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Steve Flink: A Crucial Meeting For Two Champions

1/24/2012 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Another eagerly anticipated appointment between two of the greatest players in the history of game is upon us, and my gut tells me that this one could well turn into something strongly resembling their epic duel on the lawns of the All England Club that Rafael Nadal captured 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 over Roger Federer back in 2008. Nadal and Federer will meet for the 27th time in their much heralded rivalry in what will surely be a gripping semifinal clash at the Australian Open in the first major of 2012. Nadal holds a commanding 17-9 in their celebrated series, including victories in seven of nine head-to-head contests at the majors. The indefatigable Spaniard has stopped the elegant Swiss five times without a loss at Roland Garros, while Federer has been the victor in two of their three meetings at Wimbledon—all in the finals. They have collided only once at the Australian Open, with Nadal besting his esteemed adversary in a five set, final round 2009 classic. They seemed fated to meet the last two years at the U.S. Open as Nadal advanced to both finals, but on each occasion Novak Djokovic saved two match points to prevent a Federer-Nadal confrontation in New York.

This upcoming battle in Melbourne shapes up as a beauty. The consequences of the outcome are immense for both players. Federer has not secured a major since he took his 16th Grand Slam title on this same stage in 2010, but his resurgence as of late has been striking to one and all who have followed his phenomenal career. He hasn’t looked this confident in a very long while. He is playing his best brand of tennis since at least 2009, and probably longer. Federer’s form against the swiftly emerging Bernard Tomic was highly impressive as he dissected the 19-year-old Australian with consummate ease 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. Following up on that performance last night, Federer performed breathtakingly to knock out Juan Martin Del Potro 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the quarterfinals.

That sweepingly beautiful display from Federer against the man who beat him in a five set final at the 2009 U.S. Open left a wide range of fans and commentators gasping. Del Potro has made significant progress after enduring wrist surgery and missing most of 2010. He concluded 2011 back at No. 11 in the world, perhaps setting the stage for a brilliant 2012 campaign. The 6’6” Argentine played increasingly potent and purposeful tennis across this past fortnight en route to his duel with Federer, reaching his first quarterfinal at a Grand Slam event since that landmark fortnight in New York more than two years ago. Del Potro’s explosive flat forehand is one of the biggest and best shots in tennis. He wanted to blast Federer off the court with an avalanche of winners last night, and hoped he could overpower the Swiss with the immensity of his power game.

But Del Potro was never allowed to establish the upper hand as Federer set the tactical agenda almost entirely. Del Potro was ceaselessly off balance and out of sorts. Federer kept sending his slice serve wide in the deuce court at acute angles, winning clusters of free points with that tactic. Yet even if Del Potro did manage with his wide wing span to sporadically get the return back into play, Federer was stepping into the court to unleash inside-out forehand winners at will. Federer won an astonishing 89% of his first serve points and a very respectable 58% of his second serve points. He was mixing up his speeds and spins artfully in the Ad court as well. The Argentine had few opportunities to impose himself on the return of serve.

But compounding Del Potro’s problems was the way Federer returned. Unless the Argentine kept his delivery exceedingly close to the lines, Federer was keeping nearly every return in play, blocking back big serves, chipping low and short, drawing Del Potro in skillfully. Federer’s footwork was even sharper than usual, and his discipline in that area allowed him to exploit his trademark inside-out forehand magnificently. Moreover, his topspin backhand down the line was terrific. Federer was taking some deep drives off both flanks from Del Potro and stepping in to hi backhand half-volleys from the baseline for outright winners.

From the outset, Federer’s mindset and desire to win were almost tangible. On his way to a 3-0 opening set lead, he swept 12 of 15 points. Del Potro was hard pressed to hold in the fourth game, hanging on after four deuces, saving a break point in the process. Federer was not thrown off stride. He held easily to reach 4-1, and the set seemed safely in his grasp. Here Del Potro made a good stand. He held at 30 for 2-4 and then broke Federer in the seventh game as the Swiss connected with only two of six first serves. Del Potro pounded his way to a break, and held on easily for 4-4. In his three game run, Del Potro took 12 of 17 points.

Federer had cause for concern, but did not show it. He held at 15 for 5-4, and then went to work assiduously in the tenth game. A pair of dazzling forehand winners took the Swiss to 15-40, double set point. His returns throughout that game were unstoppable. A frazzled Del Potro double faulted long at 15-40 to concede the set. That had to be disconcerting for the Argentine after his stellar comeback, but Federer had simply resumed his mastery of the match. In that opening set, Federer produced 14 winners and committed only five unforced errors. He was very much at the top of his game, and both players were well aware of that fact.

Federer seized the initiative again to move ahead 3-1 in the second set, breaking the Argentine in the fourth game with a piece of genius. Del Potro had driven a two-hander reasonably deep crosscourt, but Federer moved forward, took it early on the half volley, and directed it down the line for a clean winner. He saved a break point in the following game and moved to 4-1. At 5-3, Federer served for the set. He may well have traveled briefly in his mind back to that 2009 U.S. Open final against Del Potro. On that occasion, Federer had won the first set and served for the second at 5-4, reaching 30-0. But he had let that critical game slip away from him. Del Potro won the second set to stay in contention, and eventually took the match.

Serving now in Melbourne for a two set lead over Del Potro, Federer was apprehensive to say the least. He missed nine of twelve first serves. He double faulted into a 15-40 deficit.  Del Potro had four break points to get back on serve and perhaps reverse the course of the match. On three of those opportunities, Del Potro made unprovoked mistakes. An outwardly calm Federer refused to give that game away, and eventually held on more with mental toughness than anything else. Now he had the two set lead, and Federer predictably soared to another level down the stretch. He bolted to 2-0, and on his way to a 4-2 lead, the Swiss dropped only one point in three service games. Both men realized what was going to happen. Pride alone could not keep the dignified Del Potro in the match. Federer took the last two games with some of his finest shot making of the contest. In one hour and 59 minutes, Federer had recorded an uplifting straight set triumph on an important historical occasion for him. This was the 1000th tennis match of his career, and his career match record stands at a staggering 814 wins against only 186 losses.

Clearly, this was the kind of showing Federer wanted to make heading into a critical skirmish with his oldest and most revered rival. Federer has not dropped a set in the tournament. Nadal had not conceded any sets himself through the first four rounds, but he found himself in a surprisingly fierce battle with Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals. Nadal took a 10-3 career head-to-head record on court with him, and had won their last nine showdowns, taking 21 of their last 22 sets. As if those numbers were not daunting enough, Berdych had incurred the wrath of the Australian fans when he refused to shake hands with Nadal’s compatriot Nicolas Almagro after their round of 16 match. Berdych had been deeply aggrieved when Almagro had gone right at him with a shot in the fourth and final set of their meeting.

Berdych had ducked out of the way and  Almagro’s shot hit him in the arm. Almagro had not done anything unsporting, but Berdych had overreacted flagrantly. In the post-match interview for Australian television, Berdych was booed so loudly that his answers could barely be heard. It seemed entirely possible that many fans would cheer openly against Berdych against Nadal as a way of registering their disapproval for the No. 7 seed not shaking hands with Almagro. But fortunately that was not the case. The fans treated him fairly, and Berdych earned their admiration by playing perhaps his best tennis ever in a match against the industrious and enterprising Spaniard.

In fact, Nadal was precariously close to losing this encounter. Berdych has some of the purest strokes in tennis, and his depth off both sides and the velocity of his shots make him an intimidating man to combat. Very little separated Berdych and Nadal during a high quality opening set. Both men kept holding serve and a tie-break seemed inevitable. But at 5-6, Nadal fell behind 0-40, triple set point. Berdych missed a forehand inside-in, but at 15-40 it looked as if he had sealed the set at least three or four times in the course of the best rally in the match, a 29 stroke exchange. Nadal was wrong-footed a few times. His defense was out of this world. Berdych came in at the end of the point, played a backhand drop volley crosscourt, but Nadal read it and flicked a forehand pass by the big man for a crowd pleasing winner. A service winner down the T lifted Nadal back to deuce. Berdych earned a fourth set point, but Nadal used his sliced serve wide in the Ad court to set up an inside-out forehand winner. He held on gamely for 6-6.

In the tie-break, Nadal curled a forehand down the line for a winner to gain a mini-break 5-3 lead. He missed a backhand return on the next point, but seemed poised to serve out the set. Yet he went for a big first serve down the T and missed it, and Berdych crushed his backhand return off the Spaniard’s second delivery, sending that scorching shot crosscourt for a winner. He was back to 5-5. During the next rally, Berdych hit a backhand crosscourt long but it was not called, and Nadal did not challenge it in time. Berdych took that point, and then aced Nadal out wide. He had salvaged the set 7-6, taking the tie-break 7-5.

Despite that unexpected turnaround in the first set tie-break, Nadal opened up a 4-1 second set lead, breaking Berdych for the first time in the fourth game. The Spaniard served for the set at 5-3, but missed four of six first serves and Berdych took charge, breaking back with a forehand volley winner from close range. He held on for 5-5, but at 5-6 Berdych was down set point before holding to reach a tie-break. He caught Nadal off guard with a serve-and-volley on the set point. On they went to a tie-break that was clearly going to decide it all.

Berdych had won all seven of his tie-breaks across the tournament, including three in the previous round against Almagro. Although Nadal took a 4-1 lead in this sequence, Berdych remained composed and aggressive from the backcourt.  He rallied and served his way to a 6-5 lead. Nadal improbably was down set point, a point away from trailing two sets to love. Berdych remained assertive. He took charge of the rally, approaching behind a backhand crosscourt. Nadal kept his forehand pass low, but Berdych managed to steer his forehand volley down the line, deep enough and reasonably low. Nadal went crosscourt with his next passing shot and hit it with authority, but Berdych made good contact with a backhand volley—only to punch it wide as he went down the line.

That was the pivotal point of the match. Nadal quickly collected the next two points to win the tie-break 8-6 and level the contest at one set all. He soon fell behind 2-0 in the third set before collecting four games in a row. Nadal took the set 6-4 with increasingly bold play. He saved his finest tennis for the fourth set. Too often in the first two sets and even beyond, he had stood too far back on his returns and Berdych had no problem controlling the points. But now, Nadal moved in and began lacing his returns flatter and harder. He broke Berdych twice in the fourth set and his movement and execution were markedly improved from any other time in the match. Nadal came away with a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-3 triumph in four hours and 16 minutes. He looked remarkably fresh when it was over, as if he had played a lot less tennis than that.

So what happens now?  Nadal has the 17-9 career edge over Federer, the commanding lead in their Grand Slam showdowns, and the conviction that his game matches up particularly well against Federer. While Berdych was giving Nadal fits at times with his thundering two-handed flat backhands—making the Spaniard pay a substantial price for every short second serve—Federer will as always be hard pressed to answer Nadal’s heavy topspin forehand with his own one-handed backhand. To be sure, Federer is driving his backhand now better than he has for a long time, but no one can make him hit more awkward high balls off that side than Nadal. No one can make the Swiss rally longer or harder. In turn, Nadal can put pressure on Federer’s forehand with his lethal inside-out forehand.

Yet Federer will have some winning patterns as well. He will use the sliced serve wide almost as effectively as he did against Del Potro. He will step inside the court whenever possible to release his devastatingly accurate inside-out forehand. He will mix up his attack and make use of the drop shot to draw Nadal away from the baseline. He will take some calculated chances on his returns. Federer will also try to break Nadal’s rhythm with a combination of slice and topspin backhands. It will surely be a fascinating tactical battle.

The view here is that Nadal will recover well physically from his strenuous contest with Berdych. Three years ago he needed five hours and 14 minutes to stop Fernando Verdasco in the semifinals and still managed to beat Federer in the final in another rugged five set encounter. I believe the Verdasco match was more debilitating because of the nature of the rallies they had. Nadal looked physically and mentally exhausted at the end of that Verdasco match, while he was almost sprightly at the end of his meeting with Berdych.

And yet, Federer could hardly have asked for better circumstances coming into a big match with Nadal. His self-conviction seems restored. His zest for the sport has seldom been more evident. Every facet of his game is operating near peak efficiency. He is reinvigorated. Federer may approach some of his meetings with Nadal—particularly those on clay—in a slightly defeatist state of mind, but not this time around. He will relish this opportunity, but so will Nadal. Both men fully realize what is at stake. One of them is going to suffer a semifinal defeat at a major, which is not the way a champion wants to start a year. If Federer loses, he will have to deal with yet another loss to his old rival at a time of great consequence. In a neutral hard court setting, that would be hard for the Swiss Maestro to accept.

But Nadal is every bit as determined to avoid a setback against Federer. That would set the wrong tone for the year. He was a commanding world No. 1 in 2010, winning three majors. In 2011, he took the French Open but lost six times to Novak Djokovic, including final round disappointments at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He wants to maintain his position as the second best player in the world behind Djokovic, and try to wrestle the top spot away from the Serbian if possible. He will feel considerable pressure as he tries to maintain his personal head-to-head superiority over a man who has won six more majors than he has. Just as Federer must feel this is a match he can’t afford to lose, the same can be said for Nadal.

How can we really go wrong? This is the first Federer-Nadal semifinal collision at a major since the 2005 French Open. All eight of their Grand Slam duels since then have been in finals. To be sure, Nadal’s record against Federer has been bolstered by their frequent meetings on clay. The Spaniard has taken 10 of their 12 clay court confrontations. On other surfaces, the record stands at 7-7, with Federer ahead 5-4 on hard courts. But while Nadal has the decided edge on his cherished clay, Federer has posted four of his five hard court triumphs over Nadal indoors, where the Spaniard is most vulnerable. He recently suffered his most decisive defeat ever against Federer at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, bowing 6-3, 6-0.

In the final analysis, this Australian Open clash seems to have five sets written all over it. Federer is soaring, reinventing himself once more at 30, playing like a man who still has something substantial to prove. For a man of his stature and accomplishments, that is highly commendable. But Nadal is the game’s ultimate warrior, the most ferocious competitor on the planet, a professional unlike any other. Berdych may have inadvertently done Nadal a favor by making the Spaniard fight for his life in a stirring contest. I am picking Rafael Nadal to beat Roger Federer in five tumultuous sets.