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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Australian Open Final analysis

Miracle in Melbourne: Epic victory for Nadal

Well, considering that I've now looked at tennis in my last two posts, it seemed appropriate to complete the analysis by discussing the Men's final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. So that was my plan all along, and then came the final...after witnessing the greatest Australian Open match between Nadal and Verdasco the other day, it was fitting that Australia would see its greatest final ever as well.

An epic, gigantic match between the game's two dominant players, and in the end it was Rafael Nadal who came out on top, though there were times during the match where he was hanging on by a tennis racquet string.

It took 4 hours and 23 minutes. It took Nadal's game-time over a 48 hour period to an astonishing 9 hours 37 minutes, but he took his first Grand Slam title on hard-courts and has now beaten Federer in their last three Grand Slam finals - the murder of Roland Garros, the epic "greatest game ever at Wimbledon", and now this. A bitter pill for Federer, but more on that later...

The warrior's main weapon in his mind

Much is made of Nadal's power, his speed, his dogged defence, his fighting spirit. And when you're playing your second five set match in three days, you need all that. But what commentators don't speak about is Nadal's intelligence.

Nadal is the world number one. There's no doubt about it, not anymore. And all those characteristics that you associate with Nadal are important to him. But in my opinion, the thing that makes him number one, the key, indispensable ingredient in his game is his intelligence and thought.

The following is quote from his coach and uncle, Toni, take from a Time Magazine article:

"Federer is too good. Rafael must play like himself, but better, less spin, quicker points." But how can federer be too good when Rafael is ranked No. 1? "There is a difference between who is better and who knows more," says Toni. "Better now is Rafael, he is No. 1 in the ranking. But who has the best game? Federer."

I find that an amazing quote, because it reveals a little about the thinking and planning that has gone into how a player with "inferior" ability has climbed to surpass the apparently better player. And yes, there's gamesmanship and there's the meaningless rhetoric we often hear from sports people, but this seems to me a genuine quote that implies that Nadal has worked out his strengths, Federer's weakness and he's gone about working out the game specifically to win. And that's intelligence.

Reading between the lines, what it says is that Federer is not as smart, and has not figured out how his superior game can be turned into a winning one. And then I remembered that way back in June of 2007, I did an analysis of the French Open Final where Nadal beat Federer for the second time.

It was quite clear back then that Federer hadn't really worked out a plan for Nadal back then. The big problem he has, of course, is that Nadal's bread and butter shot is the heavily topspun forehand which zones in on Federer's backhand. Federer has always tried hard to topspin it back, which is an incredibly difficult shot when the ball is often kicking up to at least shoulder height. Little has changed, and the dominating, posturing Federer who blew Del Potro and Roddick off the court was nowhere to be seen in this final, subdued by Nadal's smarter, heavier hitting and never-say-die attitude.

In today's final, it was interesting to notice that for the first two sets Nadal used the same tactic, and I'd estimate that 75% of his shots were hit to Federer's backhand. Federer actually coped remarkably well with it, though he was forced into fairly regular errors. Unfortunately, the official match statistics don't provide any clarity on this because they don't report how many of Federer's errors were off the backhand side. I'd estimate that Nadal earned himself about 40 points this way. Nadal won the first set with a break in the 12th game, and looked in total control at the start of the second set. But Federer is too good to just be blown away and he came back with his most dominant set of the match. At this stage, it was still Nadal's forehand vs Federer's backhand.

This was the pattern until about mid-way through the third set, which is when Nadal's body started to give him problems. He called for the trainer twice, for massages during changeovers, and said afterwards that he was starting to tighten up. The tournament organizers hopefully have received the message that you can't schedule the two semi-finals on different days - Nadal came into this match with 5 hours of tennis only 48 hours early. Federer had 72 hours to recover from a 3 set match. It was a crazy inequality, and only Nadal's fitness and a change in tactics midway through the third set saw him stay in the game until the end. Let's hope common sense changes the programme next year.

A change in tactics - beware the wounded

Mid-way through the third set, there was a noticeable change in the game, as Nadal started going for shots far more. It was a long-awaited shift in attitude, because Nadal had previously been sitting back and defending for his life. There was one game in particular, at 1-1 in the third set, where Nadal started to break the shackles of his own defensive mindedness. He was 40-0 down on Federer's serve, and the next two points, he really went for broke, winning both with winners. He still lost the game, but it was a defining moment, in my view, because it represented the emergence of Nadal's offensive side.

From that point, Nadal was far more aggressive. He went closer to the lines, his backhand cross-court was incredible, flat and direct, and it won him dozens of points either directly through winners or by forcing Federer about 4 m off court. It was that shot alone that kept him in the match, especially in that third set, which he won in a tie-break having been hanging on for dear life all the way through it. How Nadal won the set is beyond me - he saw off about 10 break points, and was surviving until the very last.

The fourth set went Federer's way in what was a wildly swinging match where the bookies' odds changed almost hourly, as though the two men were on opposite ends of a see-saw.

The fifth set - a one-sided anticlimax

Then came the fifth, and the most lopsided set of the whole match. I don't know whether perhaps Federer's resistance was finally broken, the result of Nadal's relentless hammering away at him. But he fell apart in the fifth, making 14 unforced errors, including a whole cluster of them in the fifth, sixth and eighth games. Those errors, especially on the forehand side, gave the victory to Nadal.

It was, ultimately, an anticlimax in the final set. Nadal won 16 out of 19 points on his own serve, Federer won 11 out of 24 on his. It was a set that stood out in this match where everything else had been so tight.

On victory (off a Federer forehand error), Nadal collapsed to the ground as he won his first hardcourt title. I still don't think he's figured out his best game on this surface - he needs to be more aggressive, cut angles down and flatten his own shots out more often, but he's improving all the time and now that he has one Slam, he looks a good bet to win more. He and coach Toni are reportedly working on this flatter, more aggressive game, and so it can only get better for Nadal.

As for Federer, anyone who saw the post-match presentations will know just what this defeat meant. It was astonishing to see such a "hardened" and experienced professional break down and this defeat will have hurt Federer like no other.

However, this is pro sport, where you earn victory and sympathy is in short-supply. And I just don't think that Federer has thought his game through and most especially, Nadal's. He may believe he didn't serve well enough (which is true), we may like to attribute the result to Nadal's fighting spirit, but ultimately, I believe this win comes down to mental strength, both in terms of Nadal's belief, but also his ability to change the game, to apply his skills, and to out-think (and out-execute) Roger Federer.

Unfortunately, it doesn't get better for Federer, because next up is the French Open, and Nadal's game needs no changing at all for the red clay - it's already perfect.



Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Excellent analysis. I think we're all still scratching our heads, wondering what really did happen to Roger in the 5th because interestingly, he won his two sets by a greater margin,6-3 each, whereas Nadal won his two sets by tighter margins of 7-5 for both sets. I, for one, did not feel like Rafa had really beat Federer rather than Fed beat himself.

So why did Fed suddenly derail in the 5th? Should we assume it was because he started thinking about what was at stake? That he had already unexpectedly lost to Nadal at Wimbledon or that after thinking he could win the French these last two year, still could not pull it off and now suddenly, there's the Spanish kid putting enormous and ceaseless pressure on him? Generally, we don't think of Roger as being someone who can't handle the pressure but a few balls out and suddenly the unraveling was at hand.Br>

To see Fed suddenly hitting balls wide and long when generally he, more than most, hits his winning shots with such extraordinary pinpoint accuracy, was very strange indeed. I was excited to see Nadal win but hated to see the match end with what almost looked like Fed tossing in the towel. To see this amazing player who has come back 1 or 2 sets down to win who knows how many matches, unravel as he did in the 5th was painful at best. I think we were all hoping for a Verdaso-Nadal type "fight to the end" finish although on a side note, even Verdasco's double fault ending came as a bit of a shock after near flawless play! We can only hope that Federer can do whatever is necessary to prepare for and play the kind of match we saw Nadal and Verdasco play which was just beyond exhilarating! But perhaps, in closing, we can look on the bright side and say, "Well Roger, you've been lifting these boys to a whole new level of tennis for the last 4 years. Now that they've arrived (Rafa, Djokovic, Verdasco and Murray), they're going to force you to elevate your game to an even higher level. I, for one, look forward to that watching that evolution!"