Against Rafael Nadal on Friday in Melbourne, we saw a fresher, more tactically aggressive version of Roger Federer than we saw for most of 2013. He approached the net 42 times, he went for winners, he went for quite a bit on his first serve. The problem, of course, is that he was playing Rafael Nadal, and these tactics didn't work. After a nip-and-tuck first set, Nadal established a rhythm too great for Federer or anybody else in the world and cruised to a 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory.
Federer's approach shots weren't good enough to prevent a passing barrage from the Spaniard (and his volleying wasn't good enough either, really), and his return game, long an increasing weakness, just couldn't do anything with Nadal's wide serves.
Key stats from Nadal's win:
- Federer net points won: 23 of 42 (55 percent)
- Break points: Nadal 14 (he won four), Federer 2 (he won one)
- Winners-to-unforced errors: Nadal 1.12 (28 to 25), Federer 0.68 (34 to 50)
- Points won on 10+ shot rallies: Nadal 17, Federer 6
- Percent of deuce service points won: Nadal 100 percent (6-for-6), Federer 50 percent (7-for-14)
Nadal has been dealing with a blister problem in the last couple of rounds, but it wasn't much of an impediment. And despite quality play throughout the fortnight, neither was Federer.
Next up for Nadal: Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka is on one hell of a redemption tour, peaking at 28 years old and passing milestones left and right. He reached his third career slam quarterfinal at the 2013 French Open, then reached his first slam semifinal at the 2013 U.S. Open. And with his wins over Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and Tomas Berdych in the semis, he is now in his first slam final.
But while we could certainly see him beginning to figure out Djokovic (he took the former world No. 1 to five sets at both the Aussie and U.S. Opens last year), and while he had a winning record over Berdych for his career, it will take an infinite amount of growth to take down Nadal.
How dominant has Nadal been against Wawrinka through the years? This dominant. He is 12-0 lifetime against Stan. All-time sets: Nadal 26, Wawrinka 0. Now, Wawrinka has gotten a bit closer; of the four hard court sets the two played in 2013, three went deep into tie-breakers. Nadal won, 7-6 (12-10), 6-1 in Shanghai, then won 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6) at the ATP World Tour Finals. At his current rate of growth, it is certainly conceivable to see Wawrinka take a set from Nadal in the finals, maybe two. But three? Not likely.
Odds are good that Nadal will be lifting his second Aussie Open trophy around breakfast time in the States on Sunday. He is just too good right now. He pinpoints your weaknesses — for Federer, it is the backhand; for Wawrinka, with his sexy but often scattershot backhand, it could go either way — and hits deep to it over and over and over again until you falter. Because I love boxing analogies, I'll say Nadal has the best jab in the game. You keep looking for a time to go on the offensive, and he just keeps popping you in the chin. And when you get desperate and go for offense anyway, you don't do a very good job, and he breaks you with ease. Beating Nadal takes both shot-making and incredible timing and decision-making. Wawrinka has had the former in droves, and he has improved regarding the latter. But it's still difficult to see him beating the version of Nadal that we saw on Friday.
As for Federer, this is both a low point and an encouraging sign. Nadal is still too far ahead of him, but we already knew that. What we saw from the 32-year-old this week, with his rather easy wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray, is that 2014 could be a year of redemption. His ATP ranking will fall to eighth after this tournament, and thanks to Wawrinka's recent play, he will be the second-ranked Swiss player for the first time in more than a decade. But thanks to last season's back issues and iffy play, he doesn't have many points to defend. He reached only the quarterfinals of the French Open, the fourth round of the U.S. Open, and the second round of Wimbledon, and he made the semis or finals of only two of eight World Tour Masters events.
If he maintains this level throughout the playing year, Federer's ranking should rebound, especially as we get into the summer months. And between his new coach (Stefan Edberg), his healthy back, and the widely discussed new, bigger racquet, Federer has plenty of reasons to believe he will indeed maintain this level.