A Question of Judgement
Australian Open, Semifinal (Day Eleven)
(2) Nadal d. (3) Federer, 6/7 6/2 7/6 6/4
The winning pattern was clear from the beginning, as it so often is between these two. You go at his backhand hard – press and knead it without relent – and it will eventually break down. Sure, you’ll get soaked by the odd high-pressure winner, but mostly what leaks out, if you’re patient, is a short ball or an error. From there it’s simply a matter of mopping up. Sadly, Roger Federer could not maintain this tactic tonight beyond the first three games, although he periodically returned to it. Whenever he did come back to it – sometimes for games at time – he barely lost a point. Rafael Nadal’s backhand was typically impotent, retaining none of the élan with which it saw out the Berdych match. For some reason, however, whether it was confusion, arrogance or idiocy, Federer repeatedly veered away from this proven tactic. Much as he used to with the drop shot, does he believe that simply hammering away at an opponent’s weaker side is somehow cheap?
Nadal, thankfully, experiences no such compunction, and nor should he. If it’s cheap, then he is right to be parsimonious. He will happily hit to Federer’s backhand all day, although he never has to, since it falls apart rather quicker than that. However, there’s little point in harping on about it, since this is a defining pattern in all their matches, and it is the one thing everyone knows about their rivalry, even those who know nothing else. While it would be misleading to say this dynamic had no bearing on this match’s outcome, it truthfully had only little. It was really decided by Nadal’s outrageous strength (of game and mind), and Federer’s errors (of execution and of strategy). Nadal’s forehand in particular was very nearly perfect, and Federer engaged with it at his peril. The decision to avoid that wing should have thus been a no-brainer, although that equally sums up Federer’s decision not to.
Federer led in each of the first three sets, and in each one the lead was surrendered in a flurry of unforced errors. Without fail, his first serve deserted him when attempting to consolidate a break. He ended the night with a truly heroic 60 unforced errors, and I suspect at least half of those found the tape on forehands up the line, although this had some value insofar as it stopped him from following it to the net, and thence being passed.
The decision of whether or not to approach to Nadal’s forehand when rushing the net is roughly analogous to the decision of whether to slam your own head in the door when you pass through a doorway. It’s not really a decision at all. You just don’t do it, no exceptions. You don’t do it when Nadal doesn’t have to move, obviously, but you also don’t do it if he has to move, since he is as lethal on the run. They only time you may consider approaching to his forehand is when there is no chance he will hit it, such as when he is stranded in the backhand doubles alley with his foot in a bear trap. Then you can consider it, but should probably still opt out. Nadal earned his final breakpoint of the match – at 4/4 in the fourth set – with a sprinting forehand pass that nearly defied belief. It clearly defied Jim Courier’s belief, since he waxed adamant that Nadal had no business making it. Long experience has surely taught us that there has never been a more dangerous player running at a forehand than Nadal, even including Pete Sampras, although Djokovic is his superior when moving the other way. Nadal will strike some mighty backhand passes, undeniably, but I don’t recall Federer once laying a racquet on a forehand pass tonight.
Federer saved the first matchpoint, by doing nothing more than pressing Nadal’s backhand, without let-up. He won the point, then moved to breakpoint. He returned , pushed Nadal wide after the Spaniard’s response found the tape and snuck over. Nadal lunged and threw out his racquet, improvising a kind of squash-shot lob. Federer had perfect net position, but the lob cleared him, and landed on the back edge of the line. Federer’s subsequent overhead proved too ambitious, and arced wide, and they returned to deuce. With minimum consideration, I think I can say that that lob is perhaps the luckiest tennis shot I have ever seen, in fortune far exceeding anything Djokovic produced in New York. Afterwards, on court, Nadal conceded as much: ‘I was very lucky in that last game.’ However, like Djokovic’s famous forehand return, you can’t just be lucky; you also have to be good. I suspect Nadal would make that shot perhaps once in a thousand attempts. But that is probably a hundred times more frequently than I would make it, even allowing for the fact that I would never have reached it in the first place. We can declare that someone is lucky without also implying that they aren’t great. After all, Federer is surely great, but on this occasion, he was as surely unlucky. So it goes: that’s tennis.
In any case, it wasn’t bad luck that had brought Federer to match point down. At 4/3 in the fourth set, he earned yet another break point on Nadal’s serve, clocked a strong return, and teed off on a crosscourt forehand. It missed wide by inches. On the next point Nadal rolled in a first serve to Federer’s backhand (as he had all night), earned a short return, and teed off on a crosscourt forehand. It landed in by precisely the same distance that his opponent’s had missed by. This had nothing to do with Nadal kicking heavy balls over Federer’s shoulders (a sumptuous image), and everything to do with one guy’s strongest shot outperforming the other guy’s strongest shot. The metonymy was irrefutable, and definitive.
Interviewed afterwards, Nadal was typically gracious, and effusive in his praise of Federer, whom he happily compared to Rod Laver (who had by then surely left the building). Asked what advice he would give Andy Murray for tomorrow night’s semifinal, he suggested the Scot ‘be more aggressive,’ before admitting with a chuckle that his advice probably wasn’t up to much, given he’d lost to Djokovic six times in a row. As for Federer, he was clearly flattened as he left the court, but seemed more upbeat by the time he’d gain the more depressing confines of the press room. Indeed, he cut an appreciably chirpier figure than the pensive and curt one from twelve months ago, following his loss to Djokovic. As he remarked wryly to one reporter, ‘I haven’t lost in five months. Don’t feel too sorry for me.’