This year has witnessed a remarkable renaissance in the careers of Federer and Nadal, each winning a clutch of titles, splitting the majors and finishing the year ranked 1 and 2 respectively. The most surprising though is how Federer has been able to turn the tables on his tormentor, winning all four of their encounters, and bring a lopsided head-to-head record of 11-23 against Rafa to a more respectable 15-23.
It is my humble opinion though that Federer ought to have a more even record, even in spite of the fact that the Spaniards athleticism and left-handed topspin was always going to prove a formidable barrier for the Swiss.
Below you will find five matches that I think Federer ought to have won against Nadal that I think have proven significant in producing a different dynamic to their rivalry.
Dubai Final, 2006
The fast playing surface of Dubai has been a happy hunting ground for the Swiss, rewarding his attacking play. In this relatively early stage of the pairs famed rivalry, Federer let slip a one set to love lead, losing the next two 6-4 6-4. I believe that Federer losing here was an early sign of the writing on the wall, with Federer struggling until this year to figure out Nadal for the most part on outdoor hard courts.
Rome Final, 2006
This five hour epic was one of the greatest matches the pair have contested. They both slugged it out, leaving everything on the court. Federer squandered a match point in the deciding set, his rival denying him a significant piece of silverware on clay as would so often be the case throughout their careers. 2006 was Federer’s best season in terms of matches lost, surrendering just the four. I think losing such a close match at the peak of his powers left a lasting mark, contributing to a psychological barrier against the Spaniard on this surface in particular.
Cincinnati Quarterfinal, 2013
2013 was a bleak season for the Swiss. He suffered his earliest loss at Wimbledon since 2002, the defending champion crashing out in the second round. A persistent back injury plagued him that year, resulting in his winning only a single title on the grass at Halle, a tournament he has dominated. Federer suffered some heavy defeats that year to a resurgent Rafa, three of the four of them on slow courts at Indian Wells, Rome and London. The other loss at Cincinnati though I believe could have been averted. These quick hard courts have always been kind to Roger, with seven titles there, and five at the time of this match. he took the first set, and played well in the second and third, but lost edge and confidence in both to surrender a match that could have seen him go on to win his only significant title that year.
Australian Open Final, 2009.
It is understandable why for many the pairs epic tussle in the 2008 Wimbledon Final is regarded as the greatest match of all time. It was indeed epic in length, the stakes high, and the narrative of a declinging Federer attempting to fend off a rival growing in strength, forcing a decider and surviving match points after being two sets down, before succumbing to Rafa’s relentless play and the darkness to lose in the deciding set.
For my money though their next Grand Slam match, the 2009 Australian Open Final was a higher quality match. Both men played for the most part consistently clean, aggressive tennis, and the seesawing and swings of momentum made this match seem more of an even contest than the Wimbledon Final the previous year. Federer consistently hit winners on his weaker backhand side, and really took it to Nadal. Federer though suffered for having squandered leads in the first and third sets of the match, both of which he lost, and I believe what both players knew what ought to have been a three or four set win to the Swiss impacted their play in the fifth, Federer choking in the decider and Nadal not giving an inch, breaking twice to win the decider.
For Federer to have played so well and lost, winning more points than his opponent, and being reduced to tears in the trophy ceremony, for me had a lasting impact on his play when facing the Spaniard.
French Open Final, 2011.
Federer was for me the player of the tournament during the 2011 French Open. He played with purpose and aggression, taking advantage of the faster tennis balls and a partisan crowd in dismantling many opponents en route to the semi-finals, before winning one of the matches of the season when he defeated that years dominant player, Djokovic, in four dramatic sets, inflicting on the Serb his first loss that year. Nadal by contrast looked unconvincing at times at a tournament he had dominated, barely surviving a five set nail biter against John Isner, afterwards playing himself into form to en route to the final.
Nadal started the match tentatively, surrendering serve early whilst Federer had a set point, losing it with a drop shot that missed by millimetres. This took the wind out of the Swiss players sails, the Spaniard going on to take the opener, as well as claiming another closely contested set in the second. Federer could have been forgiven for losing the will to keep going at this point, but he found his fight and took the third set reasonably convincingly, before the Spaniard closed out the match by taking the fourth set 6-1, the Swiss visibly tired at this point.
Although Nadal was always the favourite going into this match, such is his clay court pedigree, Federer must rue the fact that he played three brilliant sets, but just won the one.