Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal is the gift that keeps on giving – ever since their first meeting 13½ years ago in March 2004, in Miami.
Federer’s 6-4, 6-3 victory in Sunday’s final of the Shanghai Rolex Masters makes their career head-to-head 23-15 in favour of Nadal – and there has been a face-saving rally from Federer thanks to five wins in a row after Nadal had led 23-10.
In fact Federer joked in Swiss German to reporters after his victory in Shanghai, “five wins in a row against Rafa…maybe I should retire now.”
Tennis, like most sports, is all about situations and often external factors affect what happens on court as much as the way shots are hit back and forth on the day.
Even after that first match and Nadal’s 6-3, 6-3 win at the then NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami in 2004, Federer claimed to be still feeling the after-effects of sunstroke and time spent in bed following his victory in the Indian Wells final the previous week.
Sunday’s match featured a superb performance by Federer but there’s no doubt that Nadal was not at his best. The most obvious evidence was the tape below his right knee, something that had not been there in his previous nine matches in Beijing and Shanghai.
He made errors on three of the first four points in losing his serve in the opening game on Sunday and never looked like the impenetrable player he had been in winning his previous 16 matches dating back through the US Open, Beijing, as well as his impressive Shanghai quarter-final and semifinal victories over Grigor Dimitrov and Marin Cilic.
While Nadal had seemed masterful on hard courts with seven wins in New York, five in Beijing and four in Shanghai, on Sunday in the seventh game of the first set he hand-gestured (see above) to his support team – indicating that the court was playing fast and that the ball was shooting through low.
A count of points played in the first set showed that 37 of 55 (66 per cent) were decided by the serve or the return, with almost all those points ending in fewer than four strokes.
Federer, helped by the slick surface, was able to boss most of the rallies and Nadal looked vulnerable after being dominant in his last few tournaments.
There’s no question the knee was a factor. Here’s what he said in response to a question about it after reporters apparently saw him limp into his post-match media conference: “no, I don’t want to talk about that now, sorry, but after losing final is not the moment.”
That was similar to what Madison Keys said following the US Open final when she under-performed against Sloane Stephens while playing with her right thigh heavily bandaged.
It’s bad form to make excuses.
There was a further clue that Nadal (downcast at the Shanghai trophy ceremony above) was concerned about the knee when he responded to a question about playing Basel next week. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. Remain (a) couple of weeks for me. I need to think about it. No, no, I cannot (smiling). I cannot tell you. Sorry, man.”
That was somewhat similar to Federer when he suffered a back problem during the Rogers Cup final against Sascha Zverev in Montreal this summer. At his media conference later he said he would go to Cincinnati and decide there whether or not to play the event. Up to that point there had never been the slightest suggestion that he would not be playing Cincinnati. He did not play.
Federer, who subsequently lost in the US Open quarter-finals to Juan Martin Del Potro, was candid about that period when he spoke about his renewed excellent form following his win on Sunday. “It’s definitely been the best I felt since Wimbledon,” he said. “Montreal was tough to play. Anything after Montreal was never the same with my back issues I had. US Open was all a struggle, really. Laver Cup (two weeks after the US Open) was good. I played some really good tennis there, but this was different because I was able to back up good performances – five in a row. So it reminded me a little bit of Wimbledon maybe to some extent.”
Here’s a simple fact: great players – the greatest actually – are rarely ever going to say they lost to a player who played better than they did if they are playing near or at their best. A rare exception would be Federer conceding that on clay Nadal is simply a superior player. The Spaniard leads him 13-2 on that surface and even Federer’s two wins might be said to have come with asterisks – in the 2007 Hamburg final when Nadal had won 19 matches in a row on clay and basically finally ran out of gas in a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 loss to Federer, and then in 2009 in Madrid when he also was exhausted after a mammoth four hour-and-three minute 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9) semifinal victory (including saving three match points) over Novak Djokovic. That left him with little for the final, and Federer won it 6-4, 6-4.
It’s something of a reverse scenario when it comes to Federer and what was arguably the toughest loss of his career – the mythic 2008 Wimbledon final when Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7.
On Sunday, the eight-time Wimbledon champ cited that 2008 Wimbledon classic, referencing his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 loss to Nadal four weeks earlier in the final of the French Open. “I do believe I still lost that Wimbledon final in ’08 because of the French Open beat-down he gave me,” Federer said. “It just affected my first two sets when I played him at Wimbledon. Down 6-4, 6-4, and okay I got lucky to win the third, but maybe if I don’t lose both first sets it might be a different match.”
Some people like to see tennis matches and sports in general in black and white – whoever wins wins. Nothing counts except the outcome. Others, while acknowledging the result, have a more nuanced view and prefer to consider the context to have a fuller understanding and appreciation of how things played out.
Still, no matter that Nadal may not have been at his best on Sunday, or that Federer feels he could have done better in the 2008 Wimbledon final, whenever these legends of the sport face each other it’s a privilege for tennis lovers to see them go head-to-head even if one might be diminished in some way.
But after all that’s happened between them, it remains difficult to believe the results of the last seven sets between Federer and Nadal dating back to the fifth set of the Australian Open final in January – and including the round-of-16 in Indian Wells and the finals in Miami and Shanghai – have been “6-3, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3,” all for Federer.
There’s no doubt the Swiss has an advantage on hard courts and is playing great – the switch in 2014 from a Wilson 90-square inch racquet head to his current Wilson 97-square inch racquet has paid dividends, especially with his backhand.
But it’s almost a certainty that Nadal will ultimately prevail in their career head-to-head – now leading it 23-15 – when all is said and done. Federer admitted as much on Sunday. “It’s not gonna happen,” he said about overtaking his long-time rival. “We don’t have enough years left on the tour, and we’re ranked too good that we play each other only in finals at the moment. It looks like that’s going to stay like this for a few months more. So (I) can’t win them all against Rafa, to be honest. He’s too good of a player.”
Following his semifinal 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Del Potro on Saturday, the 36-year-old Federer summed his more than 13-year rivalry with the 31-year-old Spaniard. “It’s been a tough matchup for me,” he said, “and I tried my best. I have played him a lot on clay in the beginning of my career. No problem. I tried. I was close on many occasions, but he’s better on clay. I try to win the other ones that I can. And this year has been great so I’m happy about it.”
A noteworthy positive about Federer and Nadal over that time – they have almost always maintained a civil, cordial relationship.
There’s been none of the acrimony and vitriol that highlighted (lowlighted?) matters between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Connors and Ivan Lendl, and Lendl and McEnroe in their heydays more than 40 years ago.
This reporter recalls seeing Nadal before the 2010 Australian Open when he came across Robert Federer, Roger’s father, in a common area outside the men’s locker room before the tournament started. It was after the birth of Roger’s twin daughters the previous summer and, with a smile on his face, Nadal said to Federer’s père, “so you’re a grandfather now.’”
During Shanghai last week, Federer described his relationship with Nadal very simply. “I’m happy to call him a friend today,” he said.
Thank you to @shrolexmasters for offering me a WC into this amazing event. To be honest with all of you, I had been in bed the last 3 days with a virus leading up to my match. My team advised me to pull out of the tournament but I wanted to play for myself but also for my fans who have been so welcoming and supportive. This being said I pushed myself to the limits but Viktor and my Illness got the best of me. Thanks again to all my fans cheering me on in Shanghai, it has been such a nice city and event to be in. See you all next year #NeverStopFighting
Denis Shapovalov made his return to ATP play last week at the Shanghai Rolex Masters and was beaten 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-0 by No. 54-ranked Viktor Troicki in the first round.
Later, on his Facebook page (above) while thanking Shanghai organizers for awarding him a main-draw wild card, he wrote, “To be honest with all of you, I had been in bed the last 3 days with a virus leading up to my match. My team advised me to pull out of the tournament but I wanted to play for myself but also for my fans who have been so welcoming and supportive. This being said I pushed myself to the limits but Viktor and my Illness got the best of me. Thanks again to all my fans cheering me on in Shanghai, it has been such a nice city and event to be in. See you all next year.”
Shapovalov, ranked No. 50, took part in last Saturday’s draw ceremony for this week’s ATP 250 tournament in Antwerp.
On Tuesday, he was beaten 7-6(5), 6-4 by No. 114-ranked Ernesto Escobedo. Off-form and edgy, Shapovalov was unable to match the big-hitting of the 21-year-old Californian.
At the seven ATP tournaments he has played in 2017, Shapovalov has an 8-7 record. He’s scheduled to play the ATP 500 event in Basel next week.
Been sick for 3 weeks
Withdrew from Linz…Barely practice coming in to Luxembourg. Competing+practice will help me get my form back soon 💪🏾
— Françoise Abanda (@franckie12345) October 15, 2017
On the subject of feeling under the weather while traveling away from home at this time of year – No. 122-ranked Francoise Abanda tweeted the above after losing 6-2, 6-1 on Sunday in the second round of qualifying at the Luxembourg Open, a WTA International category event, to the come-backing Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, now 38 and ranked No. 166.
At the Luxembourg Open on Tuesday, No. 80-ranked Genie Bouchard’s year came to a disappointing close when she was beaten 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 by No. 79 Johanna Larsson of Sweden.
Bouchard, who had an ankle injury before the French Open, won just two matches at her last 10 tournaments of the 2017 season, finishing with an overall 13-21 match record.
Rebecca Marino of Vancouver is making a comeback to tennis and will play the qualifying at the $60,000 Saguenay National Bank Challenger at the Tennis Intérieur Saguenay in Quebec next week followed by the $60,000 Tevlin Women’s Challenger in Toronto at Aviva Centre the following week.
She left tennis in February 2013, and later revealed she was dealing with depression issues.
In the time since she retired she has, among other things, attended the University of British Columbia and worked with junior players in Vancouver.
Her highest WTA ranking was No. 38 in July 2011, and probably her most-memorable match was a well-played 7-6(3), 6-3 loss to Venus Williams in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the second round of the 2011 US Open.
Before she stopped playing, Marino’s age was often noted in relation to Milos Raonic. Her 27th birthday will be on December 16th, eleven days before Raonic turns 27 on December 27th.
— Josh Meiseles (@jmeistennis) October 15, 2017
For those who follow tennis via ATP Media – on television networks like TSN or online at TennisTV.com – Nick Lester (left) and Robbie Koenig (right) are welcome and familiar voices. Above is their perch for last week’s Masters 1000 event in Shanghai.
Feature photo courtesy: TennisTV.com