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Mischa Zverev gave Roger Federer all he could handle in the first set of their Italian Open encounter on Friday, and I'm sure that a number of people watching the match hoped that Federer learned something useful in the course of his 7-6 (2), 6-2 win.
Zverev, painfully aware of Federer's proven record as the second-best player in the world on clay, tried the old Charge of the Light Brigade strategy. He took every opportunity to rush the net, or to hit the kinds of shots (heavily sliced backhands to the corner of the court, crosscourt blasts to Federer's backhand) that would enable him to move forward. The bold gambit paid off until things got tight during the tiebreaker, which was when Federer's experience and ability to play his best when it most counts paid off.
Watching Zverev at work raised the interesting question: Why doesn't Federer do something like that in his clay-court matches with Rafael Nadal? Because he's Roger Federer, one major away from tying Pete Sampras' record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, right? Because he's the most skilled and versatile player (perhaps ever), not some 21-year-old, left-handed, 6-3 galoot trying to bulldoze his way into his first Masters Series semifinal on a wing and a prayer.
OK, point taken. Still. Somebody once defined insanity as the act of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And by that definition, Federer is tennis nuts. And he has paid the price, most notably in the French Open final last year. Facing Nadal with no obvious game plan beyond outwitting and/or outhitting him, Federer absorbed the worst Grand Slam beating of his career, going down 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. It's time to do something different in order to achieve a different result. And that means attacking Nadal.
Of course, you can't just charge the net helter-skelter, the way some players do. But those kamikaze kids usually are trying to mask holes in their games, or attack in order to keep an opponent from exploiting a weakness. Federer has the luxury of being able to pick his moments, which he can afford to do because his game is so solid.
What Federer needs to do is commit himself to forcing the issue, which is the underlying motive for even the most artless of the serve-and-volley experts. Federer has to be absolutely focused on attacking and taking away Nadal's timing at every possible opportunity -- something he's not in the habit of doing against any player. But making that commitment will show in the results; it will lead him to mixing up his pace and placement, to incorporating the heavy, sliced backhand approach shot, and to returning serve more aggressively than is his wont -- all in order to keep Nadal from taking control of the points.
I can think of two stars who figured out how to play aggressively and executed their strategy perfectly at Roland Garros: Adriano Panatta sliced and chipped and volleyed and drop-shotted his way to a win over Bjorn Borg in the quarterfinals in 1976. (With that giant obstacle out of the way, Panatta, the No. 8 seed, rolled through Harold Solomon in the final.)
And Yannick Noah beat Mats Wilander in the 1983 final, slicing everything low and relying on the most basic chip-and-charge tactics to pull off the upset.
Nadal may be the best clay-court player of this or any other time, but neither Borg nor Wilander were red-dirt slouches, either. They were rarely beaten at their own game. But once in a while, someone came along who made them play a different game, and once in a while it paid off. Federer gave Mischa Zverev a lesson in pretty tennis today, but perhaps he learned one himself as well.