Friday, March 15, 2013
Roger Federer, twilight of a champion
It was billed as the latest episode in a wildly successful and long-running tennis show, driven by new twists in the plot and the full force of a hefty backstory. But the showdown between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on Thursday night in an Indian Wells quarterfinal ended up looking more like a rerun.
From the moment the first ball was hit, you had this feeling that you'd been here before. Had seen this, or something very much like it, not all that long ago. That the ending was foretold early on, and all the rest of it was -- for you -- mostly about hanging in there, idly enjoying the formidable skills on display until Nadal quietly closed the deal with a 6-4, 6-2 win.
This wasn't a rerun of Federer versus Nadal at the Wimbledon final of 2008. This was a reprisal of their 2011 semifinal match in Miami, in which a desultory and oddly distracted Federer radiated surrender as he sleepwalked through a 6-3, 6-2 loss to Nadal. Just like Thursday's clash, that one was overhyped to the extent that it made an honest man cringe.
Sure, some Federer partisans will put their disappointment down to the fact that he apparently has a sore back. But then Nadal backers can argue that Nadal has chronically bad knees and is just now beginning to round into form. Who cares? What we had here was a tennis match -- and matchup -- that poses no more intriguing questions, that has no more surprises in store.
What, did you think these two guys would go on playing 2008-level tennis forever?
Among other things, last night's match was a comment on the inevitable toll taken by age. That five-year age difference -- Federer is 31, Nadal 26 -- didn't mean very much as little as two or three years ago. But it really hurts Federer now, just as it helped him in the early stages of their rivalry, which goes back to 2004.
The match also gave us some insight into the state of Nadal's mind and game. As much as he may obsess about the reliability of his knees, the very sight of Federer across the net appeared to have a magical healing effect on those Nadal joints.
Mostly, though, the message sent by Nadal's 19th win over Federer (who's won 10 in the rivalry) was that despite those sore knees, those seven months off, that drop to No. 5 in the rankings (while Federer has gamely clung to No. 2), Nadal enjoys an enormous style-based advantage in the matchup.
This is not rocket science, folks, which is why I don't really buy into the conventional wisdom that contrasting styles make for the best rivalries. Whether Sampras' serve can prove superior to Agassi's return, McEnroe's volley can trump Borg's passing shot, or Nadal's topspin forehand can break down Federer's backhand are not complicated questions, and the answers to those questions are obvious when you watch the rivals clash.
When you come right down to it, a Djokovic versus Murray or Lendl versus Wilander pairing is a much more nuanced contrast, and it's outcome is determined by more subtle -- and changeable -- elements.
As has been true for some time now, Federer's backhand is no match for Nadal's forehand. That Nadal is a lefty only adds, perhaps immeasurably, to his edge. At the most basic level, this was another of those matches decided by Nadal's ability to punish and hurt Federer in that familiar way: With a cross-court killer forehand that goes directly to Federer's versatile but not terribly threatening one-handed backhand. And so does Nadal's most comfortable serve.
Bear in mind, though, that this wasn't always the case. Early in this rivalry, Nadal wasn't nearly as confident about and reliant upon blasting apart Federer's backhand. Federer's all-around skills, and the indisputable beauty and variety of that one-handed backhand, masked his vulnerability. Who imagined you could lay low perhaps the greatest player ever in this sport by following the first commandment of parks-and-rec tennis: Hit to the backhand?
It took a few French Open meetings, where the fruits of serving the kicker and beaming the forehand at the backhand side were most obvious, for Nadal to develop his approach to Federer, and Nadal has been fine-tuning it ever since. He's got it stone-cold figured out now.
I hate to see this happening to Federer. Somehow, I think he deserves better. But the scoreboard and stat sheet don't lie. Ultimately, this match was no new episode, and if it was a rerun, it served mostly to remind us of the good old days when the outcome was less predictable, and perhaps to confirm that the rivalry no longer has the ability to excite and surprise.
Hold the hype, and say a prayer for Federer.