By Jane Voigt
March 17, 2017 — Roger Federer’s record against Rafael Nadal is dismal, no matter which way its examined. Yet the Swiss star beat his arch rival in their last two meetings this year — The Australian Open final and the quarterfinal of the BNP Paribas Open Wednesday in Indian Wells, pushing that head-to-head comparison at 14-23.
Not great … but a notch in the right direction.
So, we have to ask … Has age mellowed Federer’s enough to free him from constraints of the lefty Spanish kind or any other kind, for that matter? That’s part of it. The comeback win in Melbourne boosted Federer’s confidence. But what was vividly apparent Wednesday night was Federer’s backhand. It skyrocketed to a stroke not even Federer recognized.
“We’ve never seen you hit backhands like that,” Mary Carillo said to Federer, during a post-match interview on Tennis Channel.
“Me neither,” Federer responded.
The abrupt change in the stroke while facing Nadal, which is important to note, revealed yet another level of the 35-year-old champion’s game. That upward shift gave him even more confidence. It also signaled that he might be able to extend his career beyond the age of 40, which is his target retirement age. It also gave hope to millions of up-can-coming players who continue to push their limits as they try to edge their way up the rankings.
The elevation of his game began in Melbourne.
Down 1-3 in the fifth set, he charged back playing with aplomb. The title — an unprecedented 18th — was truly unexpected, given Federer’s hiatus from competition. He stopped touring last year after an unfortunate slip on the grass of Wimbledon, as he attempted to put Milos Raonic’s hopes of his first Grand Slam final in the dumpster. Raonic went on to win that match and lose to Andy Murray.
In Indian Wells, Federer never was in trouble against Nadal. His offense brutalized Nadal from the get-go. Gone were the passive chipped backhand returns off Nadal’s cranky serves. Roger broke immediately, beginning a barrage of winning shots hit from any and all parts of the slow, high-bouncing court, which is more suited to the Spaniard. The duel was over in 68 minutes, 6-2, 6-3.
“In Australia, it was a very close match. I had good chances to win,” Nadal said, as reported by The New York Times. “Today, not. He played better than me.”
Federer’s win and Novak Djokovic’s loss to Nick Kyrgios lands the Swiss maestro across the net from the ridiculously talented Aussie kid, in one of today’s semifinals. Kyrgios is the only player to have beaten Murray, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, in their first meetings. Roger will have his hands full. Nick loves the big stage against the big players and is in a good place mentally … just like his opponent.
Kyrgios turned pro four years ago and although he’s all that, he has no career titles (Roger has 89). He doesn’t have a coach, either, but Lleyton Hewitt has been a frequent consultant. Paul Annacone, long-time coach for Pete Sampras, said he’d never want to coach Nick. Too wild. The kid doesn’t want to hear tips and tactics that go against outside his purview. A know-it-all is tough to tame.
Federer was much like that, early on. He knew it all. Cried when he’d lose matches. Threw his racquet. Busted it in pieces.
Federer’s serve and that honed backhand will have to fire on all cylinders today. Kyrgios’s serve is a dynamic weapon. His second serve is nothing less; he doesn’t let up. It’s why Djokovic just couldn’t get his game in gear; and, he’s the best returner out there.
Federer won in the California desert in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2012. He’d like to get his fifth title. Winning, and winning big titles, still revs Federer’s engine. Kyrgios, though, will be no less stoked to get a chance at an inaugural title at an ATP Masters 1000 event.
Federer’s strengths lay in his variety and nuanced play. No one is better at shifting around a loose strategy than Federer. He will read Nick’s serve and will adjust his own in response. But Kyrgios will pull out all the stops and lean on his many talents to take Federer to the edge. Kyrgios saved two match points against Federer in Madrid, their only other face-off.
“I fell that Nick and me have a lot of options,” Federer told The New York Times. “So, it’s hard for us to always pick the right one.”
Federer better have his radar on its most sensitive setting today, intuitively going to the ‘right one’ move. If not, the kid will hand Federer a loss for the second time. Something he doesn’t want to deal with, even if he’s stopped crying after match losses.