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Posted: Thursday May 14, 2009 11:44AM; Updated: Thursday May 14, 2009 12:15PM
S.L. Price S.L. Price >
INSIDE TENNIS

How Nadal humbled Federer (cont.)

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Rafael Nadal rushed the net during his epic Wimbeldon win against Roger Federer.
Simon Bruty/SI

Nadal also greatly improved his backhand. He flattened out the two-hander and sharpened his one-handed slice, learning to use it for defense, changes of pace, approach shots and drop shots. Mesmerized by what Courier calls Nadal's "brutish" style, commentators still portray Federer-Nadal matches as beauty versus beast, matador versus bull. But Nadal's devotion to craft belies that caricature. No one can match Federer for artistry, but Nadal has two attributes just as valuable: imagination and the audacity to use it. "He's by far the smartest player of all," says seven-time Grand Slam champ Mats Wilander. "He's not afraid of changing. With a mind like that? There's no limit."

The results have left Federer demoralized. "To Roger, Nadal's tennis is unorganized: big, loopy topspin forehands, that slice serve, now he's slicing his backhand, he's lefthanded -- [it affects Roger] mentally," Wilander explains. "When Roger's in his comfort zone, he's a serious fighter. But when he's not in it, he's not able to fight."

The moment when that became clear couldn't have been bigger. Serving for last year's Wimbledon championship at 8-7, 0-15, with night falling, Nadal ventured as far out of his own comfort zone as possible. He had stunned everyone by outserving Federer throughout the fifth set, but now he took it a step further. Nadal serve-and-volleyed. Then he did it again, and again, winning two of his three approaches to the net, beating the ultimate all-court player at his own game. Against such nerve Federer crumbled. His final forehand fell short. An era ended.

*****

Strangely enough 2008 might have been Federer's greatest year -- better than his 92-5 run in '06, better than the three years in which he won nine majors --because he battled his body from start to finish. A bout of mononucleosis in late 2007 had enlarged his spleen, ravaged his powers of recovery and ruined his off-season training; from the '08 Australian Open on, he played a step slow, which threw off his timing and sent his confidence tumbling. Yet Federer still made the Australian Open semifinals and the French Open final, labored back from two sets down to lose the longest Wimbledon final ever by the slimmest of margins, and won the U.S. Open -- Hall of Fame stuff for anyone else.

"Federer was ill all season long, and the story was completely missed," Courier says. "He hid it from everybody because it's his responsibility to not show weakness, and he played through it because of his commitment to the tour. Which was a mistake. Mario Ancic [the Croatian once ranked No. 7] missed more than six months on the tour with a mono bout; it's a serious illness for a high-level performance athlete. Roger needed to get off the tour and get healthy again."

Last October, Federer conceded at last, retiring from a tournament for the first time in 763 matches because of lower back pain. It has continued to bother him, but history won't care. Nadal "shot him through the heart by winning Wimbledon," Courier says. "Roger was not at full tilt, but it doesn't matter, because it changed the energy between them -- possibly for the rest of their careers."

Federer's breakdown just before Nadal received the '09 Australian Open winner's trophy was the most obvious sign of the shift, but there had been earlier indications. Asked the day before the final whether he relished another shot at his archrival, Federer said, "Honestly, I preferred the days when I didn't have a rival." Nadal had exhausted himself in a five-hour, 14-minute semifinal the day before, but as soon as the final began, Federer seemed out of sorts. Worse, unlike Nadal when he was No. 2, Federer didn't commit himself to attacking his rival, to shaking him out of his comfort zone. Twice Federer ran around his backhand and staggered Nadal with forehand winners, but he never did that again. "Twice in 4 hours?" Wilander asks. "Why not show Nadal something different?"

The answer lies in the regal language always used to describe Federer. Born to rule, he has never been interested in fighting for power; that's why in his current exile he looks less like Napoleon plotting on Elba than like the puzzled Czar Nicholas II waiting for the world to right itself and restore his throne.

This attitude perplexes even Federer's staunchest admirers. Former players, coaches, peers: They all accept that his talent is, as Wilander says, "crazy," but his passive response to Nadal goes against what they've been taught a superstar does when he's down. Muhammad Ali came up with rope-a-dope, an aging Michael Jordan perfected the fadeaway jumper: The great ones adjust, sending a signal not only to their rivals but also to all the newly emboldened. It's no shock that following Nadal's trail, No. 3 Andy Murray has won six of his last seven matches against Federer, and No. 4 Novak Djokovic has won three of their last five. "What makes me scratch my head," Courier says, "is how Roger doesn't shift."

The remedy most often prescribed for Federer's ailing game is hiring a coach such as Darren Cahill, who once counseled Agassi. Federer toyed with the idea in the off-season, but that he didn't follow up seemed further proof that he's not hearing alarm bells. Others suggest that he serve-and-volley more, or play more doubles to replicate the Olympic preparation that helped him win the gold medal in doubles in Beijing and the U.S. Open singles title last September. But if Federer insists on staying back and winning rallies from the baseline, the consensus is that he must shorten points to save energy for the decisive third and fifth sets he has lately been losing: He has to hit more low, short slices to throw off Nadal's rhythm, and he must put more bite on his flatter strokes.

Federer did that in the Australian Open final, but only when desperate; the instant he felt he had gained the momentum, he went back to the game on which he built his empire -- and that Nadal solved long ago. "Roger still feels he's just better [than Nadal]," Courier says. "And, frankly, he's not."

On March 30, at the Sony Ericsson Open at Key Biscayne, Fla., Nadal beat 74th-ranked Frederico Gil 7-5, 6-3, walked off the court and disappeared. Maymo waited in the locker room until Nadal showed 15 minutes later, steaming from a sprint on the elliptical trainer. "I wasn't happy with my play," he said, "so I punished myself."

The next night Federer, soon to be married to his longtime girlfriend and manager, Mirka Vavrinec, with whom he is expecting a child, downplayed the idea that he needs to adjust his game. He said he felt fresh, back in shape at last. "That's been my problem, not really Rafa or Andy or Djokovic," he said. "I feel like I'm about to turn the corner."

Four days later Federer lost to Djokovic in three sets, but more notable was how, down a break in the third, his forehand -- once the signature shot of the men's game -- deserted him. He danced forward as he had so often, an easy approach shot waiting for him at the T, swung ... and dumped the ball into the net. Federer stared at his racket a second, then smashed it on the ground. It made all the highlight shows.

But as the losses piled up over the spring -- to Stanislas Wawrinka in Monte Carlo, to Djokovic again in Rome -- another image from Key Biscayne came to mind. Following Federer's last win there, after he fielded questions in English, then Swiss-German, someone asked if he could answer a few in Spanish. This is part of tennis's law of succession: The new No. 1's mother tongue becomes a tour lingua franca. Nadal had deciphered the language of Federer's game, but those waiting to see if Federer has the stomach to respond in kind would find nothing encouraging this day.

"I'm not there yet," Federer said, trying to grin. "Maybe in the next life."

 
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