Facing Facts And Feeling Fine


The story of Fedal XXVII began on Twitter. P.J. and I briefly DM-ed each other before Thursday’s Australian Open semifinal (notice that you can’t spell “semifinal” without “seminal,” for that is what the moment was…) between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If Grandpa McSquishy Pants won, P.J. would do the write-up. If Rafa rose to the occasion and did the voodoo that 2009 in Melbourne once knew, it was agreed that I would handle this task.

Well, here I am.

Dammit.

This is a Federer fan blog, for those of you on the outside looking in (if you’re a first-time Picket Fencer, welcome; just know that Federese is spoken in these here parts…). Therefore, this community once again feels the sting of a semifinal loss against a great rival. However, I’ve always written – here and on other online haunts such as Peter Bodo’s TennisWorld – that there’s room enough for Rafa fans in a Fed appreciation society, and vice versa. Ever since their first major semifinal – on that electric June evening in Paris in 2005 – this most fascinating of sports rivalries has polarized and fragmented tennis fans across the world. Yet, on the occasion of their second semifinal meeting in a major – six and a half long years later – the appropriate instinct is to emphasize how great these men have been – together – for the sport and, by extension, our lives. Thursday’s 3-hour, 42-minute battle royale should evoke such a sentiment in every continent and heart.

Yes, the pain of loss is fresh for Planet Federer, but that sick, sad feeling ought to subside and give way to an appreciation of both Our Roger – deficient but gallant – and the Vamos Brigade’s dashing hero, who found some more of that 2009-style mojo at Rod Laver Arena. This well-worn rivalry has become so entrenched in the public mind that its various memes and narratives have become almost impossible to detach from, its tension points intractable and insoluble. Yet, it’s my humble opinion that as Federer climbs into his 30s and Rafa begins to face the march toward his late 20s and – with it – the loss of the footspeed on which he depends, it’s so important for Roger and Rafa fans to come to terms with these legendary champions, their soaring virtues, and their small yet present weaknesses.

The bottom line is that after Thursday’s match, Federer fans need to face some facts… and feel fine about it all. There are plenty of truths to be told in the careers of Roger and Rafa. The ones that don’t favor Wogie McFed don’t have to be denied or avoided, and they don’t have to be cast in a negative light. In fact, the more respect Mr. Nadal receives, the more the happy glow of praise reflects on Mr. Federer himself.

You don’t have to like it, fellow Fed fans. I don’t. However, it’s simply a fact of life that when Roger and Rafa play in the majors, the Spaniard is the better big-point player. Make no mistake, Federer won plenty of big points on Thursday; Roger saved triple break point in the third set and dug out of a few 15-40 deficits at other points in the match, including 2-all in the fourth. Federer won the tense first-set tiebreak; held serve at 4-5 and 5-6 in the third when logic suggested that Nadal would break to win the set before a tiebreak; and created break point opportunities until the very end.

There was just one problem with all the big points Federer did win in this battle of champions: They weren’t as numerous as the points Nadal won.  In a match littered with errors but defined primarily by the artistic excellence and always-emergent creativity of these two marvels, Nadal had the final say. It is perfectly fair to say that the breakdown of Federer’s forehand cost Roger the match, but one can’t make that comment in isolation; in tennis, the opponent on the other side of the net is part of the dialogue, and on Thursday, Nadal played a part in making Federer’s money shot hit far too much tape and net.

The shot that lingers in the memory from the 2009 Australian Open final was Rafa’s forehand pass in the first set, with Federer serving at 4-2, 30-15. Federer did everything right — playing with aggression and decisiveness, he ultimately stuck a shot to the ad corner with textbook crispness and precision. Rafa, though, running like a demon well behind the baseline, used his long strides and bolo-whip action to call forth a mighty passing shot that Federer couldn’t touch. It’s possible to say that Federer thought the point was over, but then again, how can any human being be conditioned to expect not just a ball coming back, but with a ridiculous hooking spin just inside the sideline? There was no answer for Rafa’s passing shot three years ago. Nadal is that rarest of men who can absorb a peRFect-10 kind of point from Roger Federer and stamp a big fat “11” on a package marked “return to sender,” or more technically, “return past sender.” Those displays of otherworldly brilliance have managed to unsettle Fed just enough to make a difference when it really counts. In the spirit of disrupting a person’s mental comfort zone, there’s simply no need to overthink the matter: Federer loses to Nadal not because of the game plan, but because his shots don’t hold up for the duration. He doesn’t lose because of tactics, but because of execution. He doesn’t lose because he fails to hit tremendous shots – Federer would have owned a good 35 more winners on Thursday if he had been playing anyone other than Rafa – but because Nadal forces him to hit four or five more weapons-grade groundstrokes on a majority of points. Federer finished so many of those points by hitting “only” three.

“Only.”

It’s human nature to be unnerved – as the athlete in the arena or as a devoted fan of that very athlete – when all the things that led to your success and happiness over the years are thrown back at you by an opponent who was born and molded to beat you or make you miserable. Remember all the times when Fed would block back a 135-mile-per-hour Andy Roddick serve, hitting that floated stab return which would land on or just inside the baseline at Centre Court Wimbledon, thereby resetting the point and taking away Roddick’s one big hammer?

Well, that’s what Nadal has done so often to Federer, and with Roger on the verge of making a stirring comeback deep in the fourth set on Thursday, it happened once more, with (anguished) feeling for Fed and his followers.

You saw the play unfold, but it has to be noted for the record: Down 4-5 and having already been counted out by thousands of people on Twitter (I follow only a few thousand; surely, the 20 Fed doubters on my feed could be multiplied…) and perhaps millions around the globe, Federer – cracking the backhand that kept him in this match – earned a break point for 5-all. With one more point, Federer could have put himself in position to take the fourth set to a tiebreak, thereby earning a very realistic shot at one set for a spot in Sunday night’s final. On this break point, Federer didn’t flinch the way he so often has in the past against Nadal (including the 2009 Australian Open final). He played a picture peRFect point, whipping his groundies with authority and then steaming a forehand to the ad corner… the same corner at the same end of the Laver Arena court where Rafa hit that passing shot at 4-2, 30-15, three years ago. This time, though, Nadal didn’t uncork a thermonuclear response. Instead, he hit a defensive lob that soared into the sky. The moonshot didn’t seem likely to stay in the court, given that it flew off Rafa’s racquet, but after 11:15 p.m. at night in Melbourne, the ball wasn’t flying as much as it did at 7:45 p.m., when the match was only three minutes old and Roger was hitting through the court. The ball hung in the air for an eternity but lacked the starch it needed to sail long. It dropped right on the baseline, and in that moment, Federer’s mind had to be in unison with the collective thoughts of his fans: “SH*T!!!!!!!!”

Wanting to do something substantial after putting Rafa on the ropes, Fed went with the overhead from the baseline as he normally does. What wasn’t normal, though, was the combination of pressure and frustration that comes from knowing that an opponent perfectly equipped to beat him – to counter each and every one of his strengths, to beat him at his strongest points – had withstood his very best. Federer has seen Rafa pass him; he’s seen Rafa block balls back, especially on clay; he’s seen Nadal hit mind-boggling shots with impossible angles from unheard-of spots behind the baseline and wide of the doubles alley… spots Nadal used with scary regularity on Thursday night. (By my count, Nadal hit at least five of the 25 best passing shots he has EVER hit in THIS ONE MATCH. Think about that for a bit…) Yet, no matter how often Fed sees Rafa play to the height of defensive genius, it is still hard to accept the notion that your best shotmaking can be stopped by better defense. A real dose of mental weariness crept into Fed’s overhead, and a tame soft-slice version of the overhead – not the emphatic slice overhead Fed hits so well – swerved wide. Nadal, preposterously still serving, closed out the match two points later, and his block-back lob retrieval represented his final escape from peril.

There is simply no point of comparison with the way Rafael Nadal Parera defends a tennis court. Novak Djokovic is worthy of being in the discussion, but he’s very clearly the number two man in the room as far as defense is concerned. (Federer remains a brilliant defender in his own right, and in his 2005-2007 prime, he was every bit as formidable as Djokovic is now.) When Nadal and Djokovic play, they stretch the notions of what defense can be, but that’s because the two-handed backhanders are willing to trade strokes in a male mating ritual version of tennis, two young bucks knocking antlers in an open field. With Federer’s one-hander creating breathtaking brushstrokes of virtuosity at every turn, it’s different for Nadal — Rafa has to respond to Roger’s ability to take the ball a lot earlier and create a more daring angle. If a Nadal-Djokovic tennis meal is meat-and-potatoes two-hand-backhanding at its gritty, grinding best, the Fedal dinner is a succulent stir-fry of colors, oils and spices colliding in a wok and bursting with zesty flavor.

The fact – and it is a fact – that Rafa usually blunts and parries Federer’s finest offerings is the true testament to the quality of the Mallorcan. Federer played an imperfect yet still mesmerizingly entertaining match on Thursday – his highlight reel was anything but sparse – only to run into an opponent who had more answers in the crucible of crunch time.

What are we left with after Fedal XXVII? We’re left with simple truths – some of which go acknowledged and some of which remain hidden. The thing to appreciate about these two men and this rivalry is that there’s room for both truths, both stories, both resumes, to exist side by side.

There’s room for Roger’s offense – supplemented by terrific defense – and Rafa’s defense, which is accompanied by an always-underrated offense.

There’s room to acknowledge that Federer came up short while also seeing that he attacked points and pursued victory with the fullness that was so nakedly absent from the 2007 French Open final, when he refused to go after Nadal’s second serves and hit one tame second ball after another into the net. There’s room to acknowledge that while Federer still fails to win the biggest points against Nadal, he no longer goes meekly into that good night.

There’s room to acknowledge that Federer was the inferior man on Thursday while just as quickly pointing out that Roger is 4.8 years older than Nadal, playing the best 30-year-old tennis since Andre Agassi and retaining so much of the instinctual genius that makes him a fan favorite the world over. There’s room to acknowledge that Federer’s tennis at 30 is likely to eclipse anything Rafa or Djokovic are going to muster.

There’s also room to acknowledge that while Federer has left trophies on the table against Nadal, it is just as true – if not more so – that Nadal has always existed in a mental comfort zone against Federer for reasons that transcend the forehand-to-backhand dynamic. As Rafa said in post-match interviews late Thursday night, seeing Federer set own a standard of extraordinary achievement gave Rafa something to aspire to and shoot for. Rafa has always been the hunter in this rivalry, the man who could measure his evolution as a professional by his performances against Roger. By having that target in front of him throughout his career – in a way Federer could never replicate (not even with his idol, Pete Sampras, who left the scene before Federer hit the big time) – Nadal accessed the deepest wells of concentration and belief, wells that are not about to run dry. One can acknowledge Federer’s frailties against Nadal and yet see, paradoxically, that Roger’s career and all of its virtues are the very things which gave his Spanish friend and rival so much motivational fuel for the long haul, fuel for a decade and not just an 18-month spurt that so many tennis players enjoy but then lose hold of just as rapidly.

One can acknowledge that Rafa is now 3-2 against Fed in majors on non-clay surfaces, but there’s also room to realize that Nadal did not play Fed in hardcourt majors when the Swiss was at his peak. One can acknowledge that Federer’s major dominance extends across all surfaces, but there’s also room to realize that when Federer was Rafa’s age (25.5 years), he had only one French Open final under his belt, which means that Rafa still has time to burnish his hardcourt major credentials.

In the end, I think of this when I think of Nadal’s pursuit of Federer’s records: It is so easy and instinctive from a Fed fan’s perspective to want to make the argument that diminishes Rafa and enhances Federer, but really, why not give Nadal all the credit in the world and flip the script in the process? Praising the Mallorcan for being the one man to stand against Federer only ADDS to Roger’s reputation instead of detracting from it. If Federer’s achievements and skills were not that imposing in the first place, Rafael Nadal would not have emptied his insides and spilled his soul to become the man and player he is today. If Federer’s quality is what we think it is – the most beautiful tennis the world has ever seen, even at age 30, when Pete Sampras was sliding to No. 10 in the rankings (when men’s tennis was comparatively weak) – then Nadal’s ability to pick Fed apart becomes that much more impressive. If Fed’s old man tennis should be treated as the gem it is, Rafa’s 25-year-old prime – which should be better than Federer’s 30-year-old game – can be given its due as well.

For Roger Federer to be throwing down THIS kind of tennis at age 30, reaching his 30th major semifinal (he’s likely to pass Jimmy Connors for first on the all-time list before the year’s done…) and being the “old man” in the Big Four, should be seen as a very special affirmation of a champion’s enduring legacy. In tennis, though, the cycles of time are short and the person on the other side of the net is never excluded from the conversation. Rafael Nadal – thanks in large part to Roger Federer – is better than his Swiss buddy in the present tense. Accepting that fact might seem to be the heart of darkness and the admittance of defeat for a self-respecting Federista, given that we all prefer Roger’s way of going about his business and playing the sport of tennis. However, acknowledging Nadal’s lofty place in the pantheon – as Fedal clashes become more precious and rare on the big stage, in the shadows of Father Time – is the true way to magnify what our Swiss hero means to us.

Rudyard Kipling would agree, no?

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16 responses to “Facing Facts And Feeling Fine”

  1. Marco Iacoboni says :

    Lovely. Not sure about Kipling, I am thinking more Poe’s William Wilson the way you set this up. It’s a beautiful analysis, a great story. This morning match (yeah, west coaster, went to bed at around 4:30 am and slept for less than two hours; do you see why I am not so cheerful?) 🙂 made me realize that Fed most likely will never best Rafa best of five again. Last time it happened, it was 2007. This match had the best premises in years. Fed was playing beautifully, the court suited his game, Rafa had played well, but not terrifyingly well. I really thought Fed would school Rafa. He lost in four. He piled 60 UE, 36 off the FH. I do hope I am wrong, but I am afraid I won’t see Fed defeating Rafa best-of-5 ever again. It’s like realizing that something you used to do or watch or enjoy, is gone forever. A little piece of you is gone too. It’s OK, I guess. Life is about learning to let go. I just wasnt prepared. I think I am now. But it’s not a great feeling. Not now. Most likely it will never be a great feeling.

  2. Marco Iacoboni says :

    Oops, meant to write “Fed most likely will never *beat* Rafa best of five” ever again. Need some sleep 😦

  3. dootsiez says :

    Well written and more level headed than anything I can come up with right now.

    Losses are a part of following the sport. If I want to truly enjoy watching my favourite player win, I must be prepared to acknowledge defeat. I can blame Federer’s 63 unforced errors as much as I want, but Roger doesn’t walk on court and donate matches to his opponents. His strategy, his aggression, impatience, non-execution, stem from the fact that his opponent was Nadal.

    Best tennis I’ve seen from Rafa for quite a while (since the US Open probably). Somehow, Roger does always bring out the best in him.

  4. Hannah says :

    It’s easy to dismiss Roger’s failing as a sign of aging or one Rafa’s ability to win the bigger points better but Roger is undoubtedly haunted by another rival every time he steps on court with Rafa in slam…himself.
    It’s easy to talk about Roger’s “weak” backhand or Nadal’s unnatural like ability to spin the ball in an ever slowed down non-clay surface.

    But Roger’s ability to play the bigger points better is unquestionable with any other opponent but I could see from his body language to his shot-selection that he is second guessing himself, every time he plays Rafa he over-thinks and with every defeat to Rafa another stakes a claim in Roger’s mind!

  5. mattzemek says :

    Marco (and everyone else):

    The one undiscovered frontier in Fedal is New York. We need to see that happen this year so that it won’t be an eternally unanswered question. That’s a faster court through which Federer can hit. The Aussie plexicushion surface is no bueno, and that’s why I picked Nadal. If Fed gets Rafa at Wimbledon or New York, I think it might be different. It would be nice to at least see what would happen.

  6. Freudo says :

    Thanks Matt for your cogent and heartfelt article. It helped to read it. Have sent it to many freinds, Federer and Nadal fans. Thank you so much for more than holding up your loss to PJ 🙂 Most interesting pieces about Nadal and/or Federer go to one or the other group, but yours rises above. I have been working a long time on accepting the inevitable latter stages of Roger’s emphatically brilliant and satisfying career. I watch my progress the way my mother once watched my fever when I was sick. It also helps that Roger in interview is so centered in himslef, his life, and hopes, on and off the tennis court. I watch the incredible tension and excitement that gathers in my mind and body when Roger is in a torunement dissipate and my own full energy return. This Slam in particular, I set a deadline for myself to finish a piece of writing and made it, the day before teh semis, to insure I would raise my own trophy. I would have preferred, too weak a word, to raise it at the same time as Roger. I have made progress, no?

  7. zbrain says :

    Well written post Matt. I am glad that you are somehow able to keep a balanced perspective despite Rafa sticking yet another dagger into Roger. While I like to think I am fairly balanced myself taking in the good with the bad, I’m still EXTREMELY bitter about this experience!

    Over the years that I’ve been privileged to watch this wonderful game, I’ve endured my favorites losing… Borg to McEnroe at Wimbledon & USO ’81, Lendl to Cash at Wimbledon ’87, Edberg to Chang at FO ’89, Edberg to Becker at Wimbledon ’89, Sampras to Safin at USO ’00, Sampras to Hewitt at USO ’01. Nothing, I mean NOTHING has left me devastated like the ’08 Wimbledon, ’09 Australian and this one right here.

    I have the deepest respect for a great opponent in Rafa, but I also dislike (hate is too strong a word) him for what he and his uncle have done to Roger. Spin it any which way you want it, Rafa’s talent is absolutely no match to anything that Roger can do on that blue rectangle – and he himself admits to it in his book. So, it seems rather unfair that the better man loses every time he comes up against his nemesis. No, this is not about mental strength like you rightfully point out, but a twist of fate. Fate it seems has a wry sense of humor… create this incredibly gifted player and give him Superman like powers, and then make a giant rock of Kryptonite which renders all those powers more or less useless!

    I’m going to come off as a really sore loser, but so be it. I’m thrilled with what Novak is doing to Uncle Toni and his charge. They need to understand what Roger and his fans have had to endure. Don’t get me wrong, my respect for Rafa will only go up if he wins, and it WILL NOT go down if he loses, but you know who I will be rooting for come Sunday!!

  8. Rhian Park (@rosso_neri) says :

    I love this blog. Win, lose, whatever, there is always something here that is just right for that moment, that expresses exactly what I think/feel far better than i could ever actually put into words. Wonderful stuff yet again, even if it was not the result we all wanted.

  9. PJ says :

    You see, this is why I want you to write this. So much more eloquent than my “FUCK THIS SHIT” should it had been up to me.

    I guess what made it so hard for me to take this loss was that even though Rafa played his best tennis – outhit and outlast Federer mentally – Federer didn’t capitalise on his chances (4 breaks ahead, anyone?) as well as he should. This match is another one of those could haves, would haves, should haves and somehow it’ll always be this way for Fedal GS matches.

    I still have faith in the old man to break through the Slam duck of the last two years, don’t get me wrong. But it’s going to be a tough tough road ahead if he has to face up to Rafa, because it’s not just a match-up of game styles, it’s also a very mental battle that Rafa just have the edge to.

    Oh well. This one’s over. Let’s look forward to the next. Thanks for writing this, Matt. Soothes the soul somewhat. ❤

  10. Katarina_YYZ says :

    I don’t feel like being ‘respectful’ to Nadal’s champion qualities at all. Two weeks can be a long time (especially when you are damaging your brain by watching tennis all night instead of sleeping #EasternStandardTimeZone). Have we forgotten how this slam started? With Nadal airing the players’ dirty laundry in public… basically calling Roger selfish and a phony gentleman. I am so sick of Nadal; he is so bad for the sport. The negative things he’s brought far outweigh the positive.

  11. LJ says :

    GREAT POST MATT!!!

    So after a couple of days getting over it…I’m over it, I don’t think the slow and high bounce court at the Australian Open helps Rog’s chances against Rafa, and playing in the evening means balls are heavier and the conditions are slower still.

    Couple with the headcase that is Mr Wogie McFed against the certain spaniard…well yeah, I think it could have gone 5…but I’m almost happy it went 4…didn’t want a repeat of 2009.

    I think Marco tweeted a great stat the other day…it’s been 5 years since Roger has Beaten Rafa in a grand slam…that was 2007 Wimbledon…so I’m going to chalk it up as a horrible matchup of the ages and leave it at that. Peace Out!

  12. vernonbc says :

    What a lovely article. As a devoted Rafa fan it’s rare to find one that is so fair to both men (e-mail it to Bodo over at tennis.com pls). Trust me, we Rafa fans were on the edge of our seats throughout because we well knew that Roger could at any time make a few of those glorious shots of his and break our hearts. These Fedal matches are hard on all of us I think, but damn we’re going to miss them when they’re done. 🙂

  13. jagfnz says :

    great post. I’m a rafa fan but also a Fed admirer. Came to their rivalry late (2008) and it re-inspired me to start watching tennis again (yes I am an oldie von mouldie who used to watch jimmy connors play roscoe tanner in college tennis way back when….in the Pac 8 conference!!).

    Against everyone else except rafa Fed can find and sustain the kind of play he had in that first set against rafa and virtually everyone else at the Ozzie open this year. Frankly I believe Fed is the only one at the moment who has the kind of game and game plan(s) that can stick it to a healthy Djoko – which he should have done in last years’ US open semi final!

    Don’t give up Fed fans! Fed will win another slam – look how damn good he was at the end of last year. He probably would have won 6-0 6-0 against rafa in the London finals had he played him then, and that would have done his confidence against rafa a world of good! But rafa wasn’t up to it . MY prediction is Fed will Wimbledon or US open this year or in the next few years. Consider how Fed “helped” rafa win french open last year by taking out djoko last year – w/o Fed djoko would have probably had the 4 grand slams last year – rafa wasn’t stopping djoko at that point last year. Other guys at the top : murray Tsonga Berdych Del Potro – hell maybe even Dolgopolov if he can get some consistency – …will take matches off rafa on grass or hard courts indoors or outdoors, and clear the way (rafa) for Fed. It’s the nature of the game and the talent at the top is sooo good.

  14. jandemom says :

    Thanks for another thoughtful analysis, Matt – & thanks for your willingness to take the post-loss assignments more often than not. I really thought Roger was gonna win this one. His tennis is so spectacular, so full of variety and great to watch; like so many other Fed fans, I just wish he could put it all together against Rafa as well as he does against everyone else. As someone mentioned in a previous comment, kryptonite – what a bummer.

    However (& again, like so many other Fed fans), I’m not a fan only because Roger wins. I’m a fan because of the way he plays tennis & because he seems to be such a decent, classy, happy guy on & off the court (OK, and the hair is nice, too!). So I’m looking forward to his next match and the rest of the year with great optimism, sure that there is more beautiful tennis to come.

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