Paris, Nadal took the Wimbledon final to the fifth set and was actually dominating the match till well into the fourth. Most people who saw that match, Federer fans included, acknowledged that Nadal would most likely overcome the Wimbledon barrier the next year, which he so famously did, routing Federer in a epic five setter in 2008.

But the real death blow had come a month earlier in the clay court of Paris, where Nadal ruthlessly ripped Federer's game apart in a 6-1,6-3,6-0 demolition job. That match more than anything has given Nadal a mental stronghold over Federer which he has since found impossible to overcome.

Federer fans have since started to doubt whether Federer would ever be able to break the hold at all. Indeed, if he is to overcome Sampras' 14 grand slams he would have to reduce his unforced errors against Nadal drastically. The unforced errors had such a huge impact on his loss at Wimbledon last year and at the Aussie open this year, so did his inability to convert breakpoints.

It is when Roger has a breakpoint that one can see the depth of Nadal's resolve and self belief. He doesnt give an inch and keeps belting winners when most players would go for conservative gameplay. In the Aussie open final, he came back from 0-40 and 15-40 in the third set, which he eventually won on the tiebreak. Had Federer broken him in one of those two games, the trophy would have been his - three sets to one.

Nadal has clearly raised the bar higher than Federer did a couple of years ago. While Federer is on the verge of Sampras' record, Nadal already has almost half the slams Federer has and is touted as the next favourite to have a crack at the record.

Federer has at best an year and half to raise his game and to instill the belief that he can beat Nadal. If he ever manages to get the 14th or the 15th grand slam with Nadal at the other side of the net, it would be the icing on the cherry.

For now, the power, as they say, is with the boy from Mallorca.