Every Superman has their Kryptonite.
Roger Federer is arguably the greatest tennis player of all-time and is strengthening that argument every time he takes the court — even now — playing some of his best tennis in the twilight of his career. He has a winning record against almost every opponent, but struggles mightily against one man in particular: Rafael Nadal. Roger’s most notable loss to Rafa came in the 2008 Wimbledon final, which contributes to a head-to-head record of 11-23.
As the rivalry was renewed this year in Basel, let’s look at six reasons why Federer struggles so mightily against Nadal.
Federer wields one of the most pin-point precise serves ever seen on tour, contributing to his 9,456 aces – good for third all-time. In his career, his ace rate (total aces divided by total points) is 10%. This drops a full two points to 8% against Rafa. Against a world-class opponent like Nadal, those free points are sorely missed.
Nadal is not known as an exceptional server, as his serve speed and accuracy are only average on the men’s circuit. Federer should be able to feast on only an “average” serve, but this is not the case. Roger usually wins 40% of return points, but against Nadal, that rate drops to 36%. Some of this can be attributed to Nadal’s unbelievable defensive abilities, fending off Fed’s wicked return forehand smashes.
A player’s Dominance Ratio (DR) is (% of points won on opponents’ serves) / (% of points lost on own serve). DR is a great predictor of winning percentage. Roger’s career DR is 1.30, but again, drops to 0.95 when Nadal is his opponent. Nadal’s class doesn’t allow Federer to dominate the matchup as he does others. Against his nemesis, Rog loses more points on serve and on return — all in all, he just loses WAY more.
A tiebreak is the highest-intensity point of any set, and usually the better server has an edge. A good tiebreak player is considered “clutch” and should be able to temper their nerves in any situation. This has Roger Federer written all over it. 65% of the time, he wins the tiebreak. BUT, his clutch gene disappears against Rafa, only winning tiebreaks 48% of the time.
That said, these two players have produced some of the best tiebreaks of all-time:
Of their 34 matches, 15 have been on clay, 16 have been on hard court, and three have been on grass. Federer has a winning record on grass (2–1), while Nadal leads on clay (13–2) and hard court (9–7). Statistically, Nadal has the highest win percentage on clay of any player in ATP history and this skews his matchup with Federer substantially.
Federer has been more successful than Nadal on fast courts because his flatter shots result in a lower bouncing, faster moving trajectory. Nadal’s topspin is less effective on such faster courts, but is most effective on slower courts such as clay. If clay matches are removed from their head-to-head, the stats gets significantly closer.
We all know Rafa’s game plan when playing Roger – hit to his backhand with a ton of topspin. Nadal hits with some of the heaviest topspin in the game, averaging about 3,200 revolutions per minute on his forehand.
It’s probably also the reason that other wildly gifted one-handed players such as Stan Wawrinka (3-13 lifetime vs. Nadal), Nicolas Almagro (1-13 lifetime vs. Nadal), and Richard Gasquet (1-14 lifetime vs. Nadal) have all been blown off the court by Rafa. A one-handed backhand is a death sentence against Nadal, and Federer has done remarkably well to win 11 of the pair’s 34 career matches.
Roger’s and Rafa’s match in Basel was their first since the 2014 Australian Open, but as you can see, this great rivalry is not dead yet.
#FedererNadalXXXIV is their first match at a tournament smaller than a Slam/WTF/ M1000 since way back at their fourth match 2006 in Dubai.
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) November 1, 2015