French Open 2019: In episode 39 of Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal story, surface and game specifics are as important as ever

If you’ve been in touch with the tennis world at all the last few years, you have probably rolled your eyes at least once upon hearing the term ‘Fedal bromance/romance’. Or maybe it was ‘Fedal is love’ that got your goat (pun not intended)?

The rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has been so passionately celebrated that the two men have sometimes been cast as star-crossed lovers rather than professional athletes trying to outdo each other in the GOAT sweepstakes. And the legends themselves have played their part in the romanticisation of the story; they never miss a chance to imply that the other is not just a rival, but also a friend, idol, teacher and raison d’etre.

 French Open 2019: In episode 39 of Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal story, surface and game specifics are as important as ever

File image of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Reuters

“If I played clay again it was to play with Rafa,” Federer said after defeating Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals, as though he couldn’t stand to be away from the Spaniard even for three months in the year. “For me to get to Rafa is not simple. It took five matches here for me to win to get there. That’s why I’m very happy to play Rafa.”

When Nadal was told about his rival claiming that he played on clay just to face him, he responded like someone who understands Federer better than the Swiss himself. “No, that’s not true. He didn’t say that,” said Nadal. “No, no,” he added vehemently, just in case anyone didn’t understand him the first time.

“If he’s back, it’s because he’s a player that is complete on all surfaces. And on clay he has good chances of winning. One thing is that he feels physically ready. He’s coming back because he wants to do so.”

Heard that, Roger? You can’t hide your true motivations from your best friend. P.S. You have good chances of winning.

It is clear that the mutual respect and affection between Federer and Nadal is at an all-time high – not just for them, but for any pair of legendary rivals in any sport. Their gushing compliments about each other, their BFF-like Laver Cup moments together, even their quick alliance to oppose Novak Djokovic in the removal of Chris Kermode: everything about Fedal screams Romeo & Juliet more than Batman & Joker.

Or do we just feel that way because their on-court contests have become so rare? The two have played just five matches against each other in the preceding half-decade, with their most recent meeting taking place two years ago in Shanghai. Their last claycourt match was even further back in 2013, while the last time they played at Roland Garros was in the 2011 final.

Maybe we’ve forgotten how fiercely competitive their matches can get. But now is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that the intensity in their on-court battles has been at a different level altogether.

Their last match in Paris itself, back in 2011, was an all-out war of attrition filled with grueling rallies and unbridled aggression. While Nadal won that match, as he usually does on clay (he leads the clay head-to-head 13-2), Federer challenged the Spaniard in a way that few others have ever been able to at Roland Garros.

The favour was returned in the watershed 2017 Australian Open final; Federer came away the victor in that one, but not before being pushed to his absolute limit by the newly-aggressive Nadal. That match laid the foundation for another period of Fedal dominance at the top of the sport, with the two players sharing the next five Majors between them.

That fifth Major, however, marked the return to form of Djokovic, and since then the two old rivals have been playing catch-up again. Even at this French Open, Djokovic looms as a formidable (you could even say ‘inevitable’, in Thanos style) foe; it is very likely that the winner of the Fedal match will eventually have to go through the Serb in order to claim the top prize.

Who does Djokovic’s presence affect more? The obvious answer is Federer; even if he somehow comes through the Nadal test, his recent record against Djokovic suggests that he will be the massive underdog in the final. Nadal himself has had his struggles against the Serb, but on clay he continues to hold sway – as proven by his win in the Rome final a couple of weeks ago.

As for the Fedal match itself, we know the X’s and O’s by heart now. Nadal will attack the Federer backhand with his high-bouncing topspin, Federer will look to take time away from Nadal with his on-the-rise strikes, and they both will try to stay on top of the rallies as long as humanly possible.

Federer is currently on a five-match winning streak against Nadal, as you’ve probably heard. But this is clay, a surface that will likely provide a sobering reminder of why Nadal is far above in the overall head-to-head (he leads 23-15). None of Federer’s five recent wins have come on clay; in fact, the last time he defeated Nadal on the surface was 10 years ago, at the 2009 Madrid Masters.

The Swiss may have been able to occasionally challenge Nadal on terre battue, but for the most part he’s been decidedly second best.

Switzerland's Roger Federer reaches out his hand to Spain's Rafael Nadal during the opening ceremony of the Rafa Nadal tennis academy in Manacor, Spain, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Enrique Calvo

Switzerland's Roger Federer reaches out his hand to Spain's Rafael Nadal during the opening ceremony of the Rafa Nadal tennis academy in Manacor, Spain, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Enrique Calvo

Many believe Federer’s improved backhand (and reduced reliance on the slice) will stop the upcoming contest from being a massacre. But we also have to factor in the extra oomph that Nadal has added to his offence. The Spaniard has been hitting the ball from a little closer to the baseline the last two years, even on clay; that will help him rush Federer more effectively on the backhand side.

Current form doesn’t do Federer too many favors either. He looked untouchable in his first four rounds, but the opposition he faced – Sonego, Otte, Ruud and Mayer – played a part in that. The only quality player he ran into, Stan Wawrinka, showed how Federer’s unwillingness to trade groundstrokes from the back and also his inefficiency at converting his chances (Federer was an embarrassing 2 for 18 on break points in the match) can easily be exploited.

Nadal on his part has looked his usual self, bossing the rallies with his superior weight of shot against all the players he has faced. He did drop a set against David Goffin, but that was more due to Goffin red-lining his game than Nadal doing anything wrong. The Spaniard and the Swiss may have both dropped just a set each on their way to the semi-finals, but there’s no doubt who the stronger player is right now.

What can Federer do to overcome the odds, practically all of which seem to be against him? Serving well is mandatory; he is doomed if he can’t get enough first serves in, because Nadal is certainly not going to give him too many easy putaways off second serves. And it goes without saying that the Swiss will have to minimise his errors off the backhand AND the forehand; the latter is probably even more important, because at the end of the day the forehand is the shot that pays the bills. The occasional serve and volley might help too, even off the second serve – but only if he can disguise it well enough.

Even though Federer does all of this and plays a super-clean match though, Nadal will win the match if he brings out the natural game he always brings out against players with one-handed backhands. As long as Nadal remains in control of his forehand and doesn’t let his recent losing streak against Federer tighten his arm, he should have the upper hand in a majority of the points.

That’s the enormity of the task ahead of Federer: he has to try and be perfect, but even if he does manage that, he is likely to fall short.

“There is always a chance,” Federer said on Wednesday while talking about the impending battle. “And that’s exactly what everybody believes by facing Rafa. They know it’s going to be tough. But you just never know. He might have a problem. He might be sick. You never know…Maybe there’s incredible wind, rain, 10 rain delays. You just don’t know.”

Once you’ve gotten over how many times Federer said “you don’t know”, you realise that his best game plan seems to be hoping for ‘incredible wind’ or ’10 rain delays’. And it’s hard to disagree with him. Merely playing flowing, error-free tennis will not be enough for Federer; he has to hope for divine intervention too.

Federer versus Nadal may have been made to sound like a bromance or a love story or any number of other things over the years. But in episode 39 of the rivalry, we know that one of the protagonists has to hope for a miracle to get his fairytale ending, while the other just has to show up.

Prediction: Nadal to win in four sets

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Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 08:53:05 IST