The Federer — Nadal rivalry has been hyped for the past year-and-a-half or so, but unfortunately their recent matches never lived up to the high standards. Nadal owned Federer in Monte Carlo, Federer overpowered an exhausted Rafa in Hamburg, and at Roland Garros last month, Nadal defeated his rival in four, not so high-quality sets.
In Sunday’s Wimbledon final, both tennis greats brought their A-game, which resulted in possibly the best match Federer and Nadal have ever played against each other. The Rome final in 2006 was excellent, but due to the big occasion, and the fact that Nadal was so close to beating the Swiss No.1 on his favorite court, this ranks just a little higher to me.
Federer had not played a single five set match on grass after his legendary win over Pete Sampras in the 2001 Championships. He has definitely not been on the verge of losing at Wimbledon after his exit to Mario Ancic in 2002.
Rafael Nadal might have missed the opportunity of a lifetime to grab a Wimbledon trophy, when he failed to convert one of four break points in the fifth set against Federer. Still, judging from the Spaniard’s performance, he’ll definitely get another look at the title in the future.
Nadal’s grass court game almost doesn’t compare to the way he reached the final at SW19 in 2006. He has changed his service motion a little and added a tad more spice to it, but what has been instrumental in his progress, is how Rafa has improved his service returns. Nadal now stands on the baseline to receive, but more importantly, he moves forward when hitting the return. He cuts of the angles and doesn’t take a huge backswing when facing a 130 mph bomb. Throughout the tournament, it impressed me how well the Spaniard made this huge transition, especially coming off the clay courts, where Rafa averages on standing three to four metres behind the baseline for the return.
The reason Federer won on Sunday was not because he was playing better than Nadal, it was merely because of the effectiveness of his serve. When Nadal got himself into a point, he was the dominant player. Rafa did a great job in not giving Federer the opportunity to take the initiative in the rally, by hitting every ball aggressively and deep into the back court. I actually felt Nadal was more dominant in the rallies in Sunday’s final, than at Roland Garros, when he would give Federer lots of soft, short balls, on which the Swiss No.1 failed to pounce.
The outcome of the match in Paris depended a lot on how Federer dealt with the initiative he was given. He controlled the match up until the fourth set, and could have overpowered his rival to a similar fashion as in Hamburg. Still, it was Rafa who led 2-1 in sets, but it wasn’t until this point that the Spaniard began to take control and dominate play. He had definitely not been the dominant player before, but merely benefited from his opponent’s missed opportunities.
Nadal would not get away with hitting short on grass and he knew it. To execute the way he did though, was an astonishing accomplishment. If his forehand down the line at 1-1, 30-40 in the final set would have stayed inside, Federer’s reign at Wimbledon could very well have come to an end. From the Swiss’ point of view, it was an excellent performance to overcome four breakpoints early in that final set and strike one blow to Nadal to ensure his fifth consecutive title. There was an amazing amount of pressure on Federer not to lose that decisive set, not just due to the fact there was a fifth Wimbledon title to be won, but even more so because his supremacy in the men’s game was at stake.
With three Masters Series titles, a French Open crown and a title at Wimbledon, Nadal surely had to be considered the new No.1 player. The Spaniard still leads the 2007 Race after his loss, but with his wins at Wimbledon and in Melbourne, Federer remains tennis’ top dog.
Once again, we are entering the US Open series full of excitement in anticipation of how Federer and Nadal will fare in their quest for the No.1 ranking. Where the Spaniard was perhaps not genuinely considered to be a threat to Federer’s position in 2006, it is unquestionable that Rafa is now closer than ever to his main rival. Federer still has a comfortable lead in the rankings, but with Nadal having not many points to defend over the summer, there is no doubt that the raging bull has his eyes set on becoming the game’s best player. The race is on.
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