Friday’s match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the French Open was vintage in every way. Fed uncorking the massive forehands he only brings out for the likes of Nadal (and at times Djokovic), Rafa playing his patented brand of irritating, defensive tennis, the two meeting deep in the bracket at a major.
Unfortunately for Federer, the outcome was also vintage.
In a match that was defined as much by the wind as the fact that a 37-year-old and a 33-year-old were playing impossibly high-level tennis in the semis of yet another major, Nadal closed out Federer in straight sets, 6-3 6-4 6-2. The official match time will go down as 2 hours and 25 minutes, but everyone knew it was over the moment Nadal took the second set after 1 hour and 45 minutes, extending his record to 100-0 after winning the first set of a five-set match on clay.
This dynamic has played out for more than a decade now. Nadal escapes a litany of break points, takes a set lead, and demoralizes Federer to the point of near-submission. So prevalent has this been that it is the singular source of doubt in the debate on whether Federer is the greatest of all time. Friday's match changed nothing, and in all likelihood, it was Federer's last real shot to make the case that this isn’t the greatest one-sided rivalry of all time.
The head-to-head record in majors is overwhelmingly in favor of Nadal, 10-3. To be fair, six of those have been on clay, but Nadal was able to go into Wimbledon in 2008 and topple Federer in what is still the best tennis match ever played.
But it has never been as simple as Nadal just being the better player. Nadal clearly has the mental edge over Federer, and that counts for a lot when discussing greatness. But on a technical level, Nadal has always posed a uniquely unfavorable matchup for Federer in a way that hasn’t existed in tennis’ other great rivalries. And it carries more weight than many people may want to acknowledge.
Nadal hits a forehand with a mind-boggling amount of topspin that kicks up high on any surface, making it a nightmare for foes to return with power. When he steps onto his beloved red dirt, it kicks up even higher, and it is the foundation of his dominance on clay.
Federer, who is nothing if not a tennis aesthete, stubbornly employs a one-handed backhand that is lethal in any other context. But because he stands 6-1, and not 6-4, his outmoded backhand is downright irrelevant against the high bounce of the Nadal forehand. Bjorn Borg, who stood 5-11 with a hybrid backhand, also shared some of Federer’s struggles when his was targeted by McEnroe and others on serve. The backhand was a weakness, but was hardly the defining element of their rivalry, not the way Federer's is.
Nadal understands this, and has built his legend by ruthlessly--and shamelessly--hitting to the Federer backhand. On Friday, it was clear he was targeting the Federer backhand while on serve, setting up his forehand to paint Federer into a corner.
In response, Federer has spent the bulk of his career doing everything except addressing this crippling exploit. He beefed up his already massive forehand to the point of inconsistency. He began running around his backhand, betting the farm that he could smack a winner before Nadal could expose a wide-open court. It was futile.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Federer began acknowledging the elephant in his head. While he was never going to abandon his precious backhand, he did begin looking for ways to tackle the Nadal forehand head-on. One solution was to adopt a split-step return on serve to catch Nadal off guard and shorten points. The other, more crucial adjustment was to step into his backhand earlier, hitting the ball at a lower point in its bounce, and finding the sweet spot of his swing with regard to power.
For awhile this yielded a consistent string of favorable results against Nadal, most notably in the 2017 Australian Open final, when he outlasted the Spaniard in a five-set classic. But this was also a period when Nadal was still rehabilitating his broken body, and for whatever reason, was not targeting the Federer backhand with the same sense of bloodlust.
For the opening two sets on Friday, Federer was mentally present, and more importantly, competitive. His first serve percentage was 80 percent in the first set, and he broke Nadal twice. But with Nadal leaning back into his tried and true tactic, there was a palpable feeling that Federer was operating in vain. And it brought into clearer focus the idea that Nadal’s edge over Federer isn’t about him having more talent or possessing more resolve. It just might be a fundamentally awful matchup.