Welcome to another installment of LiveAnalysis! Today’s match-up is none other than the twenty-ninth meeting between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The two men have now played each other every single year since 2004, which is a most remarkable feat. Another fascinating fact is that this will mark only the third time the classic rivals have met in a round other than a semifinal or a final. Which is even more astounding. But here’s another crazy bit of trivia from the Big 4 Era: among their rivalries, Federer-Nadal will now enter a tie for second place in terms of most matches played. Nadal-Djokovic is still first, with 33 matches played, and Federer-Djokovic used to have the number 2 spot all to itself, with 29 meetings.
We’ve been spoiled, no? The best three players of this generation have played each other many, many times. There have been 91 matches featuring a combination of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. It’s staggering.
How did both men reach this quarterfinal stage? Roger Federer breezed through his first two rounds, though he seemed to tweak his back at the end of his match with Ivan Dodig, and seemed pretty stiff during most of his three set tussle with Stan Wawrinka yesterday. As those who follow me on Twitter know, I thought Federer was obviously hobbled, yet Wawrinka found a way to lose the match anyway. In fact, Federer almost won in straight sets, which is just amazing, given how diminished he looked.
Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, was a bit of a question mark ahead of his round of 16 match against in-form Ernests Gulbis, given that he only had a straight-set win over a slumping Ryan Harrison to show for in terms of hard court experience in almost a year. As we know, Leonardo Mayer gave Nadal a walkover into the fourth round. However, the two-time Indian Wells champion produced a remarkable display to overcome the inspired and fearless Latvian 7-5 in the third set yesterday.
As I mentioned above, this is Federer-Nadal XXIX. Their extensive head-to-head looks like this:
You could write a 7000 word post on this head-to-head, so I’ll focus more on their hard-court matches, as well as their Masters 1000 encounters:
- This will be the 11th hardcourt match between the two all-time greats. Federer holds a slender 6-5 lead on this surface. Interestingly enough, their last 3 matches have been on hard, and Roger Federer has won 2 of them.
- The last time Federer and Nadal met, it was at Indian Wells last year. That semifinal was partially spoiled by bad weather conditions, and Federer won in straightforward fashion. What I find interesting is that prior to Indian Wells 2012, Nadal hadn’t played anything since his devastating Australian Open final loss to Novak Djokovic, while Federer had swept through Rotterdam and Dubai. The Swiss arrived into the California desert full of momentum – he would go on to win the tournament. This year, the roles are somewhat reversed: Federer lost early in Rotterdam, and fell in the Dubai semifinals. Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, comes on a winning streak of his own, given that the Spaniard won the Sao Paulo and Acapulco titles before getting to Indian Wells.
- This meeting will mark the 14th time that the Swiss and the Spaniard will face off in a Masters 1000 event. This is only their second meeting at Indian Wells: they’ve met 3 times in Miami, Madrid (all three times on clay), and Montecarlo. They’ve met once in Rome. Oddly enough, given the many times they’ve played each other in M1000s, Federer and Nadal have not met in any of the post-Wimbledon M1000s. This is quite strange, since both men have won more than once in Canada, won Madrid when it was held in the fall, and both men made an appearance in the finals of Paris and Shanghai, with Federer winning the former once. In their M1000 head-to-head, Rafael Nadal holds a comfortable 9-4 edge. However, only four of those meetings have been on hard court, and the pair have split those.
- It’s rather remarkable that Federer and Nadal hadn’t met at Indian Wells before last year’s semifinal clash, given the fact that they had won a combined 5 titles at that event in the previous years. It’s clear both men enjoy the conditions in the desert.
Three Things to Watch For:
1. Who is able to better overcome their physical issues during the match? Federer admitted to his back issues (which again, were evident to the naked eye), and Nadal said his knee was only “so-so”. Both played long three-setters yesterday that had to take a toll on their already fragile frames. To top it off, they’ve had fewer than 24 hours to regroup. Whichever physio did the best job with the recovery process will get handsomely rewarded.
2. Will Nadal be able to boss Federer around with his cross-court forehand? As we all know, that’s been Federer’s kryptonite: having to hit high-backhand after high-backhand in these matches. If Nadal is getting enough depth, Federer runs out of options, and is forced to go for more on the cross-court backhand, given that he’d have no angle to go down the line. However, if Nadal is leaving his forehand short, Federer can step inside the baseline and be aggressive with his backhand, or better yet, run around it and belt forehands either inside-out or inside-in. This dynamic has been responsible for Federer’s success against Nadal at the World Tour Finals, also aided by the low bounce of those courts through the years.
3. Who will be able to attack second serves better? Both men tend to return each other’s serves fairly well, which gives Nadal an edge. However, it will be interesting to see if Federer can replicate some of the aggressive returns that Gulbis was putting in yesterday, which is something that Federer has tried to do against Nadal since Paul Annacone joined his team. However, if those aggressive returns start falling outside the lines, or if Nadal is onto them, Federer may retreat to his usual backhand slice returns, which Nadal tends to eat alive.
Remember to refresh this page often, as I will be providing game-by-game updates throughout the match!
The men are on court, and Mo Lahyani will be in the chair tonight:
Best reality TV is about to begin…episode #29 of Roger v Rafa!
— Rob Koenig (@RobKoenigTennis) March 15, 2013
As in previous LiveAnalysis posts, I’ll be using a bit of “tennis shorthand” today. Here’s your glossary:
BP: Break Point
DTL: Down the line (means the same as “up the line”
UFE: Unforced error
First Set – Roger Federer will serve first.
0-0: A familiar pattern starts this off: a couple of simple BHs DTL from Nadal carve up some space for his deadly inside-out FH, which goes cleanly for a winner. However, Nadal sends a return long, and then a BH DTL wide, so it’s 30-15. However, a simple BH DTL by Nadal triggers a CC BH UFE from Federer. 30-all. A good wide Federer serve makes it 40-30 – that’s a good serve to use against Nadal, who is standing far back to return. It’s deuce after Nadal once again bosses Federer around with his backhand (!!!), and draws a Federer error. The Swiss serves and volleys, with no need for the latter, and has a chance to hold. Which Federer does when he runs around a BH and belts an inside out FH that Nadal can’t handle.
That was an interesting game. So far, Nadal’s BH seems like the stroke that will do a lot of the work today: Nadal knows that he doesn’t have to hit great BHs DTL to find Federer’s BH. I also liked how he hit his CC BH, which seemed to put Federer on some pressure with his FH.
Health watch: Nadal seems to be moving around well, just like yesterday, and Federer seems to be a little stiff. Not as bad as yesterday, though.
1-0, Federer: Federer misses a few returns, and it’s 40-15. Nadal’s first Ace gives the Spaniard a very comfortable hold.
1-1: Two bad FH unforced errors give Nadal a 0-30 lead, and it could’ve been 0-40, had Nadal managed to hit a FH passing shot correctly. An Ace makes it 30-all. A great CC BH by Federer after a BH DTL return by Nadal forces the Spaniard’s error, and then a service winner gives Federer a valuable hold, after being down 0-30 to start.
Federer’s back might need a while to warm up and loosen, but the Swiss is still finding ways to be effective, just like yesterday.
"Federer hasn't beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam match since Wimbledon 2007." Wow. That's an amazing stat. #BNPPO13
— Amer Delic (@AmerDelic) March 15, 2013
2-1, Federer: Nadal’s BH keeps working well – he hits a breauty of a CC BH winner makes it 15-all, after a DF started the game. At 30-15, Nadal yanks Federer from side to side, but ends up netting a FH that seemed like the killer shot of the rally. Federer then comes up with a bad inside-in FH UFE, A little bit later, Nadal’s hold to 30 is clinched.
Nadal will look to do what Stan Wawrinka didn’t do yesterday: take the first set against a stiff and below par Roger Federer. As I mentioned above, Federer will need some time to let his back loosen up – Nadal has to make sure that once that happens, Federer is in too big of a hole to dig himself out.
2-2: Federer is at 0-30 again, but an Ace and a service winner levels the game. Nadal then uses his BH DTL to once again find Federer’s BH, it forces the error, and Rafael Nadal has his first BP of the match. An ace seems to save it, but it’s challenged. Tough luck for Nadal, as half the ball clips the outside of the line. Deuce #1. It’s AD-Federer after the Swiss forces a BH error from Nadal, and he follows the same formula to hold.
STATS UPDATE Even with his stiff back, through 4 games (2 service games), Federer is serving at 76% 1st serves. His biggest problem? He’s won only 5 of 17 baseline points. In slow conditions like these, you can’t really afford such a big gap. The serve can solve only so many problems.
Nadal keeps using his backhand wisely, even if it broke down a bit at the end of the previous game. Federer is looking to find Nadal’s backhand, kind of like Djokovic, but he’s having problems with the high-bouncing stuff Nadal is sending to his own single-hander.
3-2, Federer: Nadal holds at love after Federer shanks a few balls.
The momentum is firmly with Nadal in this set. But he’s yet to capitalize on it. Will this be the game?
3-3: Federer wins the point of the match so far, a cat and mouse affair that starts with a great Federer dropper, and ends with a nice flick of a pass. Nadal counters with a great CC FH winner, but then badly botches a BH slice attempt. A shanked return follows. 40-15. Federer thinks he has a comfortable edge, and serves and volleys. He gets passed. He then makes an inside-out FH UFE. Deuce #1. Federer goes on the rampage after a short return by Nadal, and eventually forces Nadal’s error. It’s Deuce #2 after a wayward BH DTL by Federer. The men are back at net, after Nadal hits a flick BH pass, and even though Federer seemed to have plenty of time to hit a good half-volley, he nets it. BP #2 for Nadal, who sends it flying with a BH DTL that goes well, well wide. Bad miss – a CC BH would’ve been safer. However, Nadal will have a third BP, since Federer keeps trying to serve and volley. Federer comes to net after his 2nd FH, and gets passed again. Nadal with the early break!
That was bizarre from Federer. Yes, he was struggling from the baseline – through six games he’s won only 8 of the 27 baseline points played. But serving and volleying? Against Nadal? That’s just suicide. Gave Nadal a target, and the Spaniard rarely misses in those conditions.
4-3, Nadal: Through six games, Nadal has won all but two service points. He’s up 30-0 quickly, and then Federer finally wins a net point, after a nice BH DTL slice approach. However, that’s followed by a bad FH UFE. 40-15. Yet another BH CC winner gives Nadal the consolidation hold.
5-3, Nadal: Federer is back in a 15-30 hold, but a good FH levels the game. However, Nadal does his usual thing against Federer, pummeling that single hander with a nice CC FH, and he has a SP. Federer comes in to put away a CC FH, he hits the line, but it’s called out. Mo Lahyani overrules, and they replay the point. Federer staves off the SP, after an ace. A service winner gives him game point. It goes begging, and after yet another CC BH winner from Nadal (notice the trend?), it’s SP #2 for Nadal. However, it goes begging on a bad CC BH UFE. A bad miss. Another BH UFE by Nadal, and Federer has another chance to hold. Which the Swiss does, after a great CC BH forces a Nadal FH error.
It’s interesting to note that Nadal isn’t 100% either – you can see that his legs don’t take him exactly where he would like to go, particularly on his FH side. Federer would do well to attack to that wing…provided he gets a good look on which to unload on with his CC BH, or enough time to run around and hit his inside-out FH. Federer’s issue, as always in this match-up, is getting out of that AD court jam.
Nadal has been holding without trouble – has lost 3 points so far. Can he avoid pulling a Dimitrov?
5-4, Nadal: Federer goes for a big CC BH, and nets it. 15-0. A BH slice by Nadal goes long, and it’s 15-all. Just the fourth point Federer has won on Nadal’s serve. Federer steps way inside the baseline for a big FH return off a 2nd serve…but misses wide. 30-15. Simple lefty AD court serve triggers a BH miss by Federer, and Nadal has 2 more SPs. Federer gets a little lucky when a BH clips the net and goes to die on Nadal’s side, and the Spaniard yanks his BH putaway wide. SP again. The set is over after a beauty of a lefty AD serve that Federer’s BH cannot put in play.
First Set to Rafael Nadal, 6-4
Here are your full 1st set stats
STATS UPDATE That set was not as close as the scoreline suggested: Federer was barely able to win points on Nadal’s service games(just 5 all set), and won a measly amount of the total baseline points (just 14 of 36). Nadal’s CC BH was key, since it’s yanking Federer to an uncomfortable position (given his back issues), and it’s nabbing a fair share of winners.
Second Set – Roger Federer will serve first.
0-0: Nadal breaks at love after three bad errors from Federer followed by another ill-advised adventure to the net. Nadal with the early break!
1-0, Nadal: Nadal consolidates to 15, in a game that included one of his trademark FH passing shot winners hit at incredible pace when fully outstretched. An amazing shot.
Federer’s FH has left the building. His back seems to be hurting him on that wing. Which is really not a good thing for his chances in this match.
2-0, Nadal: Federer races to a 40-15 lead, but a fantastic deep return by Nadal pins his BH, and forces the error a stroke later. 40-30. Another insanely deep FH return by Nadal makes it deuce. Just as things were looking extremely bleak for Federer, he comes up with a clutch service winner up the T. A chance to hold. Federer keeps serving to Nadal’s FH, and Nadal keeps getting very deep CC FH returns. Deuce #2. Federer comes in after a rare Nadal short return, but overcooks his BH. BP for Nadal. It goes begging on a FH DTL UFE, just as Nadal had locked in on a relatively easy target. A bad miss. However, Nadal has another BP as he yanks Federer side to side yet again, and finishes with a FH winner. Federer once again comes to net, for some strange reason, and gets passed. Nadal with the double-break!
As I feared, health issues have derailed this edition of the Federer-Nadal classic. Federer is at about 35% capacity…and that’s being kind. Rafael Nadal is not Stan Wawrinka, so he’s executing a simple gameplan without much bother. Again, I don’t even think Nadal is at 100%, but his issues have more to do with lack of hard court play.
2008 French Open final: Nadal's return-point win % was 1.9x Federer's. Tonight, thru 1st 3 games of 2nd set: 2.2x, highest Nadal's had v Fed
— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) March 15, 2013
3-0, Nadal: Federer is now going for huge returns, and two of them land in. He’s up 15-30, in what feels like the first half chance he’s had on Nadal’s serve. However, Federer comes to net again, and gets passed after he leaves a volley well short. 30-all. Another big BH return from Federer and the Swiss has his first BP chance of the match. However, Nadal foils him with a sneaky service winner up the T – everybody was expecting the lefty slider out wide. Deuce #1. Service winner again, and it’s AD Nadal. A deep return from Federer sets up a deuce court rally (the kind that Federer would favor, but has had far too few), and Nadal sends a BH well long. Deuce #2. A strange, crazy point follows, where Nadal runs around the entire court, and botches a rather straightforward BH pass. It was the easiest shot of the rally for Nadal. BP #2 for Federer. Federer then gets a few deep BHs DTL to land deep, and forces Nadal’s error. Federer recovers one of the breaks!
That came out of nowhere, really. Federer’s BH got on a nice run – that side doesn’t seem that hindered by the back issues. The Swiss went for some big returns (all his BH returns were drive ones), and it all paid off.
3-1, Nadal: Federer goes up 30-15 after pouncing on a short Nadal return, and he rinses and repeats for 40-15. A nice wide service winner gives Federer two consecutive games for the first time in the match.
Nadal seems a little shocked by the turn of events – Federer found his FH timing again, and Nadal’s returns were far too short. A pivotal game is coming up for the Spaniard.
Like I mentioned above, Federer needed some time for his back to loosen up. Maybe it has already, just as it did in the third set against Wawrinka yesterday. Nadal would do well to stick to his gameplan and pretend this match is at 0-0.
3-2, Nadal: Nadal with a 2nd ball BH UFE. Rattled. 0-15. He’s won only 4 of the last 15 points. However, Nadal puts away a smash to avoid a dreaded 0-30 hole. 15-all. Federer goes on a rampage with his inside-out FH (another pattern that favors him), and it’s 15-30. However, a CC BH winner shows up again – not sure I had seen one of those in the 2nd set. 30-all. Federer can’t get a deep return in, and Nadal makes him pay with a couple of CC FHs. 40-30. And then the nervy, nervy hold is completed when Federer can’t handle a lefty slider to his BH.
That felt vital. Nadal seemed to freeze for a couple of games, as if he were astounded that Federer stopped missing all of sudden.
4-2, Nadal: Federer starts with two BH UFEs, but then comes up with his trusty slider out wide from the deuce court. 15-30. Nadal leaves a return very, very short, Federer pounces, but after blasting a FH straight at Nadal, the Swiss badly misses on a volley. 15-40. Nadal botches the first BP after a soft BH return miss. It was a 109 mph serve. Federer then saves another BP with a great CC BH. However, Nadal yanks Federer wide on his FH side, and he has another BP, which is converted after a few CC FHs that eventually draw an error. Nadal breaks again, and will serve for the match!
5-2, Nadal: It’s 30-0 in the blink of an eye, and soon enough it’s 40-0. Just simple serves to Federer’s BH. Nadal double-faults on the first MP. However, a simple 2nd ball CC FH into Federer’s BH forces the error, and Nadal clinches the straightforward win.
Here are the two gentlemen at net:
Game, Set and Match to Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 6-2
Here are your full match stats
It’s rather difficult to try and come up with final thoughts on a match that was so obviously influenced by one player’s injury. Roger Federer seemed to struggle with most elements of his game. Which exacerbated the usual struggles Federer has with Rafael Nadal’s game. This is why we ended up with a 4 and 2 drubbing that probably should’ve been even more lopsided.
If we’ve learned anything from the past 10 years of tennis, it’s that you have to be in tip-top shape to even have a chance to topple either Federer and Nadal. This, of course, applies to them as well. The question is, if Federer knew he was hobbled…why did he even show up? Here are a few possible reasons:
1) Federer was likely told that he couldn’t make his injury any worse. I find it hard to believe that Roger Federer would risk serious injury for a M1000 quarterfinal at this stage of his career.
2) Federer probably wondered, as did most of us, how well Nadal would recover from his epic battle with Ernests Gulbis the other day. If Nadal showed up a step slower, a bit more hesitant and erratic…there was a chance for Federer to get a win against his biggest rival. After all, Federer knew that even though he was just as stiff today as he was against Stan Wawrinka, he still found a way to win that match – heck, he almost won it in straight sets. And his back seemed to loosen up significantly in the decider.
As it turns out, Nadal came out at around 90% of what he showed against Gulbis, but that was more than enough to deal with a hobbled 17-time major winner.
What I found interesting was noticing all the little things that Nadal couldn’t do himself: he was struggling to get to deep shots hit to his FH corner, and wasn’t running around his backhand as much as he would have liked. However, that same backhand fared admirably today: the Spaniard was able to guide many DTL BHs deep enough to find Federer’s BH, and he hit many, many BH winners. As you can see from the stats above, Rafael Nadal ended with only two fewer BH winners than FH winners. Again, this is Rafael Nadal we’re talking about.
In the end, what was the most fascinating aspect of this match was the way the tennis world hung in drooling anticipation for it. After a year, tennis was getting another Federer-Nadal match. I’ve mentioned in tweets and here on The Changeover that it irritates me how it sometimes seems like a Federer-Nadal match-up is the only worthwhile outcome for most tennis tournaments. This rivalry, which tactically is quite uninteresting, still manages to make the tennis universe stop and watch attentively as the same, tired patterns of play unfold before our eyes. The Tennis Channel even had a countdown to the match….5 hours before it was set to start!
The fact is, even though Federer was obviously hobbled, today’s match showcased for the 29th time just why Nadal has amassed that very lopsided 19-10 head-to-head: a very, very simple gameplan keeps being successful, even if the execution isn’t all that stellar. In very basic terms, tennis is about finding your opponent’s weak spot, and punishing it mercilessly. The great players find ways to hide those weaknesses, and also improve them. But Nadal rarely has trouble finding Federer’s frail spot, and for him, it’s a spot as big as half a tennis court.
The few great Federer-Nadal matches have occurred precisely because Federer has been playing at such a high level that finding that frailty hasn’t been as easy. Then the match-up becomes an all-court battle where things get more and more complicated and intense, as well as unpredictable.
However, there have been plenty of these Federer-Nadal encounters that have been as straightforward as today’s match. And then, what remains? A whole lot of expectations that go wildly unfulfilled.
In a way, it’s probably a positive thing that today’s match happened. It might help the tennis world stop fixating so obsessively on this rivalry, and start looking at the other great things that are happening and that deserve such attention.
It’s time to move on.