On Friday night, the 33rd instalment of one of the greatest tennis rivalries will take place. Considering the so-called ‘downfall’ of Roger Federer in 2013, many wondered if we would ever get the chance to see them together this deep in a Grand Slam. Add on top of this a very difficult quarter to navigate, Federer has wound back the clock to bring about another mouth-watering encounter. A spot in the Australian Open final begs, and after the fall of Novak Djokovic against Stan the Man Wawrinka in the quarter finals, both men in the top half will see this as a fantastic opportunity to add to an already impressive major tally.
So who will it be? Will Rafa return to his trusty old game plan of high to the backhand of Federer? I think the biggest question is will Federer allow him? We take a look at both men’s chances of reaching the first Grand Slam final of 2014.
1st Round: d Tomic – 6-4 ret.
2nd Round: d Kokkinakis – 6-2, 6-4, 6-2
3rd Round: d Monfils – 6-1, 6-2, 6-3
4th Round: d Nishikori – 7-6, 7-5, 7-6
¼ Final: d Dimitrov – 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-2
Nadal hasn’t been this beatable since his comeback early in 2013, and you can put it all down to a 10 cent piece sized blister on his left hand. His matches against Nishikori and Dimitrov were far from convincing, and despite quality tennis from these opponents, Nadal really should have taken them both out in easy straight sets. Some alarming statistics popped up against Dimitrov
- Average first serve speed: 168kmh
- Double Faults: 7
- Unforced errors: 47
Taping up his hand has allowed him to continue in the tournament, but losing the feel of the racquet has contributed to these statistics. Nadal usually wouldn’t have 47 unforced errors in the first week of a Grand Slam, let alone an entire match. His service speed is right down, and 7 double faults is just something we don’t see. Double faults on big points have emerged as well, which must be worrying for the Nadal camp
Injuries aside, he’s still managed to reach a Grand Slam semi final, and against long time rival Roger Federer, he will be confident knowing he has the game to rattle the Swiss champ. There’s not much to it really – high and heavy topspin to the Federer backhand pushes him further back behind the baseline, and then attack the shorter ball. This pattern has played out in every one of their big matches, so expect this to happen again. It won’t just be during the rallies either, with around 90% of Rafa’s serves heading towards the single handed return. In the past, Federer hasn’t been able to hit through this return as easily, giving up an attacking position on what isn’t exactly the strongest serve on tour.
1st Round: d Duckworth – 6-4, 6-4, 6-2
2nd Round: d Kavcic – 6-2, 6-1, 7-6
3rd Round: d Gabashvili – 6-2, 6-2, 6-3
4th Round: d Tsonga – 6-3, 7-5, 6-4
¼ Final: d Murray – 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3
The second coming of Roger Federer? The third even? Whatever it is, the Grand Slam records’ holder has stepped up another notch, and is playing his best tennis since his 2012 Wimbledon victory. New coach Stefan Edberg has Fed playing super aggressive tennis where rushing the net and taking time away from his opponents is key. He came to the net an incredible 66 times against Murray, winning 74% of these – an exceptional number against a baseline dominated game. The other most noticeable change is the backhand return. Hitting a more aggressive topspin return takes so much time away from his opponents, and puts him in a very favourable position for the rest of the rally. A fresh and healthy body has seen the 32 year old recapture a lot of his movement, helping him on the defensive end against power hitters such as Tsonga and Murray. Quite simply, everything is up another level from what it was last year.
For Federer to win this match he has to be very aggressive with his backhand. He has been taking it very early throughout the tournament, not just on return, but with the rally ball as well. Against such a great defender in Murray, Federer looked unstoppable at times thanks to the early backhand. Since Nadal took over from Federer in 2008, the only victories Federer has had over Nadal have been when the backhand has been taken early – stepping inside the court and crunching it both down the line and crosscourt. He must do this to ensure he stays on top of the baseline for his own chances of winning, but also to stop Nadal exploiting his weakness deeper high on the backhand side.
I’ve been dreading writing this section because I just can’t pick it. Federer has surprised us all this tournament, proving my quarter predictor wrong, and returning to vintage Federer form we all crave. Nadal on the other hand is showing signs of weakness, with a simple blister is restricting how he plays. On the other hand (pun very much intended), the head to head matchup between the two, is so ridiculously one sided – especially in Grand Slams. Nadal matches up perfectly against the Federer game style, and has stood up over the best-of-five format since 2007.
Federer looks relaxed, and Nadal looks shaken, but I can’t go against that head to head record. Federer will take the first, but Nadal to win in 5 incredibly tight sets.