How Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, can overcome the Nadal hoodoo
by Elizabeth Flock, Shishir Prasad | Jun 5, 2009
Read it at Forbes
T hey will never forget you
Till somebody new comes along
Where you been lately
There’s a new kid in town
Everybody loves him, don’t they?
(New Kid in Town — Eagles)
Remember those National Geographic documentaries? “…And then the ageing alpha male ape / lion / zebra, Nabanga, is challenged to a fight by the younger, more aggressive Kiwanga. After a brutal contest, Kiwanga wins and becomes the new leader of the pack. Nabanga limps away into oblivion.”
This is that moment.
Roger Federer wept a few months ago. All things that were in his heart — the French Open, his personal fiefdom Wimbledon (where he was a five-time champ), and the Australian Open — were now firmly clenched between Rafael Nadal’s pearly teeth.
Time for the Fed to hobble off into retirement?
Apes have to follow the evolutionary script. Humans don’t.
Federer has to figure out a way to deal with his Hispanic nemesis, and do it quickly. The French Open and Wimbledon are best places to unveil the new Federer.
Begin at the beginning then.
“Federer should realise this isn’t just a loss. This is dethronement,” says Vijay Amritraj, a Top Twenty player on the men’s tour in the ’80s. If Federer accepts that he is no longer the king the pressure comes off. Nadal becomes the man to beat, which leaves Federer more relaxed. Right now, Nadal is the Buddha with a tennis racquet. He has the confidence that comes from knowing you will win. “The winner is always relaxed,” says Dr. Gary Canivez, head of Apex Sports Psychology Services, and goes on to talk of Usain Bolt at the last Olympics: “He was effortless. You look at the other runners, and their faces show that they are straining. They are not efficient.”
Once Federer has reminded himself how to relax, the next step is to get over the feeling of loss. He has to grieve, yes. His rise to the top was so swift, and his domination of the courts so complete that he never really had to learn how to lose. Sure, there was the odd slip here and there, but no one doubted he was king. Not surprising, then, that the big match losses at Nadal’s hands have cut really deep.
But he must come to terms with losing, go beyond, and realise that this, too, will pass. Federer has always seemed to have a mature head on his shoulders, so much so that we often forget he is still a young man. He got married in April, and the changed priorities that come with that big personal step should help him move on.
Then he must rededicate himself to beating Nadal.
His win over Nadal at the Madrid Open in mid-May — on clay! — ending a five-match losing streak (which included three Grand Slam finals) would have done his confidence a lot of good. What’s more, it showed the world that the SuperSpaniard was human: It was Nadal’s first loss on clay in over a year, after 33 wins in a row.
Important as the mental conditioning is, Federer also has to improve his fitness. At his peak, he had the grace of a Nureyev. His anticipation was great and his timing exquisite. But opponents figure these things out, as they did with Martina Hingis, women’s world number one in the late ’90s. Players like the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova were physically stronger and hit the ball much harder and faster. They figured out that they could blitz her with their speed and power, throwing her timing off. She never really recovered from that.
As the Federer-Nadal rivalry has intensified, Nadal, never a weakling, has become even stronger. In the ’09 Australian, Nadal in the fifth looked like he could go on for another five. Federer doesn’t have to get muscle-bound, but he must build up his stamina; everyone knows that when you’re tired, your timing suffers. For Federer, the touch artist, it’s crucial that his body is fully-tuned and cooperative, even if it goes to the fifth set.
Federer must also take a long, hard look at his game and jettison what isn’t working. Amritraj suggests that Federer improve his backhand slice defence on the Nadal forehand; they’re not deep enough, and he’s giving away easy points.
Champions, in such situations, come back with new weapons. “Mats Wilander,” says Amritraj, “took three months off from the tour in 1988 to develop a backhand slice. He came back and won the French, the Australian and the US open that year.”
For Federer, it is slightly easier. He already has all the shots. He just needs to get a good game-plan together, and stick to it.
Amritraj talks about the days when John McEnroe had him in knots. “I had beaten Borg four or five times and Connors a few times too, but couldn’t play McEnroe. I sat down with Roy Emerson, my coach, worked out a plan, wrote it on the back of a visiting card and kept it in my kit.” At every time-out, Amritraj would look at the card to make sure he was following the plan. And he did eventually beat Mac the Mouth.
So let’s talk tactics.
Nadal’s hitting zone is six feet behind the baseline. That’s because of the power and spin that his racket generates, not to speak of his famous biceps. “If I were to use the same racket and hit a shot,” says Amritraj, “it will still be rising as it hits the cheap seats.”
Federer needs to get him out of that zone, and the way to do that is to use the drop shot more often. He must keep Nadal always wondering when he’s going to drop one in the forecourt.
To make the drop shot work, though, Federer’s deadly forehand has to work much harder than it has been doing lately. “The forehand went down last year [at the French Open], and Roger went down,” says Luke Jensen, former world number 6 in men’s doubles. With the forehand working, Federer will neutralise Nadal’s forehand. And will make Nadal stay back to defend against it, which will provide opportunities for the drop shot. Not easy, of course, because Nadal is so darn quick.
But then Federer wasn’t king of the jungle for so many years for nothing.
While this story was being written, the unprecedented happened: Nadal suffered his first ever loss in the French Open. Federer owes Robin Soderling a hearty “Graçias,” for putting another dent in Rafa’s aura. Federer now has his chance to snag that elusive French title and bury the past. He’s not going to see Nadal across the net for at least another month. And that will be on his beloved Wimbledon grass.