A little more than a year ago, an uncharacteristically off-color Federer faced upcoming star Novak Djokovic at the US open final. The quality of the match wasn’t great and Federer in particular, found that shots he would normally execute with his eyes closed were going long or hitting the net. Yet, watching the match, one never felt at any stage that Federer could lose. At crucial points, he would summon up some magic from his powers of yore and hit a breathtaking winner. Or, more commonly, Djokovic would double-fault or make some amateurish error that made you wonder if he even belonged to the same stage.
The truth was that Djokovic simply did not have the mental strength to stare down Federer. More importantly, Federer knew he was great enough to find a way to win even when his game wasn’t tuned anywhere close to it’s best. It was this mental strength that carried him through that day, almost in ridiculous fashion, while the Djoker crumbled. The Federer of then had a self-belief, a knowledge, that he was good enough to beat anyone on any day — except possibly Rafael Nadal on clay.
It was hard not to think of that match while watching last night’s Autralian Open final. The tables had turned in fifteen months, and how!
Rafael Nadal was already a legend then, the greatest clay-courter of all time. But he had never won a grass court event, never even reached the final of a hard-court major and seemed destined to stay number two to Federer for as long as the latter wanted to stay on top.
Yesterday though, Nadal did to Federer what Federer had done to Djokovic and so many others over the last five years. It was not as if Federer played badly. Indeed, there were many times yesterday when his shotmaking was as good as I have ever seen it. It was that mentally, he wasn’t strong enough to beat Nadal. He made six double-faults, all at crucial moments. At the games that counted — the first and last games of the first set, the tiebreaker of set three, the entire fifth set — he simply crumbled. And Nadal stayed on like a rock, unaffected by the moment, hitting ridiculous winners on a consistent basis and never thinking he could lose.
It is not entirely correct to say that Federer no longer believes he can beat Nadal. He would not have managed to stay on for over four hours at the court if he didn’t believe that. The truth is that the mental fitness of Federer no longer exists in its legendary form when he is facing Nadal. One of Federer’s great weapons was his ability to lift his game at the moments it mattered most. One saw few instances of that yesterday. One suspects that the loss of confidence started with the Wimbledon final from two years back when Nadal stretched Federer to the limit. Fed won that match, but could no longer claim invincibility over his great rival in non-clay surfaces. Last year’s demolition in Roland Garros must have dented his confidence further. However, it was Federer’s loss to Nadal in the Wimbledon final last year that took the heaviest toll. And now of course, Federer has lost to Nadal in majors on all surfaces. It is hard to see how he can recover.
And I say that with a heavy heart, for I have been a Federer fan since 2003, when he displayed his magical skills to the world en route to his first Wimbledon triumph. I haved watched every major final he has played and last night was an emotional roller coaster like no other. I badly want him to return to his rightful place, at the top.
For that though, he will have to get Nadal out of his head.
Finally, none of this is to imply that Nadal is an inferior shotmaker. His improvement over the last few years beggars belief. I have mostly focussed on his superior mental conditioning above but the truth is that even his physical skills, especially over the last year has reached a stratospheric, indeed Federeresque level. He can hit winners from ridiculous positions and cover the court as well as anyone is history. I think there is a fairly good chance that by the time he retires, he will have won more majors than anyone else and be generally regarded as the greatest player in history. However, the truth is this: if Federer can regain the mental strength he used to have, he still has the game to beat Nadal from time to time. Not always and perhaps not on clay, but certainly a good fraction of times on grass and hardcourt. Last night demonstrated that in terms of pure tennis skills, Federer is still a maestro and retains the ability to outplay Nadal. To win another major final against Nadal, he just needs to do it consistently and particularly at the games that really matter. That will come down to mental strength.
I will hope and pray for that to happen — for the return of the king.