So it unfolded on a sunny day in Rome at the Foro Italico, two gladiators met for the 30th time in their 20th final. You could’ve been forgiven for asking what year it was; though we hadn’t seen this drama recently, there was a time when this pair was a repeat Sunday performance week in week out. Things have changed these days, their duels aren’t as frequent and when they do occur, they end up being lopsided rather than the intense battles of the past. However, their rivalry is already cemented as legend and as such, like it or hate it everyone still talks about it as if it is 2005… or 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Time seems to stand still for their matches regardless of the outcome.
Unfortunately for the fans, the match was over before it began. Nadal snatched a win of 6-1, 6-3 in only 68 minutes from a Federer who seemed to be at a loss for any answers. Roger’s stats told the dire story: Only 15 winners compared to 32 unforced errors, only 58% 1st serves in of which only 55% points won and even more alarming, only 32% of 2nd serve points won. He came to the net 19 times and won 9 of those. A loss was expected by many, but the sheer domination by the Spaniard was not. Especially considering the form Federer had shown till then. He came into the final without dropping a set despite having played tough, tricky, and in the case of Janowicz, brand new, opponents. In those matches he was quick and efficient. So then, what happened?
While I was cringing with every error during the match, I had the (mis?)fortune of seeing it again on tv. Even though I knew the heartbreaking result I forced myself to watch as much as I could. As I watched I realized there were quite a few factors at play, some more than others. But before getting into the analysis I would like to state that I am not making any excuses for Roger. Rafa won comprehensively, fair and square, no two ways about it.
First the relatively minor factors: After playing 4 straight matches at night, Roger had a day match with the final. Not only were the conditions different, the sunny warm courts suit Rafa’s style of high bounce. It also meant he had less recovery time considering his SF match ended a few hours after Rafa.
The next factor is of course Rafa himself, his history with Roger, especially on clay. For years and years, Rafa has been in Roger’s head and not without reason. Rafa still spins the ball much more than any other player on the circuit; he’s a lefty while Roger is right handed with a single handed backhand. And let’s not forget Rafa’s grinding style of play from the baseline (and beyond) with looong rallies. In other words, flip Roger’s style of tennis in every way and you get Rafa, polar opposites and yet equally intimidating. While any opponent facing Rafa will be worn down, Roger’s opponent often won’t know what just happened because of his brilliant, swift style. They are both ruthless assassins in their own way. But when it comes to match-ups, the court surface and speed, the results can swing drastically. While Federer fans are lamenting this latest scoreline, maybe they should keep in mind the World Tour Finals match in 2011, and indoor hard-court tournament; 6-3, 6-0 in 61 minutes, game, set, match, Federer.
But we weren’t in London, this was Rome and as history has shown us, Rafa on clay is a near-impossible task for Roger. When he faces Rafa, these negative thoughts just take over his mind and shots he executed perfectly the night before suddenly can’t find the lines. Of course Rafa’s game has a hand in that but part of it is Roger’s mentality as well. Although I think the media goes on too much about this. After all it’s not JUST Roger that has this issue. Only 3 active players have ever defeated Rafa at a clay final and Roger is one of them. You want miserable clay stats against Rafa you can also look at the rest of the ATP. Novak’s record is 3-12; Ferrer is 1-14 and the rest of the top 10 have a combined 0-22. Most of these players have a style of play better suited than Roger’s to take on Rafa and yet have such miserable results, so let’s not assume only the Maestro fails in the task of slaying the Clay King, everybody does.
Other than the above however, I noticed something new. Roger was aggressive, that is no surprise but he was almost excessively aggressive in this match. He went for winners with every shot and serve but all that did was pile up the unforced errors. He was so focused on his game plan that he didn’t change it up until the very end. And that was initially disappointing to me because Federer is the greatest tactician I have seen on court. He mixes shots and adapts to his opponent very quickly; case in point, the QFs and SFs of Rome only days before. Despite both Jerzy and Benoit giving him trouble, he figured out how to work through both of them, stepping up an extra gear when needed.
But I think he knew if he reverted back to his usual tactics against Rafa the end result would the same as all previous times. So my conclusion is this: he could’ve changed tactics but intentionally didn’t. And underneath that horrendous score line, upon watching the match more dispassionately the 2nd time I was actually impressed with his new approach. Or rather I was impressed to see that after 29 matches and at 31 years of age, he was still trying to come up with new ways to solve an old problem. His serves let him down big time and he couldn’t control his aggression with shots going wide or finding the net. But at least he was trying something rather than rolling over and playing dead.
I must say I quite like this idea except he has to be at his sharpest ever to execute it with full effect. I think this match gave him a better idea of what worked and what didn’t. Was his first Masters final of 2013 the right place to start experimenting? I would say yes, because it’s better than trying this out at a Grand Slam SF or final. The post-match interviews and pressers of both players further corroborated my understanding of how this match unfolded. Rafa pointed out what had happened: “He tried to play very aggressive and made more mistakes than usual for him”. In his presser he said
“It was surprising, I did not expect 6-1 but that is what happened. It is always surprising when you play against someone like Roger – and you win 6-1 – how can I explain when these things happen[?]… you have to combine a few facts. It happened in London to me in the Masters Cup and without winning a lot of points. … to make this [score line] happen between two players when there is not a big difference [between them] means one player is playing well and the other is making more mistakes than usual on that day.”
Roger echoed the same sentiment:
“It didn’t go the way I was hoping it would go. I was missing too many easy forehands and some crucial points clearly. I didn’t have that many opportunities and when I did, he played really well or I couldn’t string it together. But overall this was a good week for me, I think I played pretty good tennis, I guess it was too quick of a turnaround today and Rafa was too good today for me to win the match. My [previous] matches were fairly easy you know, considering, I think it was maybe more of a rhythm than anything else but that was not the reason why I lost. The ball definitely flew a bit more through the air today, bounced more, you don’t hit it well it’s not going to stay in so much but then again Rafa has much more topspin than all the other guys I’ve played this week so the change was a big one. I knew that coming in but I mean, I tried, I tried to play offensive, just didn’t have the best day unfortunately.”
Now looking back I am less disappointed in this match than I was at first. Frankly speaking, our Maestro hasn’t had a very good year and after Madrid, I’m thrilled he reached the finals. Rome was the first tourney this year where he gained more points than in 2012. It was also the first time in 7 years he even made it to the finals in Rome. I thought he played excellent tennis in the four matches prior to the final. He was sharp for the first two and then showed great determination and nerves of steel when he won the QF and SF. He played up and coming opponents with nothing to lose and who were perhaps thinking Federer was vulnerable after his Madrid loss to Nishikori. They came on court fearless and yet couldn’t take a set off him. I think this has been good preparation for Roland Garros. The court conditions in Rome are much more similar to Roland Garros than Madrid. Plus imagine if the French Open was right after his Madrid performance? How would you be feeling then? Oh we got a bonus in terms of points won too: by reaching the finals, Roger broke back into the Race to London rankings at #6 😀
I feel if he is to face Rafa again he will have more answers to the questions Rafa poses for him. The 5-set format also gives an advantage in my opinion. I know everyone thinks otherwise, with Rafa wearing him down but I thought Roger was playing much better in the last two games of the 2nd set. Perhaps having that extra cushion of winning in five sets might be what he needs to get used to Rafa’s spin and grind. I do feel our Roger needs a bit of help with the draw. Not facing Rafa till the finals would be great. But at the same time, like Federer said himself, he first needs to play the opponent in front of him, take it one match at a time before he can think of facing Rafa or Novak. And we’ll be right there with him, for every shot, for every serve, and for every happy wave for the camera… hopefully all the way to that beautiful trophy 🙂