18 Apr 2017 18:54 IST

The resurgence of Federer and Nadal is a treat

Persistence and the ability to work on their shortcomings have enabled their brilliant comeback

Nearly two years ago, as the clay court season of the men’s tennis tour was drawing to a close at the French Open, I lamented in these very columns that the end of an incredible era was nigh. Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had fallen in the early rounds, making way for other players such as Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray to finally claim the spotlight. And for the rest of 2015 and all of 2016, these players did exactly that.

Wawrinka won the 2015 French and the 2016 US Open; Djokovic finally got the French Open in 2016, a title which had eluded him for nearly 10 years, and Murray won Wimbledon and the Olympic Gold in 2016 and became the first British player to get to #1 in the world. He was promptly knighted by the Queen.

Meanwhile, Nadal and Federer fans were reduced to seeing their favourite players suffer injury after injury, and defeat after defeat. Nadal won Monte Carlo in 2016, an incredible ninth time and Barcelona, again for the ninth time. Just when things appeared to be looking up, he unexpectedly withdrew from the French Open, citing a wrist injury on his left hand — an ominous sign for his fans, because it is Nadal’s wrist, and the super top-spins it generates, that have overpowered opponents for more than a decade.

 

Federer, on the other hand, made it all the way to the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2016, where he lost to Milos Raonic, and announced that he was nursing a knee injury and was taking the rest of the season off — a rare break for the ever-fit Swiss, who has been astonishingly free of injuries for most of his career.

Real life of just fantasy?

A Rip van Winkle waking up in 2017 would never have believed the way these two greats have stormed back into form now. For sports fans worldwide, Federer’s and Nadal’s resurgence is a treat and an outstanding case study on how the rest of us mortals can deal with challenges at work and in life. When all the odds seem to be down and your opponents appear to be gaining on you, there’s still hope if you have the conviction to succeed. Especially if you are willing to put in the effort, re-engineer your ways and adapt to changing circumstances.

Federer made several changes to his game. He moved to an even bigger racquet than in 2015. He hired Ivan Ljubičić, an ex-Croatian tennis star, as his coach — a move that made Federer fans shake their heads in disbelief. Ljubičić’s forehands were one of the best ever, but what in the world was Federer gaining with his pick, when Federer — arguably — sported the world’s best forehand? Wasn’t it his backhand that was Federer’s Waterloo? Shouldn't Federer have chosen someone with a strong backhand, maybe a Pete Sampras? Was Federer even serious about returning? Most players five years younger than him were already finding partners to play doubles tournaments, so what was Federer thinking?!

Meanwhile, after Beijing, Nadal took the rest of the season off to rest his wrists following surgery and to train, as only he can.

The Fedex factor

Today, Federer has notched up an amazing 17-1 record this season and picked up the Australian Open (AO), Indian Wells and Miami titles. He met Nadal in two of these finals — at AO and Miami Open — and beat him convincingly in both. Federer and Nadal met in an earlier round at Indian Wells, and that win was a lot more lopsided. All of a sudden, it seems that Nadal, who still has the edge in their head-to-head match-ups, has no answers when playing Federer. Although, Nadal is able to move deeper into each tournament, having reached three finals this season alone.

What is it that Federer is doing that has made him so decisively deadly? He has improved his fitness, but only enough to keep rallies short and super-effective. Always the attacker, Federer has stepped up his aggression several notches. He now goes for winners on practically every shot — down the line, cross-court, from the baseline, or at the net. He does this by taking the ball on the rise even before it reaches its zenith. The few extra milliseconds he gains when he powers his shots early have demoralised opponents, including the formidable Nadal.

Federer has also put the classic textbook tennis principle — point construction — to shame. This is the theory where players keep rallying shot after shot to slowly build an advantage and then pounce for a decisive winner. For Federer, every chance the ball comes to him is a chance to hit a winner. He doesn’t succeed always, of course, but the law of averages is with him: he is winning enough points to win games, sets, and matches. And that is all that matters.

Cricket fans appreciate how game-turning controlled aggression can be. Ricky Ponting, David Warner, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Chris Gayle and Virat Kohli have all won matches for their sides because of this tactic. Opponents become unsettled and begin to make mistakes. This gives the aggressors additional chances to convert and perhaps exploit all the way to victory.

Old adages are true

Ending my tribute to Federer and Nadal two years ago, I had hesitatingly hoped with little conviction in my words — “Given their incredible talents and near-divine physical fitness, they are still likely contenders to eclipse a few more records and win even more titles.”

As the 2017 clay season kicks off in Monte Carlo this week, there can be no better reward for tennis fans, whose hopes and prayers have been answered. To see both of them back competing at the highest levels of the game is a visual treat and a stark reminder that the age-old adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”, still works.