Monday, February 2, 2009

Australian Open Final

Just an aside on yesterday's Australian Open final between Federer and Nadal. What an absolutely magnificent match between perhaps (in time to come) the two greatest players ever to grace a tennis court.

I am a staunch Federer supporter but it was hard to begrudge someone as humble and respectful as Nadal taking a well-deserved win. It was clear that Roger had a prime chance to tie Sampras for 14 Slams but it seems at points (especially in the first and fifth) that his normally tough mentality failed him. 

He started tentatively as usual in these big matches against Nadal and dutifully handed him the first set on a platter after having his serve broken thrice. I guess such jitters were understandable with his losing record against Nadal but I was disappointed at his performance in the fifth especially after such a spectacular fourth. While Nadal showed little signs of tiring, I was convinced Federer would manage the momentous feat if the match were to reach a fifth set - I guess I was wrong. Nadal's indomitable spirit coupled with his superhuman athletic prowess ensured the victory and his 6th Slam - his first on hard courts.

I thought that Federer needed to come at Nadal like the underdog to help overcome early match jitters but he seemed like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. No doubt it was a momentous match for him, but based on past records and the current world rankings, he was clearly the world's no.2 coming against the best player in the world currently. Perhaps it was time for Nadal to feel the pressure for once and for Federer to attack him more aggressively and take more risks earlier in the rally rather than simply playing not to lose. 

Federer's best shots came with him forced at full stretch rather than a deliberate attempt to paint the lines. Federer is perhaps the most gifted player of all-time and if anyone could beat Nadal by going for broke right from the start, he be the one.

Nonetheless the shot-making on both sides was fabulous and I couldn't believe my eyes seeing both giants make shot after shot after shot. The level of play was unbelievable and the match is bound to go down as a classic. My heart was pounding as they went neck-to-neck, and reminded me of how I felt during last year's Wimbledon final. 

However, I thought Federer became a little predictable trying to draw Nadal out of court with the wide serve. That strategy was also the reason for his low first serve percentage which averaged around 50% for the match. One of the most devastating aspects of Federer's game is his unpredictable serve because of the same ball toss used for all his serves. I generally find that Federer serves most of his aces when he bangs it down the centre line and thought he ceded that advantage by going mostly to the wide serve. I suppose it was a reaction to Nadal standing way back in an attempt to negate the threat of Federer's serve. While it was effective in parts, I suspect Roger lost the easy points that he is used to winning by varying his serves somewhat more. 

Another example of Federer sticking overly to his pre-game strategy was his monotonous return of Nadal's serve to his backhand. While effective initially to keep Nadal away from his fearsome forehand, it became far too predictable towards the endgame so much so that a couple of returns to the forehand would have kept Nadal more honest. 

Nadal on the other hand stuck wisely to his strategy of peppering Federer's backhand with heavy top-spin because Federer remained unsuccessful at overcoming the disadvantage faced by his single-handed backhand against Nadal's shoulder high balls. 

I have heard comments regarding how Roger should opt for the slice rather than try to top-spin those balls but I suspect he knows better than any of us that Nadal is able to generate incredible pace on those slice returns to leave him a sitting duck. Nadal only seems to struggle handling the slice when he scrambling across court to reach it and in such situations, a ball with higher pace would usually be the better option. But I concur with Verdasco - to win a point against Nadal you need to win it three times over. 

In the past I felt Federer's superior all-round game was the key to unlocking the mystery that is Nadal and was frustrated when he failed to slice or approach the net adequately. But if isn't obvious enough, Nadal has also been relentless polishing his all-round game and coupled with his superior groundstrokes, it is a wonder whether Roger will ever gain the upper hand on him again. With the five year gap between the two, it would seem that Federer would have little chance at equalling and breaking Pete's record if he be facing Nadal across the net in future Slam finals. 

Perhaps Nadal would be upset en route to a final or an injury lay-off would provide him an opportunity, just like the one awarded Federer in last year's US Open final. I'm sure Federer as any fierce competitor would love to see himself clinching the Grand Slam record via defeating his greatest nemesis on court but after last night's tear-stricken affair at the prize-giving, I doubt he'll mind it much if he faced someone else across the net at his next Slam final for a change. 

I was truly touched at Roger's raw expression of emotions during the award ceremony. It reminded me of his first Grand Slam win at Wimbledon and demonstrates yet again why he is so well loved worldwide. While still divinely graceful on court, the great champion shows just how human he can be as he sees his aura of invincibility gradually eroded by his young nemesis. 

I long to see Federer win his 15th one day because he's a genuinely nice and classy guy - doesn't hurt that he produces the most beautiful tennis ever witnessed but in Nadal lies a young champion with the potential to lay both Federer and Sampras in his wake. 

To many more exhilarating matches between these two great champions! What a privilege to witness their careers in their entirety.

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