How things have changed between Federer and Nadal

federer nadal
We examine the dynamic between Federer and Nadal.

On Sunday afternoon, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battled it out in the Shanghai Rolex Masters final, in their fourth meeting of the year and their 38th meeting overall. Many expected a thrilling match that would go the distance, and many also expected Nadal to win, which was a fair assumption to make since Nadal was on a sixteen-match win streak since the US Open and was playing extremely well all week, albeit seemingly tired.

Federer thrashed Nadal 6-4 6-3. Nadal had absolutely no answers to Federer. Which is odd because we’re used to Nadal dominating over Federer. The tables have turned, with Federer now having a five-match win streak over Nadal. But how did it reach this stage?

Federer’s new backhand

The most obvious difference that even casual tennis fans have noticed is that Federer’s backhand has improved. It’s flatter, packs the punch with a shorter back and front swing. His footwork while hitting the backhand is angled more towards the ball. He rarely takes the backhand on the backfoot, which helps with his swing, movement and how fast he reacts.

With Nadal specifically, he makes sure he takes the ball on the rise and that he doesn’t take the ball above waist height. When he does, the frontward swing is noticeably shorter and flatter, allowing him to neutralize the heavy topspin Nadal employs with his forehand.

Federer’s serve

Earlier in their careers, Nadal had little difficulty reading Federer’s serve. This doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, with Nadal looking flabbergasted with each passing service game. He’d instinctively move towards a certain direction, only for Federer to serve on the other side. This led to Nadal standing way back in the baseline to get his racquet on the ball, which posed several problems for him.

Nadal couldn’t dictate points from the baseline as he usually does because he couldn’t transition from way behind the baseline to the baseline since Federer was playing so aggressively, which effectively meant that Nadal was on the backfoot. Nadal wins points by imposing his way of play. This did not happen, and in the end, was a key reason for his loss in Shanghai and even in Indian Wells and Miami.

Nadal’s lack of game plan

Federer came in with a clear plan. Take the ball on the rise, don’t let Nadal dictate points at all and stick to the baseline as much as you can. Nadal’s previous game plan was to attack Federer’s backhand with his lofty topspin forehand, but with that weapon rendered largely ineffective, Nadal doesn’t seem to have something that can trouble Federer, and Federer has reaped the benefits. He seems to be clueless and needs to have a clear, precise game plan. Re-watching matches will help, and with 3 potential matchups in the coming tournaments, he needs Plan B now more than ever.

Mental block

It’s difficult to digest that Nadal might have a mental block against Federer, but it might just be true with the ungodly number of unforced errors that we saw in the final in Shanghai. His backhand, something that had become a weapon this year proved to be a problem. His forehand wasn’t as deep and the only thing that saved him from more than three breaks of serve was…his good serving. A total 180-degree change of events. What a time to be alive.

All things said, how many times do you think Federer and Nadal will meet? How likely do you think Federer’s chances are of catching up in the head to head? Let us know in the comments below.


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