Two famous rivals named Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both got hurt, and both entered rehab cocoons for most of 2016, biding their time until this January. One emerged a radiant butterfly, posting a 19-5 record on the season, playing in three championship matches—a lovely comeback by any metric. But the other one emerged a Predator drone, going 19-1 and claiming a tour-best three titles.
Tennis fans have been granted their dream matchup three times already this year, and after Fed’s 6-3, 6-4 win over Nadal in yesterday’s Miami Open final—at risk of sounding ungrateful—it might actually be getting old.
To get old, it has to become familiar, and that took time. If you’ve watched something take a familiar shape for the last decade, it can be jarring to see it make a late, second metamorphosis. Say, to watch the role reversal of Federer’s one-handed backhand bullying Rafael Nadal’s forehand around the court, as it did yesterday. To see Federer at 35 suddenly cruising through his nemesis, winning four straight matches (for the first time in their rivalry), winning five straight sets (for the first time in their rivalry). It has never come this easy for him.
The explanation is by now familiar. Federer came out of his cocoon with a shiny new one-hander, as coached by Ivan Ljubicic, a former pro with a famously flat, commanding one. Federer, now taking the ball as early as he ever has, gives Rafa less time to respond than ever before; Rafa, now a step slower and unlikely to ever get faster, can’t afford that tax. Late in the second set Federer struck this lob volley that the Nadal of old might have gotten a decent racket on, and maybe even looped back up the sideline, but not anymore.
He just doesn’t have the time to operate. Nadal rips this approach shot as hard and deep as any ball he hit all afternoon, but there’s not too much to do when your rival nonchalantly half-volleys the ball from baseline to baseline.
Touch just doesn’t seem to age. I’d be interested in watching a match where, serve aside, Federer has to strike every ball from knee height or below. Like so:
There were hot points, but this match lacked the nearly paralyzing tension of Melbourne. Federer served sharply, defused Nadal’s four break chances in the first set, and did more than hold his own in the long rallies. Watching him flutter-foot around these inside-out and inside-in forehands, you’ll feel like you turned back time. Then you watch that filthy backhand at the end, blocked down the line with a terse, practical stroke, and you realize the dial’s been turned forward to a future you never foresaw.
Now that he’s won the most important three hardcourt titles of the year—the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami—Federer will take some well-deserved, judicious rest. He said after the championship that he’d take the spring clay court season off, returning (obviously) for the French Open, the clay Nadal rules to the tune of nine wins. For the first time in a while, Federer found himself in a position to offer some words of consolation to Nadal: “The clay courts are around, so I’m sure you are going to tear it into pieces over there.” And he will. If there’s anywhere Nadal can regain his form, it’s the clay of Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome, where he’s won a combined 20 titles. Should he draw Nadal for an improbable fourth time of the year at Roland Garros, Federer will face a much more confident version of his rival.
Even though this last win came relatively stress-free, Miami was not without a few scares for Federer. They flashed in the earlier rounds: when he was saving match points against Tomas Berdych, or wriggling out of a 7-6 (11), 6-7 (11), 7-6 (5) semifinal against Nick Kyrgios. That one, full of tension, unseated the previous day’s bout between Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev as my favorite match of the year. Lots of aces from two of the game’s cleverest servers, and staccato, aggressive points. It was the epic that this final wasn’t, which raises the larger issue. We now know Federer can beat Nadal and the rest of his old ilk; it’s now a question of how much longer he can fend off the two youngsters coming for his head.