It had gotten to the point where I wasn't sure Roger Federer would ever defeat Rafael Nadal on a surface other than the indoor hard courts of London, where he has beaten everyone the past few years.
For nearly five years, Nadal has defeated Federer everywhere and in every way. He has beaten him physically and mentally. Nadal has come from behind. Nadal has won when he was not at 100 percent. He has gradually gotten into Federer's head so much that you could see Federer psych himself out at certain pivotal moments of their matches in recent years. As commentators noted tonight, you sensed that Nadal had become very aware of Federer's lack of "belief" against him.
How would Federer ever beat his nemesis again?, I've wondered this many, many times over the years.
Well, Federer finally beat Nadal, 6-3, 6-4, in the semifinals at Indian Wells. To Federer, Nadal must seem like a cockroach or mosquito that never seems to stop coming back and haunting him. I'd argue that Nadal usually plays at his highest levels vs. the Swiss. Often, when Federer plays better, Nadal responds by upping his game even higher.
On Saturday night, with the cold wind blowing, Federer withstood Nadal's bursts. Federer was mentally tougher than in their past matchups.
Even when his coach, Paul Annacone, helped Federer develop a better game plan vs. Nadal, Federer was unable to execute that plan — that is, until tonight at Indian Wells'. Tonight, Federer came out and kept hitting the ball hard and deep to Nadal's backhand for almost the entire match. That strategy — which is similar to what Novak Djokovic has employed vs. Nadal — seemed to give Federer a better chance to hit aggressive ground strokes and gain an edge in more rallies.
Saturday, while Federer had a few moments in the second set that resembled "chokes" in other matches vs. Nadal, he kept it together, didn't go into panic overdrive and was able to hang on.
Beyond that, part of the Annacone strategy was for Federer to simply play more aggressively across the board — to go for winners and take more chances, knowing that that option makes the most sense against Nadal, who can defeat anyone (besides Djokovic) by out-rallying him. Tonight, Federer stayed aggressive. Even when he was off-balance or on the defensive, he made sure to hit the ball deep to Nadal. He wasn't going to repeat his costly mistake against Nadal from the past of leaving balls shallow for Nadal to swat for winners.
Nadal, on Saturday night, didn't hit many winners, and most of them came in the last few games of the match, when he was desperate to stay alive.
It's interesting to notice that Nadal's backhand, which he hit for routine winners in 2010, when he was on top-ranked in the world, has become a much more erratic shot for him. He hits far fewer backhands for winners. I don't know why this is true. His backhand is still very formidable, but, he seems a bit less confident in belting it compared to a couple years ago. Now, I've seen Djokovic and Federer take advantage of that.
Strikingly, it was Federer, in a role reversal, dictating play more often by keeping the ball to Rafael's backhand when, for most of the past few years, Nadal has relentlessly pummeled Federer's backhand side — often with the kicking topspin — and gained the edge that way.
That brings me to the one asterisk about this match: the conditions. Because of the wind, cold and occasional rain, Nadal was unable to use that topspin forehand vs. Federer's backhand nearly as effectively. Without those conditions, perhaps Nadal would have won the match.
However, at this moment, as a loyal fan of Federer's, I choose to dwell on the amazing accomplishment of Federer to simply overcome Nadal in an important tournament. No, Indian Wells is not a major, but, it's a "big" tournament the players love and Federer, without a doubt, can look ahead to future majors, knowing that he CAN beat Nadal after Saturday's performance. Given that Nadal has beaten him so many times that it had become humiliating, it's a tribute to Federer that he has not given up and this time, he reinvented himself just enough to win.
Let's hope Federer finds a way to repeat this Indian Wells' performance at either Wimbledon or the US Open so he can prove to everyone that he has it in him to defeat Nadal in a Slam just once more before he ends his unique, amazing career.