Five Years, Five Wins: The New Face of the Federer/Nadal Rivalry

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Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are set to meet in the semifinals of Indian Wells. This is the first time they have played since the finals of the Shanghai Masters in October of 2017. In that match, and in their four previous meetings dating back to 2015, Federer emerged the victor. The string of victories for Federer is the most that either has registered in a row in their fifteen year rivalry.

Five Years – Five Wins

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Novak Djokovic has won nine grand slam titles since the last time Nadal defeated Federer. That victory in the semifinals of the 2014 Australian Open is also the only one Nadal has registered since Federer switched to using a larger racquet. That change gave Federer a larger sweet-spot and greater freedom on his sometimes iffy backhand wing.

In the finals of the 2015 Swiss Indoors in Basel, Federer played Nadal for the first time since losing to him in early 2014. The mental freshness Federer brought to their rivalry after a nearly two year break in play as well as the freer backhand helped him eke out a tight three set victory. Their next meeting in the finals of the 2017 Australian Open was a similarly topsy-turvy encounter. The end of that match, however, presaged the contours of their next three matches. Down a break in the fifth set, Federer produced some of the most flawless tennis of his career, most notably repeatedly hitting screamingly fast backhand winners.

Federer won five games in a row to win that match. Nadal has not broken his serve since. Federer also has not lost a set to Nadal since the fourth set of that Australian Open match. Federer has openly discussed the mental impact that facing Nadal many times on clay early in their rivalry had on him saying in an interview that it influenced how he played him on other surfaces. The psychological effect of having Federer play so cleanly and fearlessly hung over their subsequent meetings in 2017.

Federer Flawless in 2017

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The fourth round of Indian Wells, the finals of Miami and Shanghai; all of their subsequent 2017 matches happened at Masters 1000 tournaments and in all of them Federer was flawless. His larger racquet in addition to making his backhand more potent in rallies also allowed him to hit over backhand returns, a tactic he used on almost every return of serve against Nadal in 2017. The added aggression put Nadal on the defensive early in points and didn’t allow him to use either his supreme athleticism or his looping top-spin forehand to create the patters of play he prefers.

The Match Ahead

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In at least one of those matches, the fourth round of Indian Wells, Nadal was struggling physically. Not so much that he was terribly impaired, but enough that Federer who had played him many times commented on if in his post-match interview. During yesterday’s quarterfinal against Karen Khachanov, Nadal received medical treatment on his knee and though he closed out the match in the second set and looked less hampered over time, the question mark over his fitness and the quick turnaround between the quarter and semifinals could play a role in the outcome.

Even if Nadal is fully healthy, Federer has found a strategy that works against him on court and, as a result of repeatedly executing that strategy well, he has gained a mental edge over his longtime rival. Nadal has had almost eighteen months to analyze Federer’s game and prepare for the match. If he is unimpaired, it will be exciting to see if he can find a new way to defeat Federer as they both enter the twilight stage of their rivalry.

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