In January of 2017 Roger Federer returned to professional tennis after a six month hiatus that followed a quarter finals loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon. A most uncharacteristic fall in the fourth set triggered the long period of recuperation even though he did finish out the match. It was a fall that gave the millions of Federer fans heart palpitations followed by an uncertain eternity to await the start of the 2017 season and the return of the great “Swiss Maestro”.
But Federer did return as planned and looked pretty sharp at the Hopman Cup exhibition tournament, on and off the court, where he lost a close match to Alexander Zverev. He generally played well and seemed to be having a good time returning to the spotlight but there was no way to predict what was about to happen.
Then it started at the Australian Open … perhaps the best start of any tennis calendar year that I can recall for a fan of an over-thirty super star that pundits were beginning to speak in somber condescending tones about. Federer won his first match, then his second and his third. Something was electric. Most commentators began to point out that his backhand had become a scoring threat and that the larger racquet frame was the source of the new weaponry. Regardless, being a 17th seed he had to play a very tough draw that included no less than three top-ten players on the way to the finals.
And meanwhile, another over-thirty all time great, Rafael Nadal, was back to his winning ways after a similar injury recovery period during 2016. He beat two top 10 players along with a dramatic win against Grigor Dimitrov to reach the final. Tournament directors, sponsors and media marketers could not have dared dream of a goose that could lay a bigger golden tennis egg than a Federer v. Nadal Grand Slam final to start the 2017 season!
Screw the big money people … this was a matchup any serious tennis fan would want to see and thought it was becoming unlikely to ever see again, especially in a Grand Slam event!
Now to digress into some personal thoughts and I offer no tennis pedigree, just a fan’s observations.
This is a great rivalry because of the extreme contrast in style between the players. Both are among the greatest tennis players in history but come to their success in such different ways that it makes for a very compelling battle when both are playing at their best. It is important to realize that cannot possibly happen all the time and not all of their many matches in the past have been played at equally high levels on both sides of the court. Especially on Clay where Roger might be, or have been, the second best clay court player of his era though it is clear that Rafa is the best on clay. But when they are both firing on all cylinders their matches have been tense, gritty, athletic, and elegant. They also display a striking amount of ball trajectories that seem virtually impossible with Earth’s gravity.
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Perhaps the famous 2008 Wimbledon remains the best overall competition between Nadal and Federer but I found the quality of the 2017 Australian Open to be much higher than I had anticipated. Federer’s 5th set closeout was amazing. Especially since Nadal really had him right where he wanted him … in a fifth set for one thing and down 3-1 to start it out to boot. That would certainly have spelled a Nadal victory by the odds of past matches. But an often overlooked aspect of Roger Federer is that quiet determination which often doesn’t look very competitive … it is very much so. He doesn’t grunt or break racquets or have one-sided diatribes with his coaching box (not to imply Nadal does, he only grunts) but Federer’s competitive nature is intense.
I also feel that Federer’s offensive game is so dependent upon precision—as opposed to power—that when he’s not feeling extremely confident hitting a postage stamp in the corner, he naturally plays more defensively. His defensive skills are so high that this would still get a win against all but the other top 3 or 4 players. And, whatever he is ranked, that’s never good enough playing Nadal. So finding himself down at the start of the 5th set after playing a good match overall he turned off the defensive mode and hit for the postage stamps.
His options were; play defensively and lose, play offensively and lose OR play offensively and win. The results were fantastic and put Nadal on the defensive which is not a winning solution for his style of tennis.