Rafael Nadal put a serious hurting on Roger Federer last night in Miami. Should we be surprised?
Before we turn our collective thought to Sunday's sure to be compelling final, I want to take a few moments to air out my thoughts on Rafael Nadal's decisive victory over Roger Federer last night in Miami.
What Does It Mean?
Before we assume that last night marks the end of hope for Federer, I think it is prudent that we all take a step back and think rationally here. Yes, Federer is on the verge of turning 30, yes, the game is evolving in such a way (think slow high-bouncing hard courts, CoPoly strings, and modern fitness and swing techniques) that will forever favor young bucks like Nadal and Djokovic against an old-school technician like Federer, and YES, the image of Rafa is embedded in Roger's head just as deeply as it ever has been, but still, one match does not make a rivalry.
Rafa was the better player last night, and convincingly so. But let us not forget that Roger was the better player when the two met last November in London.
Was Nadal Good, Federer Bad, or Both?
Rafa was clearly hungry for victory last night, and this was obvious from the onset. He was switched on in every capacity, and his court coverage was awe inspiring throughout. In the early going, even when Roger blistered ground strokes, Rafa was there to make strong defensive returns, which without fail landed near Federer's baseline, then took a lively bounce off the hard court.
Faced with Rafa's near perfection, Federer elected to go for more and more, searching for the one millimeter of court that Rafa might not be able to cover. This would be a high risk proposition, even for the miraculously good Federer of 5 years ago. For the Federer who took the court last night, ranked No. 3 in the world, it was an impossibility.
The Matchup Favors Rafa, Period
When we look at the history of the rivalry, it is easy to say that most of Rafa's domination has taken place on the clay, and that the two have played to a near standstill on other surfaces. This might be partly true, but on a slow, high-bouncing hard court like Miami, Rafa will be able to exploit some of the same trademark advantages -- by deploying a steady diet of outlandish topspin to Federer's backhand, and by basically using his ultra heavy topspin game to keep Federer pinned behind his baseline and making contact with the ball higher than he would like to.
But, of course, it's not all about the surface, the technology, or the mindset. I think it's important to recognize here that Rafa is an absolute beast right now. If it weren't for the incredible streak of Novak Djokovic, there would be nobody in the game that could give him trouble when he was at his best.
Last night he was at his best, and Federer had his hands full to say the least.
In other words, pretty much any matchup involving Rafa and somebody else is going to favor Rafa. That's just the way it is. He's one of the best to ever play the game, and he's pretty much developed and perfected playing the modern game the modern way. He's charted a path, much like Federer did just four or five years ago, that has pretty much left the rest of the tour a step behind.
Credit to Nole for pushing him the way he has lately, but please, let's not throw Federer in the trash heap because he lost 3 and 2 to the guy.
Is The Rivalry Dead?
No. People, let's be rational here. It was one match. Who knows what kind of tennis these two players will produce the next time they meet?
With last night's drubbing fresh in our minds, it's easy to think that Federer is out of options here, particularly because he is the one forced to do all the thinking when it comes to Rafa. Federer is tasked with finding a way to tilt the court in his favor, while Rafa just needs to be Rafa and let the chips fall where they may.
It's not going to be easy for Federer to gain ground on Rafa, but perhaps on grass or a very fast hard court like the ones the U.S. Open is known for of late, he might be able to get balls past Rafa for winners.
I'm not so sure I'd count on it, but the fact that it might happen is enough reason to be excited about the rivalry should these two legends of the game meet again later in the year.