It was the grunt that gave it away.
Roger Federer is known for many things, and foremost among them is his effortless style of play. You’ve heard the oft-repeated eulogies – “he doesn’t bludgeon the ball, he caresses it”; “he doesn’t run, he glides”. And what’s that they say about the way he exhales? Oh yeah – “Grunting is for mere mortals, not for Roger Federer.”
And yet Federer grunted audibly throughout his semifinal match against Rafael Nadal – while serving, running as well as hitting shots off the ground. The effort that he was putting into each stroke was obvious; this was not a normal Federer performance by any standard.
But then again, Nadal is not a ‘normal’ player. He is either a machine in the shape of a human or a human in the shape of a bull, depending upon your viewpoint. And on clay, against his long-time rival, at the semifinal stage of the biggest tournament in the world, Nadal brought all of his machine/bull-like qualities to the forefront.
Of course Federer would have to grunt and huff and puff to keep pace with him.
The Swiss has never been a match for Nadal on clay, but there were expectations from some quarters that this year he’d be able to put up a tougher challenge with his improved backhand. The backhand certainly did make a difference in the match, most notably on the return; Federer came over it far more than he sliced, which helped him start more points on neutral terms than usual.
But it was his marked inferiority in the neutral rallies that led to his doom – especially given the swirling winds around Court Philippe Chatrier.
At the start of the match both players struggled to deal with the blustery conditions, with Nadal going down a break point in the opening game of the match. While he managed to stave that off, Federer was less lucky in his first service game as he got broken to go down 0-2. That in effect set the tone for the rest of the match; while Federer would keep asking questions, the Spaniard had all the answers.
Federer didn’t serve as well as he would’ve hoped to, but was fairly solid from the baseline. His backhand held up well enough for vast stretches, while his forehand looked like a work of art as it bent and hissed in the wind. After conceding that early break he put enough pressure on the Nadal serve to get back on level terms; when he stepped up to serve at 2-3, we got the feeling that we had a match on our hands.
That feeling lasted for around five minutes, which was the length of Federer’s service game. The Swiss tried his best to keep Nadal at bay, fighting off as many as five break points with a mix of big serves, crisp forehands and deft drop shots. But the Spaniard was in no mood to relent; he pushed and danced and muscled his way into the rallies until Federer could no longer keep up. The break was eventually Nadal’s, and with it practically the match.
Federer did put up some resistance in the next two sets, and even went up an early break in the second for a 2-0 lead. But no advantage for the Swiss looked safe at any point against this version of Nadal – whether it was an advantage of games or of points. At 4-4 in the second set Federer went up 40-0 on his serve but got broken as Nadal passed him left, right and centre. After that, the third set was all but a formality.
Federer’s backhand may have been the biggest talking point before the match, but Nadal’s backhand was possibly the biggest talking point during it. The Spaniard’s crosscourt two-hander has gained a good deal of speed and penetration since the early days of the Fedal rivalry, and the full force of that was starkly visible in their first claycourt match in six years.
Nadal repeatedly found impossible angles with that shot, rendering Federer’s down-the-line backhand and crosscourt forehand borderline ineffective. Some of the backhand winners that he hit were as eye-popping as his forehand ones.
Not that there was any shortage of vintage forehands in the match. In addition to a couple of brilliant return winners that he hit off that wing, there was one passing shot off an overhead that was so spectacular it left everyone with their mouths hanging open in awe.
Federer tried everything to deal with his opponent and the windy conditions – drop shots, slices, moonballs – but none of it worked. He was always fighting an uphill battle though; the fact that Federer had to resort to all these things was in itself a confirmation that his claycourt game is not suited for the highest level anymore.
He simply couldn’t stay with Nadal from the back of the court, even with his amped-up backhand. The uncharacteristic grunts were proof of how tough the ground-stroke battle was on his body, and an indication of how unlikely it was for him to last long in the extended rallies. Many of those ended with Federer tamely throwing up a short ball, which the Spaniard was only too happy to pounce on.
Nadal on his part played one of his cleanest matches of the claycourt swing, powering 33 winners against just 19 unforced errors. He had learned his lesson from the Monte Carlo debacle against Fabio Fognini which was played in similarly tricky conditions; instead of playing it safe this time, Nadal hit right through the wind. That’s something that Federer just couldn’t match, which is why the scoreline looks so lopsided despite there being many high quality points throughout.
“He (Nadal) makes you feel uncomfortable the way he defends the court and plays on clay,” Federer said after the match. “There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him.”
The man who plays dramatically different from everyone else now awaits the winner of the second semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem. Nadal is looking like his superhero self again, with his performance against Federer being sharply reminiscent of his early-career dominance. In those days there was always a claycourt masterclass over Federer to punctuate Nadal’s season and give him confidence for the rest of his matches. Now he has that confidence again.
As for Federer, he has to think of his 2019 claycourt campaign as a success. In many people’s eyes he over-achieved by making two Masters quarterfinals and a Slam semifinal, and that’s not to mention the valuable ranking points he has accumulated over the past month and a half.
“I think I surprised myself maybe with how deep I got in this tournament and how well I actually was able to play throughout…It’s not like it’s been a shocker. So from that standpoint, it’s okay,” he said at his press conference.
It was actually a lot better than okay. Federer looked like a world-beater at Roland Garros until he ran into the Federer-beater (at least on clay). That should be good enough to put him in a positive frame of mind for the grass season, which will start in just a week from now. Federer would, of course, not have to grunt nearly as much on grass as he did in his match today. That’s another source of comfort for fans of his ‘effortless’ tennis.
Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 22:55:03 IST