A Match 1 Year in the Making
Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have secured positions as great champions in the history of tennis. Last year’s 5 set Wimbledon championship match allowed Roger Federer to match Bjorn Borg’s record of 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles. Nadal left that match with more respect from the rest of the tour. Federer made a comment to the effect of needing to win now before Rafa starts winning everything. Since that time Roger won his 4th consecutive U.S. Open title and Nadal collected his 4th consecutive French Open title. Those are two stunning runs of dominance. Federer collected a Masters Series shield in Cincinnati, a Masters Cup title, titles at Basel and Estoril, and has added 11 grass court wins to his all time streak of 65 consecutive wins on grass.* Nadal has added Monte Carlo, Hamburg, Barcelona and perhaps tellingly Queen’s Club to his résumé. It has been a productive 12 months for each man even if the most recent installments in Madrid, Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami did not feature either as the winner. Are we ready for the re-re-rematch? I sure hope so.
New Pressure for Nadal
ESPN’s quick Sports Nation poll shows many average fans still feel Federer is the favorite, but many experts have been saying since July 2007 that Nadal will beat Federer if they meet again in the Wimbledon final. Nadal’s wins over Federer at Monte Carlo and Hamburg barely registered outside of clay because the matches were fairly close. His thrashing of Federer at the 2008 French Open final and win at Queen’s Club have many people buzzing. Patrick McEnroe has asserted that the key question is not if Nadal can beat Federer, but if Federer can beat Nadal on grass in 2008. P-Mac’s assessment is that Nadal will win the event. Just as was the case in 2006 and 2007, the victor of this event will be the default #1 in tennis regardless of what the computer says. Therefore, Nadal faces a new pressure of being co-favorite (or even the favorite) and an old pressure of having a chance to claim the top spot in the sport. Nadal handles pressure well, but it needs to be noted that this is a pressure packed encounter for Nadal.
28 straight sets for Federer since the French Open
Nadal is not facing a radically depleted or wounded Roger Federer in the final. Federer won all 10 sets he played in picking up his 5th Halle title. Marcos Baghdatis and Nichols Kiefer stand out as solid wins in the quick transition from clay to grass. The Fed has also posted straight set wins over Robin Soderling, 2002 Wimbledon Champion Lleyton Hewitt, 2004 Wimbledon semifinalist Mario Ancic, and the enigmatic talent of Marat Safin. Nadal made a similarly quick and impressive transition from clay to grass, but he did so with the wind of victory at his back not the sting of humiliation. Federer has looked sharp at Halle and at Wimbledon.
Nadal’s New Tricks
Rafa has been slicing his backhand more on grass. He has also been stepping into the court on his return game more often. Throw in a more aggressive posture on his forehand, better serving and opportunistic net play, and Nadal looks like a guy who has adapted to grass nicely even if the slower grass helps his extreme swing work in a way it could not have in say 1994. Playign more aggressive tennis helps; playing it cleanly helps a lot. If I had Roger’s ear, I would try to have Roger play in a fashion that draws errors out of a more aggressive player. Serving into the body, keeping the slice backhand low and angled, hitting through the ball as well as possible could all rob Nadal of the time he needs to play aggressive and clean tennis. Andy Murray found hitting through the ball to be easier said than done, but if Roger can make Nadal miss more than usual a tactical crisis may arise as to whether to stay with the new grass court tools or to revert to a style of play with a greater safety margin. Whatever player is making the opponent guess is the player at the advantage even if both guys transition from defense to offense as well as anyone in the history of the game. In sum, I think Nadal’s new tactics and weapons are a major plus, but I also think tennis players are creatures of habit so making Nadal choose between his more instinctive loopy style and more aggressive style might be a good play from Roger.
At the end of 2007, Federer had won 3 of his previous 4 matches versus Nadal. In 2008, Nadal is 3-0 versus Roger winning 7 of the 8 sets these two men have played. Nadal came from behind in both sets they played at Monte Carlo and in the first set at Hamburg. That belief that Nadal can comeback from big deficits is an edge. Clay does facilitate coming back from service breaks more easily than grass, but Federer will need to close out sets if he gets into a winning position. Otherwise, Nadal’s killer instinct just gets that much stronger. Federer won 3 of the 4 tiebreakers in the past two Wimbledon finals. That may be a mental edge for the world #1. Winning 66 consecutive matches on a given surface has to add to self-belief as well.
Fans Should Enjoy This One
I grew up in Kentucky, the heart of college basketball country. The 1996 and 1998 NCAA championships UK won were among the most personally exciting sporting events I have ever watched. The 2007 Wimbledon final was just as exciting to me if not more. These two guys play awesome tennis, but also have contrasting styles. They are both great ambassadors of the sport. I love watching both men, but in all honesty we all have rooting interests when the two do meet even if we like both players. If a major tennis fan dislikes one of these guys, I have to question the logic of such holding such a position. To put my cards on the table, as much as I like Nadal, as much as I am in awe of what he has accomplished, as much as I marvel at how well he competes, Federer is my favorite tennis player of all time. I realize saying this sets me up for criticism every time I write anything in the future, but I think honesty is important. I am sure Nadal and Federer fans alike will have butterflies at the outset of the match. Fans will have frayed nerves if the match is close. Fans of each player will be excited or disappointed at the outcome of the match. That is what it is all about. That is good for tennis.
My Prediction: Federer d. Nadal 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4
I think Federer will have less pressure on himself to win. If he has declined to a point where he is a top 3 player in the world swapping the #1 ranking and being in the mix for big titles, he is not in such a bad place (think Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, and Boris Becker between 1989-1991). After Paris, the experts have doubts about him and that only adds to his motivation. Finally, Roger already matched Borg’s 5 in a row last year. Being the atlas of tennis for 4 years is a long time to carry the load. Melbourne and Paris proved in my mind that he is not the only guy holding up the heavens any more and oddly enough I think that will let him shoot from the hip a bit more freely and win his 6th Wimbledon title. I think the player who plays with less tension will win the title. Nadal might very well do that, but being co-favorite is new to him and having a co-favorite is a new less stressful situation for Roger.
* Federer did not get credited for a win in his 2007 walkover versus Tommy Haas so the grass court streak technically stands at 65 instead of the 66 that 5 Wimbledon titles (35 wins), 5 Halle titles (25 wins) and the six consecutive matches won to reach this final would total.
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