That XL doesn’t mean “extra large,” though every time these two players face off at a Grand Slam the match comes weighted with the baggage of their historic rivalry. Friday marks the 40th occasion that the two will have played each other, dating back 15 years to a (then surprising) straight-set win in Miami by the 18-year-old Nadal, then ranked 34 (Federer had become No. 1 two months before in Melbourne).
Looking back, their rivalry has, like many longstanding relationships, been a thing of multiple phases. For the first three years or so, the tennis commentariat expected Federer to work out Nadal, who was (according to the conventional wisdom of the time) a promising youngster, obviously best on clay, with a primarily defensive and grinding style. The 2006 essay by David Foster Wallace, “Federer As A Religious Experience,” sets up the two men as platonic opposites, the artist and the athlete, elegance vs. sweat – a contrast that was wrong at the time and reads worse today.
This was a period during which #WorldsWorstTennisCommentator John McEnroe told viewers before French Open final that he was ready to “anoint” Federer as the Greatest Player Of All Time if he “finally” won the French Open. Federer reached the semifinals of the tournament in 2005, and the final in 2006, 2007 and 2008, losing to Nadal each time – the last by the devastating score of 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. (Federer had to reassure the Chatrier crowd it was indeed him – “oui, c’est moi” – in the postmatch ceremony.)
By 2008 the terms of Federer-Nadal matches seemed to be established. Nadal was evidently superior on clay, while Federer had the edge on other surfaces. Then Rafa rewrote that script, edging Roger in the gloom at Wimbledon weeks after the Chatrier shellacking, then reducing his opponent to tears after another five-set defeat in Melbourne in January of 2009.
Over the next seven years Nadal maintained an ascendency in the rivalry. The two men played each other 15 times after the 2009 Australian Open up to the end of 2015, three times over best-of-5 sets (Nadal won all three matches) and 12 in best-of-3 (Nadal won 7). Novak Djokovic had long broken the duopoly exerted by Fedal over major titles. Federer and Nadal also faced each other less frequently for big titles than Nadal faced Djokovic or Djokovic faced Federer.
Federer and Nadal both took much of the second half of 2016 off to recuperate and rebuild after injury, and their meeting in the 2017 Australian Open final was unexpected. What was also unexpected was to see Federer himself rewrite a long-established script. Federer had scrapped his way through several finals against Djokovic and Nadal in the past, only to fall away in the final set. Nadal’s failure to convert a game point at 3-2 and a break up felt like a postponement of the inevitable in Melbourne; instead, Federer found the means to break, hold, break, and hold again. A fluke? Perhaps not, since three more matches in 2017 all went Federer’s way. Nadal snapped a five-match losing streak to Federer at Roland Garros five weeks ago, but the terms on which the rivalry was played in the mid 2010s have changed.
Unfortunately, tennis’ conventional wisdom changes at a glacial pace, and TV commentators invariably blurt out clichés rather than analyzing recent form or deciphering adjustments made by the two players. One thought I had before writing this preview was to turn it into a drinking game:
“Rafa likes to hit the ball high to Roger’s one handed backhand” [drink]
“Roger needs to serve well to have a chance today” [drink]
“Both these guys know that history is on the line” [drink]
“Roger struggles to convert break points against Rafa, and it’s cost him in the past” [drink]
“Rafa playing beautifully at the net, silencing the doubters” [drink, collapse].
If you’re reading Tennis With An Accent, you haven’t come for clichés, and you know how the two men have played through the quarter finals. Neither player has looked remotely like losing so far (in other words, neither has given up two sets or trailed significantly in a third set). Neither player has any visible injury or health concerns. There has been a fair amount of muttering on Tennis Twitter about the speed of the grass courts this year, but neither player has suggested that conditions are significantly different from past years. The forecast for Friday suggests warm conditions with a 10-20-mph breeze, so likely an open roof for the second ATP semifinal.
What should you be watching for? Here are a few suggestions.
- Where is Nadal placing his first and second serves? Nick Kyrgios was surprised by the number of times Nadal hit flat serves to his forehand rather than his trademark swinging slice serve to the backhand. If Rafa wins a lot of points serving to Roger’s forehand it’ll be a big deal.
- How is Federer hitting BH returns on the ad side? Federer typically tries to drive the BH return to deuce, aiming for Nadal’s deuce corner and asking Nadal to hit a backhand as his second shot. If Federer is hitting lots of chips and slices on return, Nadal will be in his comfort zone.
- What’s the game/set score when Federer plays serve-and-volley? If it’s 40-0 and even in score or Federer is leading, good news for Swiss fans. If Federer tries S-and-V at 0-15 it’s likely because his plan A and plan B haven’t worked, and as Bill McLaren would have said, they’ll be dancing in the streets of Mallorca.
- Can Nadal push Federer off the baseline? The 2017 game-changer for Federer was a more aggressive drive backhand, and he mixed up the targets well, often hitting down the line to set up a later angled attacking backhand crosscourt. But this relies on Federer taking the ball inside the baseline: if Nadal is able to get Federer playing rallies more than a meter behind the baseline, advantage the No. 3 seed.
- One final thought: Who won the first semifinal? My sense is that Nadal walks onto court for every match thinking that he has a good chance to win, but there’s one player he likes to see out of the draw – the No. 1 seed. If Bautista Agut is the upset winner of the first match in the afternoon, I think Nadal will gain a tiny bit of confidence.
Who will win? I have no earthly idea. What does it all mean? One more chance to see two of the greatest players in the history of the game renew a rivalry and a relationship. Whomever you cheer for, a blessing.