Chris, you’re right about this, but not for the right reasons. After playing and coaching professionally for over thirty years, please allow me to share my observations.
Federer has made some major changes that he was was unwilling to do when he was at his absolute peak, even up to the point of 2012, when he still won Wimbledon. (When you are beating everyone in the world except one player, it takes a lot to be willing to take the risk of changing your approach.)
Here are the factors that have helped Federer’s game over the last three years:
- The new racket — Federer finally changed from a 90-square inch frame to a 97-square inch frame. This has reduced the number of mishits and given Federer a little bit more power. Jim Courier spoke about this change and gave the reason why he, Sampras and the other champions in the 1990s stuck with 85–90 square inch rackets when the larger heads were already available: “we were idiots.” When a player reaches the pinnacle of his sport, the racket takes on almost religious significance. The fear, superstition and necessary learning curve kill most of these efforts. (Nadal tried a new racket in 2015 and then switched back within three months.)
- New coach — if you look at the progression of Federer’s coaches, you can see how he was struggling to solve the riddle of Nadal. Annacone and Edberg were all about getting better at the net. But in 2016, he went to Ivan Ljubicic, looking for something different. Ljubicic was the only player with a one-handed backhand besides Wawrinka who could step in and attack high balls to the backhand. It’s clear that Federer has found the smallest edge with his new coach, possibly with some fine technical adjustment, and for sure in his strategy and mentality.
- The knee injury — Federer sat out the last half of 2016 due to injury. Sometimes, an extended period away from the circuit allows players to reinvent themselves. Bill Tilden (the champion from the 20s) took off a good part of a year and learned a new backhand. Australian Paul McNamee was remarkable for being one of the few professional players who took time mid-career to switch from a one-hander to a two-hander. Federer may not have made much, if any, of a technical change, but he was able to practice stepping in and attacking high backhands and driving his backhand off his return until it became part of him.
- Father Time — Along with the new coach and attitude toward his backhand, Federer’s age has forced him to let go of the results more than he ever did during his prime. He knows he doesn’t have the stamina of younger players, so playing extended baseline rallies leads to him breaking down much sooner. He is willing to take chances to win, even if it means making more errors. And because he knows that playing the old style means a slower, but inevitable defeat, he has the courage to keep playing his new style for the entire match. Ironically, it is the ability to let go that gives people the chance to find that place of physical and mental harmony where peak performance can occur. If you are interested in learning more about how to create an ideal performance state, read the works of Tim Gallwey and sports psychologist Jim Loehr.
On the other hand, Nadal is a different player.
As great as Rafa has been, the reality is that his physical abilities have deteriorated. He can’t play the style he used when he dominated the world of clay between 2005 and 2014. He has had too many stress-related injuries because he has to work so hard to play his absolute best. Because of that, his coach Carlos Moya has been working with Nadal to hit harder and flatter to shorten points and preserve his body. So while Nadal is regaining his old ranking after his collapse following the 2014 French Open, his new style actually hurts his results against Federer.
In AO17, when Nadal played more aggressively against Federer to begin the match, his topspin forehand was only bouncing 4′1″ on average, meaning that most of his balls were only going chest high. Federer has always been comfortable hitting these balls, and he dominated the first set this way. In the second set, Nadal dug in and returned to his heavy topspin game. On TV, there was a graphic that showed his balls bouncing 4′11″ on average — shoulder height, and it hurt “new” Federer, just like it hurt Federer in his prime. Nadal won the second set this way, then reverted to his new more aggressive style and lost the third set. Nadal dug in again, to win the fourth sets using heavy topspin, and even took a 3–1 lead in the fifth. But the physical toll was too great, and his shots either started to land to short, or he flattened out shots, and Federer stormed back, winning the last five games to win the match 6–3 in the fifth.
Most telling was the way Federer kept driving his backhand off the return of serve, as Nadal’s slice serve goes out wide, but stays low. Federer put so much more pressure on Nadal, he had break points in almost every game Nadal served in the fifth set, and broke three straight games. As I recall, he had 13 break points in the fifth set alone (remember he had only 13 break points in five sets in the 2008 Wimbledon final).
Indian Wells was even worse for Nadal. A graphic showed how he had increased the speed of his groundstrokes over the last five years in the tournament, but faster pace means a little less spin — you can’t have both. The balls were moving through the desert air very fast, and Federer consistently got to hit most of his shots chest high. In their history of matches, this was one of the worst beatings that Nadal ever suffered. He looked completely puzzled by what had happened.
In Miami, the two losses to Federer started to weigh mentally on Rafa. With the heat, humidity and wind, Federer played no where near as well. We began to see the spraying of forehands and backhands remniscent of his down period from 2013–2016. For the first time ever in their rivalry, Federer had created doubt in Nadal’s mind.
Outside of Jimmy Connors, Nadal is the greatest fighter in the history of tennis. I remember thinking about this after he lost 6–0 in the first set of the 2006 Wimbledon Final against Federer. Somehow, Nadal won the first game of the second set, pumped his fist and yelled “vamoss!” He was totally unfazed or intimidated by Federer and went on to play a competitive match over the next three sets (7–6, 6–7, 6–3).
In Miami, Nadal had lost that will. On a break point, Nadal was in a long rally against Federer and chose to hit a drop shot. Federer got there and hit a backhand cross court pass, but Nadal guessed right and cut off the volley. When a player tries to end a point like this, it means he has lost the will or the stamina to maintain a rally. The idea of Nadal wanting to end a point sooner than Federer is earth shattering. Sure enough, Nadal tried another drop shot a couple of games later, but missed, and it led to a break of his serve. In addition, even when Nadal had some advantages in points, he made errors by going for too much. He was afraid that Federer would run down a more normal shot and hurt him. Again, this is a complete reversal of their psychological pattern.
In his award ceremony speech, Nadal was incredibly gracious as always, but he mentioned winning the little trophy every three years, and it hinted at some of his frustration and self doubt. Again, I have never heard this kind of message come from Nadal when he plays Federer.
We’ll have to see how the next three months play out.
Even though Murray took over the #1 ranking with his great run last fall, Federer still dominates him head to head. With Federer smartly limiting his playing schedule, it’s unlikely he will win enough points to regain the #1 ranking. But the real test is if Federer can once again beat a healthy Djokovic at a Slam. He hasn’t done it since Wimbledon 2012.
But we have already seen “the handshake” passing the torch.
Even though Federer won his epic battle with Kyrgios, it’s clear that the Australian has the talent, size and athleticism to become the next #1 player in the world.
If he is receptive to Davis Cup Captain Lleyton Hewitt helping him to become tougher mentally and then gets serious with his training regimen, I believe Kyrgios has the potential to become a bigger version of Roger Federer. If not, he will follow the career path of Ivanisevic and Safin, other players who were unable to overcome their mental obstacles to harness their incredible talent.