Roger vs Rafa: A lesson in application

11 Jun 2007 Posted by
Rafael NadaA lot has no doubt been written about Rafael Nadal’s third consecutive French Open title yesterday, made all the more significant by the fact that he, yet again, denied Roger Federer a chance to complete the set of Grand Slams. Commentators speak of Federer as though he is the greatest player in history and perhaps when he hangs up his racket in 5 or so years, that will be borne out by the numbers of titles he has won. But it beats me that he’s the world number one, having watched yesterday’s match. He makes more bad errors and mis-hits than any other player in the top 10, his game looks at any stage like it may fall apart altogether and he seems to disappear from planet earth for long periods. The statistics bear this out – 60 unforced errors in 4 sets of tennis, compared to only about 20 from Nadal. His first serve percentage was also down at about 30% for most of the match. And his forehand turns into a liability too often. The crowd in the front row behind Nadal were in danger from some of the balls flying off the frame.

And some will argue that he has to go for the shots against Nadal, such is the pressure that the Spaniard places on his opposition. But that Federer’s execution seems so poor and he seems completely unable to raise his game on the big points (he won only one out of about 20 break point opportunities, incredible from a supposed ‘big point player’) is a sign to me that he needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink his approach to playing Nadal. He said after the match that he would do better next time – unless he makes changes, next time, he’ll be lucky to take 10 games of Nadal. Nadal himself was poor in the final. Remarkably, he stopped running about halfway through the third set. His usually vicious forehand seemed to lack its usual venom and pace and Federer found himself with much more time than any of Nadal’s other opponents have had. Yet he could not take advantage, and seemed to almost drift aimlessly towards another defeat on clay.

Nadal is a warrior, that’s for sure. His determination and sheer courage is amazing, but it’s his application that won him the match yesterday. He changed his usual game of attacking Federer’s backhand, and played a lot more inside out forehands and down the line forehands to mix up the play. He also used the slice a lot more and generally played a lot more intelligently, and for me, that’s what made the difference. Federer seemed hell-bent on showing the world that he could slug it out with Nadal from the baseline. And the commentators (who were absolutely brilliant, by the way) were stunned at what seemed to be lack of nuance to the situation, or perhaps arrogance from Federer that he could outhit Nadal. Eventually he saw the light, and changed his game in the second set. But it was the aberration, and Nadal’s fighting spirit and greater execution soon regained control and the rest was a predictable march to the third title in a row.

As for Federer, he desperately needs a coach, and perhaps some sort of mental conditioning as well. I realise this is a radical notion – this is the ‘greatest player ever’, but his technical deficiencies, especially on the forehand are glaringly obvious yet persisted the whole clay court season, and he needs to somehow find a way to assert himself over the warrior from Mallorca.

Bring on the grass court season and let’s see Nadal-Federer in another Wimbledon final – my support goes to Nadal, not because he’s the fighter (I couldn’t care less for passion and courage), but because he’s the thinker.