After playing each other just once in a three-year span between the 2014 Australian Open and the 2017 edition of that tournament, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both arrived into the new season with huge question marks under their heads. Both have just had their worst years in much more than a decade and were constantly pressured to start setting up for retirement. Seeded 17th at the Australian Open and playing his first official event after having a surgery performed on his knee, Federer’s campaign at that event can be summed up in one word – erratic. But the then 35-year-old did the unthinkable and pulled through five-setters against Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka to make it to another Grand Slam final in his trophy-filled career.
Nadal’s run was filled with tricky opponents too and the Spaniard had to go the distance twice too, first against an up-and-coming Alexander Zverev and then against Grigor Dimitrov playing perhaps the best tennis of his career. The rest was history as Federer showed amazing grit to come back from a break down in the fifth set and blasted eight winners in the final set from the wing that has caused him so much trouble in the past against Nadal, his backhand.
Over a month later, the two were still not ranked high enough to get the top seedings. Therefore, the luck of the draw saw another rendition of the biggest rivalry in the history of the sport happen as early as the fourth round in Indian Wells. Despite Federer’s confidence-building win at the Australian Open, he was considered a slight underdog by the bookies. The Nadal matchup has proven very tough for him historically and the slower hard court in Indian Wells wasn’t expected to suit him as well as the conditions Down Under.
The expectations were high for this one and many expected another nerve-racking classic. But that wasn’t meant to be.
Commonly attributed to the influence of Ivan Ljubicic, Federer’s backhand was the shining aspect from the get-go. The Swiss didn’t want to get lured into rallies against Nadal’s cross-court forehand and instead of defensive slicing, he employed a different tactic. Adjusting his court position and counteracting the spin by stepping into the ball, he was able to find just the right amount of power on the backhand wing to make attacking it not an eligible tactic anymore.
Federer’s backhand return proved the key to a break of serve in the opening part of the match. The Swiss’ went for a very aggressive plan of returning inside the baseline and trying to block most of the returns and for the second meeting with Nadal in a row, the risk paid off.
Erasing Nadal’s only break point of the match in the second game with a good serve down the T, Federer was just flying around the court. The footwork was even more explosive than usual and the Swiss simply went on crashing winners from every position on the court. It was also perhaps the best his forehand has looked since he changed his racket to a bigger frame.
Another break soon followed as Federer found a fantastic angle on his backhand block return and used all the power of Nadal’s serve to rip it down-the-line. The Spaniard’s usual tactic of serving to the Swiss’ backhand in pivotal moments was useless this time. This was an entirely different match than what Nadal was used to in this rivalry.
The winners’ galore continued in set 2 as Federer was quickly racing away to the finish line. Converting one break with a brilliant inside-out forehand let to the Swiss leading 5-3 with Nadal to serve. Fittingly, it was yet another brilliant backhand block return that closed the 68-minute affair.
Both legends went on to dominate the game for the next three years, later joined on by Novak Djokovic. Federer was almost untouchable for the rest of 2017, getting big titles at both of the Sunshine Double events, Shanghai, and adding an eighth Wimbledon crown to his resume. Nadal was just as dominant on the clay-court season as in his prime and coupled with a stunning run to the title at the US Open, which led to him finishing the year as the world no.1.
The pair met four times since that occasion and Nadal still hasn’t found a way to beat his rival off clay. Federer took all four of their 2017 meetings and later added to that with a semifinal win at the 2019 Wimbledon. He tied up the hardcourt head-to-head with Nadal to 9-9 with that match and is now leading it 11-9.
Main Photo from Getty.