What a fortnight of tennis, ending in what will go down as an historic final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Despite whatever criticism a viewer might have of some of the actual tennis in the final, Federer’s wayward FH, for instance, or Nadal’s failure to convert breakpoints (both respective cornerstones of these titans’ games), the historical weight of the match (combined with its unlikeliness) overshadows any sort of nit-picking, I’m afraid. There was well enough incredible shot-making, break-point-saving and extended rallying to quench the tennis fan’s thirst for all we ever want in a major final: greatness. And we got the G in spades.
If you ask me, there is as much irony as greatness in these most unlikely finalists playing in a final that seemed almost predestined or preordained. You may not realize this irony because you had time during the QF and SF stages to begin to process this unbelievable turn of events. In other words, the match-up was totally unforeseen, yet once it had “arrived” seemed only natural because this is Fedal, the Aussie Open, etc. For a second (or several), you might even have forgotten about Murray and Djokovic, the early favorites to make this final, two players who have dominated the tennis world as of late. However, the weight of Fedal is a heavy intoxicant; they crashed and trashed this 2017 Aussie Open like two warlords from time elapsed who’d returned to relive their glorious past.
There are several directions to go on this (late) commentary, but let’s stick to some insights on the outcome.
This should be a competitive match, imho, for really two reasons:
1. Dimitrov did push Rafa to the edge. This point concerns Rafa’s form. He has not been the Rafa of old but for the last couple of matches. Since the Zverev match, we’ve begun to entertain the idea that his unbeatableness might be back, and headed for the final (the collective awe and anticipation was intensified as we saw Roger making the same kind of run). I have been critical of Rafa for a few years. His ball is too short, he’s slower, his serve is unthreatening, etc. Many an ATP athlete were beating him. The intimidation hasn’t been there, not to mention that the Don of the tour was a Nadal antidote.
So this UNBEATABLENESS is relatively recent, which leads to #2.
2. Everyone and I mean everyone is looking at 2009 as a comparison. Even Nadal playing a brutal 5 set SF fits the model. But there’s a difference between then and now.
Nadal was #1 in the world then. Sure Roger was #2; but that Nadal – 22 years-old, #1 in the world, had beaten Roger at WB six months earlier – is a quite different player compared to this year’s final. You might say, “well, Roger is #17, so there’s that.” True, but he’s been off since 2016 WB where he made the SF. He sat out the ’16 FO but did make the ’16 AO SF. And he made the ’15 finals, as we know, at WB and USO.
Sure, it might sound like I’m rubbing my own belly, but this is exactly the case. Nadal’s level was pretty solid, but there were times when he looked like a 30 year-old former #1 who was making a comeback. This is complicated a bit by Roger’s play that made Nadal look slower than a more prime Rafa. Roger took the ball early and aggressively throughout, which enhanced the look of demise in Rafa. My two reasons (#1 and #2) are obviously related quite a bit. This is not a 2009 version of Rafael Nadal. Again, at 22 years of age, #1 in the world, playing five hours a couple of days before playing Roger, over whom he had created a definitive advantage, based on a 2008 clay season and a 2008 WB final that finally went Rafa’s way: 2009 AO is not even in the same universe as 2017.
To cement this point of misreading the 2009/2017 similarities, unlike Rafa’s massive struggles on tour over the last few years leading-up to this latest showdown, Roger made two grand slam finals (2015: WB, USO) and two semi-finals (2016: AO, WB). Roger has been just that much more consistent and relevant than Rafa.
As for other factors that made this final more balanced (or even favor Roger), let’s talk about Roger’s coach and one of his young apostles.
In December 2015, I wrote a piece titled “Ljubičić.” Here’s what I said about this new coach announcement:
Ljubičić is going to help Federer, I believe, with some in-match mental fortitude. How to convert a BP, how to withstand an opponent’s surge, how to just play a little smarter when that is absolutely paramount. Federer’s beauty pageant is over. He needs to start winning ugly, getting the job done, with or with out the stunning pirouette that dazzles the crowd. If he has any hope of continuing to remain relevant and/or win another big tournament, he needs to listen to the big Croat, Ivan the terrible, and come-away with a more sustainable game plan.
If you read more of that post, you’ll see what I say about how Ljubičić had an immediate effect on Roger’s clay schedule, how this kind of strategic scheduling could have had a real impact on Roger’s career, especially in terms of his H2H with Nadal. Roger, in fact, made a comment about this in Melbourne last week in relation to the 2008 WB final, the “greatest” match of all time (bullshit). Roger attributed some of his lack of form/confidence in that match to his clay encounters with Nadal earlier that year.
I argue this has had a lot to do with Rafa’s great H2Hs with so many players. His overwhelming clay success (pretty early in a season) created that mental edge that complemented his aggressive, bullying tennis that I have written about at length. That post, “Ljubičić,” goes into that a bit, as well. This comment by Roger has to have ruffled Nadal’s feathers a bit, no? I liked reading this older post as it seemed to highlight some of this insight on the past, as well as the future.
As you can see in the quote above, I had a solid feeling Ljubičić would benefit Roger’s game by addressing his mental strength. Who knows how they managed this mental fitness, but one knows that Roger’s win last Sunday in the AO final over Nadal had a lot to do with Roger’s mental strength. That 5th set comeback was ridiculously mental. He check-mated the grand master of the mental board game. I knew this was absolutely essential to Roger’s continued relevancy and even breakthrough at a major.
Look at the 2015 USO final between Fed and Djokovic. Roger was on cruise control, all summer, winning Cincy by beating Novak, smashing his draw in NYC, including a laugher in the SF vs. Stan. Then he got, really, pretty embarrassed in the final by Novak, a very mental player. Roger’s BP conversion in that final was awful, something like 3/18. It was a point here or there. Roger needed help and got it when he hired Ivan. Roger’s injury-plagued 2016 didn’t give us a chance to see how this mental fitness was perhaps coming along. I think we can say that it’s coming along.
Of course, another critical return-on-investment in hiring Ljubičić is his knowledge of the OHBH. Ivan’s was a thing of beauty when he was on tour. Hiring a guy who could help Roger strengthen his tennis “backbone,” his competitive resolve, and his flawed BH is genius, whether or not that’s what went into that hiring exactly.
There are two things – and only two things – that stand-out in Roger’s win over Nadal in the 2017 AO final: firstly, his mental strength at critical points in the match, such as winning the first set (critical), running off a quick and decisive bread-stick in the third set, and imposing his will on the match in the fifth, especially at 2-3; secondly, his aggressive and game-changing OHBH. Those two weapons decided the match. Sure, I argued Roger needed to serve well, but establishing the lead early (and consolidating that lead in the 3rd and 5th) and dominating much of the play with his aggressive OHBH were pivotal.
Of course, another element in the Ljubičić hiring might concern his closeness with Djokovic. Both the Serb and the one-time #3 in the world are Monte Carlo residents, and Ivan is very familiar with Novak’s game. Pretty genius hire, no?
I will keep looking for the footage to share here, but the shots of Roger’s box in the 5th set were definitive evidence of the Croatian’s influence: he was demanding, focusing entirely on the physical rhetoric of winning, of finishing the job; he was not applauding a passing shot; he was looking into Roger’s soul and demanding bravery, determination, guts, and grit. It was marvelous optics, my friends, that brought this entire coaching decision full circle.
Lastly (for this delayed post), the Dimitrov match was tremendous modeling for the Swiss’ approach in the final. I think the fact that Grigor took Nadal to five difficult sets was important mentally for Roger and it put Nadal at a deficit. But you know where I’m going here. The BH Grigor used on Nadal gave the Spaniard trouble. Roger was able to employ this tactic. Very little cut BH came from Federer in the final. That charging, aggressive OHBH hasn’t looked that good in a long time. Having this shot dialed-in with the help from his coach certainly helped. But watching Dimitrov push Nadal around with it was equally as insightful. This shot symbolized Roger’s rebirth here in Melbourne. Mentally he was leaving it all out there, and physically the CC version gave Nadal all kinds of difficulty. Roger’s intent on establishing the baseline and taking that Nadal FH earlier changed the dynamic of the match entirely. Instead of that rising FH bounce to Federer’s OHBH breaking-down the Swiss physically and mentally, Roger moved aggressively to take time away from Rafa. Rafa was befuddled, clearly.
Dimitrov gave Federer a lift in strategy that seems to have fit well with what Ivan brings to Federer’s game. Did you buy stock in the Bulgarian yet? 😀
On the other hand, as we know, the match wasn’t flawless. Roger had 57 unforced errors. We saw this number climb, especially in the fourth set with that FH, his greatest weapon usually, succumb to nerves, timing, etc. He was able to find that again and use it to finish, you and I both know, some huge rallies late in the match. He ended-up with 73 winners to Rafa’s 35, so Roger’s aggression certainly played a huge role.
Chew on that for now. The Ljubičić and Dimitrov factors needed some clarification, but there’s so much more to consider, obviously.
Roger won his 18th major championship. He’s won at least 5 at three different majors. Come-on. Much more to discuss there and, like I said, there are some other story-lines that emerged during the tournament that I found particularly interesting.
I needed to get this post off asap. As I said in my short preview, no computer and being on the road made communicating difficult.
Thanks for reading and keep the comments coming!
Talk to you soon.