By: J. Scott Smith
The Friday 3:30 a.m. Aussie Open semi-final left me with quite a decision. I had to teach at noon, but I felt like this might be the last time we see Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal face each other in a semi-final or final Grand Slam match. Federer’s charge to the Aussie Open semi-final was prompted by his change to a larger racket and a more aggressive style. USA Today writer Chris Chase argued that the changes in his racket, a healthy back, and a new coach would propel Federer to victory over Nadal and to an 18th Grand Slam championship. I thought, “Awesome! Federer’s old enough now that I can actually root for him.” I postponed grading quizzes Thursday night until 2:30 a.m. Friday morning to make sure I was up for the event. Yes, this is how I time-manage my life.
3:30 a.m.: ESPN opens with a montage showing highlights of Federer vs. Nadal over the years set to an obnoxious 21st century power ballad. I immediately begin to question my decision to stay up. The match is delayed because they can’t get the retractable roof open at Rod Laver Arena. “You have one event a year that matters. How is this not working?” I thought. Federer hits the first serve of the match at 3:52 a.m.
Game 1- Federer looks sharp. First three serves are in and the forehand has the signature Federer precision. “Just like his Eco-Drive watch, Roger Federer is unstoppable.” Game Federer; 1-0 on serve.
- 0-15: Federer with a bad unforced error on a cross court backhand into the net, foreshadowing the entire match. If he wins that point he’s got Nadal in a 0-30 hole and possibly gets a break chance. He doesn’t and Nadal wins the game rather easily. Game Nadal; 1-1 on serve.
- 30-15: Federer tries Nadal’s forehand. Mistake.
- 30-30: Federer runs Nadal and beats him with a wide shot.
- 40-30: Federer is aggressive and comes to the net and beats Nadal with a nice volley. Game Federer; 2-1 on serve.
- 0-0: Federer a return winner. Needs this game and first set.
- 15-30: Federer misses easy backhand long. Like game 2, if he wins the point he gets two break points. He doesn’t; game Nadal. 2-2 on serve.
Game 5- Federer cruises. Game Federer; 3-2 on serve.
Game 6- Nadal cruises. Game Nadal; 3-3 on serve. The crowd is pretty even at this point and it appears this might be a back-and-forth Federer vs. Nadal classic.
Game 7-They’ve found a way to open the roof of Rod Laver Arena and Patrick McEnroe notes that Federer should worry about being broken serving into the wind.
- 15-30: Nadal with a forehand down-the-line pass. Unreal.
- 15-40: Federer pounds forehands to Nadal’s backhand. “Where has this strategy been?” 30-40: Nadal unforced backhand error.
- Deuce: Ace.
- Adv. Federer: Nadal backhand unforced error. Game Federer; 4-3 on serve.
Game 8- Nadal serving into wind.
- 40-30: Federer tries Nadal forehand after a long rally. “How did you think that was going to turn out?” Game Nadal; 4-4 on serve.
Game 9- Nadal starting to become the aggressor.
- Deuce: Federer with a forehand winner.
- Adv. Federer: Uncharacteristic unforced error with the forehand from Nadal. Game Federer; 5-4 on serve.
- 30-30: Federer’s got a chance, but he hits a forehand long. Roger’s disgusted with himself. “Did I just call him Roger? Man I get soft when stars that I rooted against get old.”
- 40-30: Ace. Game Nadal; 5-5 on serve.
Game 11- “Just feels like it’s going to a tie-break.”
- 40-15: Ace. Game Federer; 6-5 on serve.
Game 12- Federer needs this game if he’s going to have a chance.
- 0-0: Federer backhand into the net. Ugh.
- 40-30: Federer long return. Game Nadal; 6-6; tie-break.
- 0-0: Federer serves; cross court backhand clips the top of the net and sails out.
- 0-1: Nadal backhand wide. “Whoever’s backhand is better is going to win the match.”
- 1-1: Federer backhand wide.
- 1-2: Federer whiffs on an easy volley.
- 1-3: Nadal backhand forces Federer into a forehand error.
- 1-4: Long rally, Federer with a backhand cross court into the net.
- 1-5: Nadal loses focus and hits a forehand wide.
- 2-5: Federer with a nice drop shot to volley winner.
- 3-5: Nadal with a long return. Federer back in the tie-break.
- 4-5: Nadal’s forehand is too much.
- 4-6: Set point. Federer backhand long. Game, first set Nadal.
This essentially is the match. Federer loses confidence in his backhand, starting hitting them short and Nadal punishes him for it with his overpowering forehand. ESPN interviews Pete Sampras in-between sets. I love Sampras and rooted for him his entire career, but he’s not a TV guy. “We’ll see what happens” was his analysis for three different questions. “He’s not the best color man in the league for nothing folks.”
- Nadal serving. 0-0: Federer forces the action and wins the point.
- 0-15: Federer backhand miss-hit.
- 30-30: Federer misses easy forehand volley at net. “He’s going to lose this match.” Game Nadal; 1-0 on serve.
- Federer is aggressive and cruises. Game Federer; 1-1 on serve.
- Nadal cruises via love. Game Nadal; 2-1 on serve.
- First long game of the match. Nadal clearly the better player. Deuce #4: Federer with a winner. Adv. Federer: Unforced forehand wide. Challenge. It clips the line. Game Federer; 2-2 on serve.
- Nadal has pounded Federer with serves to his backhand all match. Looks like he’s figured Federer out. Game Nadal; 3-2 on serve.
- 0-0: Federer tries to steal an easy point with a forehand and misses.
- 0-15: Federer tries the same thing with a cross court forehand but misses wide. He’s pressing; he knows he’s overmatched.
- 0-30: The crowd is beginning to root for Federer. Good serve and volley.
- 15-30: Nadal seemingly picks the ball off the ground with a forehand that surprises Federer at the net.
- 15-40: Nadal with an unforced with the backhand.
- 30-40: Long rally, but Nadal’s forehand is too much. Game Nadal; 4-2 break.
- Clear that Nadal has Federer figured out on serve. Game Nadal; 5-2 up a break.
- Federer cruises. Nadal saving energy to close out on serve.
- 0-0: Federer’s aggressive play illustrates that he understands this game is the match. Nadal unforced backhand into the net.
- 0-15: Nadal forehand deep. The crowd fully behind Federer.
- 0-30: Rally, Nadal too much.
- 15-30: Nadal with a forehand winner.
- 30-30: Federer unforced error with the forehand.
- 40-30: Federer backhand return into the net. Game, second set Nadal.
The second set confirms Nadal is the better player and that he’s going to win the match. I watched the 3rd set and took notes, but at no moment does Federer make it interesting. I began the night hoping that I might see another Federer vs. Nadal classic like the 2008 Wimbledon Final. Finally, my odd sleeping schedule would provide me with a tangible benefit. “I watched the whole match live!” But unfortunately, what I saw looked more like Andre Agassi vs. Roger Federer in the 2005 U.S. Open final. At the time, 35 year-old Agassi made an improbable run to the final, only to run into the 24 year-old buzzsaw that was Roger Federer. Agassi competed with grit, power, and the game’s greatest return game, but that was no match for Federer’s agility and precision. Tennis is a game that belongs to the young and Federer is only fooling himself when he states, “I still think my best tennis is only ahead of me now.” Looking back at those 2005 U.S. Open highlights reminded me just how brilliant Federer really was in his prime and just how far removed he is now from that greatness.
In the end, I was right. This will have been the last time Federer and Nadal face each other in a meaningful Grand Slam match as Nadal has run his head-to-head Grand Slam record to 9-2 against Federer, who hasn’t beat Nadal in a major since the 2007 Wimbledon finals. My wistful dreams of another 2008 Wimbledon classic couldn’t have been more unfounded, just like Federer’s notion that his best tennis is head of him. You’re 32 Roger; you can’t beat him anymore. The rivalry is over. Now you know how Andy Roddick feels.
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Dr. Smith is a professor of communication at Christopher Newport University. He is a co-editor of Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration.