The Federer-Nadal Rivalry, In One Great Point

In what could be one of the final big matches of their storied rivalry, Rafael Nadal outclassed Roger Federer 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the Australian Open semifinals.

Nadal is now 9-2 against Federer in Grand Slams. Federer hasn’t beaten him at a slam since 2007.

When all is said and done, the lopsided nature of their rivalry will define each of their legacies. You won’t be able to talk about Federer’s sustained success without the caveat that he could never beat Rafa. And you won’t be able to talk about where Nadal sits in the all-time ranks without pointing out that he dominated everyone he ever played, even Federer.

There was one rally in Friday’s match that perfectly captured the Federer-Nadal rivalry. It came at 15-30, with Nadal serving to win the second set (full video below).

The reason Nadal owns Federer comes down to one inherent advantage — Rafa’s heavy, dipping forehand against Federer’s one-hand backhand. For most of the last decade Federer has tried to find a fix, but he has been unsuccessful. There comes a point in every Federer-Nadal match when Rafa pins Roger to his backhand, bludgeons shot after shot, and eventually grinds him down.

That’s how this point progresses. Rafa pounds the forehand to Roger’s backhand, gaining a more dominant position with each shot, Federer barely hanging on.

Then, 19 shots into the rally, Federer finds a bit of magic. He smashes a flat, 94 mph (according to Patrick McEnroe) backhand across the court at a sharp angle. It’s the kind of Federer shot that materialises out of nowhere, and draws gasps from the crowd and baffled praise from the TV commentator.

But then Nadal finds his own, different magic. At this point, it’s no longer about Nadal’s inherent tactical advantage. It’s about what Nadal can do when confronted with a great Federer shot. He steps into the court, sizes up the ball diving across his face, and whips a forehand into the open court for a winner.

Greatness on greatness, and Nadal wins.

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