Going into Friday’s quarterfinal at the Western and Southern Open, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal we’re heading in two completely different directions. Nadal, playing maybe the best hard court tennis of his career, had just won in Montreal, beating the world number 1 in route to his 25th Masters 1000 crown. Federer, on the other hand, was in the midst of his worst year as a pro in 10+ years, with his ranking falling to a distant number 5. Nadal was the 2/7 betting favorite, and most “experts” gave Federer little to no chance at winning the match. Even I, the biggest of Fed-fans, only hoped for Federer to stay competitive and not get embarrassed. What unfolded Friday night was unexpected, and awesome.
You all probably know by now, that Rafa won the match in three tight sets, 5-7 6-4 6-3. That in itself was a shock to most people including myself. Federer’s form coming in to the match was nothing to shout about, and for a set and half against Tommy Haas in the Round of 16, Roger looked to be on the road to retirement. He was down 1-6 2-4, before mounting an impressive comeback to win the third set 6-3. It must be said that Haas gave Federer much of that match, and so Federer must have felt pretty lucky to get through that one. Rafa’s Round of 16 was tough as well, as he wore down “Baby Fed”, Grigor Dimitrov, in three sets. Still, after seeing both of them play, Nadal was the absolute favorite.
As the first few games of the match went by, you knew it was so important for Roger to stay on serve to get some confidence. After fighting to hold in his first service game, Roger loosened up, and the level of tennis started to pick up. Federer’s trademark forehand has looked shaky at best the past few months, but on Friday it was clicking. When Fed’s timing is on, there is nobody better to watch in the sport. He was hitting both the inside-in and inside-out forehands with great aggressiveness and precision. He was also returning better than he usually does against Nadal. He was hitting over a lot of backhand returns and was able to get the first ball into Nadal’s backhand corner, something he often tries but rarely executes.
At 5-5 30-all with Nadal serving, Federer cooked a Forehand winner that landed flat on the baseline. After a long rally in which Roger kept the ball the Nadal’s backhand time after time, he had the break. He served out the set with an unreal backhand cross court winner, and everybody’s expectations changed.
The second set’s level of play was even better. Federer played just about as well, but Nadal started to return much better and was starting to direct nearly every ball at the Federer backhand. He manufactured a break at 5-4 to win the second set, and all of the momentum was on his side. He broke to open the third, and got to 5-3 40-love. Three match points. And one minute later, all three matchpoints were gone, two saved by great winners from Federer. He saved a fourth, but it was fifth time lucky for Nadal, who curled a forehand down the line that looked to just catch the line. Federer chose not to challenge, but the Hawkeye replay showed the ball to be 1 millimeter out(well within the margin of air). Was the ball out? Would that have changed the outcome of the match? Probably not, but you never know.
Moral of the story: This great rivalry was thought to be over, and last night proved it isn’t. Federer gave his fans a lot of hope for the future, and Nadal proved why he’s the best tennis player in the world right now. I’ve got a feeling Rog has something to say at this years US Open…which Chris and I are lucky enough to be attending!