There is little, if anything, to examine with the future of this rivalry on red clay. It would be like trying to sell a dunk contest between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
Instead, it leads many tennis fans to reflect on the Swiss Maestro’s most glaring weaknesses. One of my readers, Aakash Karkare, recently summed this up by wondering how recent French Open history could have changed: “If Roger had a two hander, would Nadal not have bothered him as much?”
Certainly Nadal’s lefty topspin has created a terrible matchup for Federer’s more spotty single-backhand, but there are numerous layers to this question. Inexorable changes from the ATP tour have directed much of the warfare in tennis that has shaped these two epic champions.
Federer, born in 1981, saw plenty of clay-court champions win with a single backhand. Ivan Lendl could push away shots and look to club his forehand for winners. Guillermo Vilas, Yannick Noah and Andres Gomez were also one-handers who won the French Open, while Wimbledon stars like Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker also set the standard with this method.
There were other one-handers who thrived on clay in the 1990s, including bullish Thomas Muster, who needed a big wind-up for his other wing—and artistic Gustavo Kuerten, who used his lanky height and grace to place the ball deep in the court and stymie counter-attacks.
However, few tennis aficionados, and least of all Federer, would have foreseen the weaknesses to possessing a one-hander because they were nurtured to develop an all-court game. Half of the French Open champions in this draw used a single backhand.
In the 1980s, coach Pete Fischer had young Pete Sampras change his two-hander to the more well-rounded one-hander so that he could win Wimbledon. It’s hard to imagine this would happen again if Sampras were born in the 21st century.
The champions during much of Federer’s upbringing sought to hit approach shots and force opponents into off-balanced impotent replies. Tennis required more vertical scrambling and guile. Federer honed his game to the 20th-century ideals of perfected old-school tennis and added 21st-century athleticism and technology. From 2004-2008, it was a nearly unbeatable combination.
Nadal, born in 1986, may have been aware of Bjorn Borg’s clay-court dominance, but the Viking’s two-handed topspin dominance was still more of an aberration.
But by the time Nadal was five years old, Jim Courier and Sergi Bruguera had come along with heavy two-handed Western topspin that would dominate four consecutive French Open titles. Fellow Majorcan Carlos Moya also used a two-hander, and champions like Andre Agassi made the baseline style look highly attractive to tennis prospects.
For very young children, holding a racket with two hands is easier. Nadal’s autobiography, Rafa with John Carlin, explains that Nadal was using both sides with two hands. At age nine, his Uncle Toni had him commit to one side or the other for his forehand, and Rafa’s decision to use a lefty forehand certainly changed the future of tennis.
Yet even by 2005, when teenager Nadal was celebrating his first French Open title, it seemed inconceivable that he would conquer red clay with the kind of sweep not seen since the 13-century rise of the Mongol Empire.
Glimpse of the Future
If Federer has been the consummate artist and all-court champion, it’s Nadal who has influenced the way tennis is now played at the highest level. His heavy topspin has produced unprecedented spin speed (consistently measured over 3,000 rpms, according to tennis analyst John Yandell as reported in the New York Times) and high-hopping balls that can rise above an opponent’s head. He has sent every tennis pro back to the laboratory to develop countering techniques and mechanics.
Consequently, the past decade has seen the rapid expansion from a more traditional, two-dimensional game of placement and power added to a third dimension of aerial bounces produced to make it difficult for the opponent to line up shots in his wheelhouse.
For now, it feels as if Federer’s single backhand is all but obsolete in trying to chase titles on clay. If this style is to make a comeback, the players who succeed must hit the ball early and powerfully. Additionally, they must also learn to guide the ball with the same kind of ease seen from the double-handed players.
What young tennis player now would choose to still adopt a one-hander with Federer’s infamous difficulties in fending off Nadal’s devastating missiles? It’s like training to be a master swordsman only to find out that a newly-devised longbow is a more effective long-range weapon.
Federer has an original style, but also an anachronistic one playing under new conditions against a mostly new cast of competitors. He is Claude Monet's "Woman with a Parasol" hanging in a gallery now being decorated with digital facsimiles of supermodels.
Suppose Federer did possess Djokovic’s double-backhand? Would this be the ultimate completion to the perfect player? Would he have a shelf of half a dozen French Open cups to go along with the other 16 Grand Slam titles?
To gain a technical advantage is to lose something else. Federer built his game around quick reflexes and perhaps the most masterful baseline forehand in tennis history. He dominated Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Maybe 17 Grand Slam titles never happen if he decided to rely on a Djokovic-like backhand. He might gain the patience to bash from the baseline, but lose the aggressive, fluid attacking game that once ruled the sport. Changing Federer’s backhand would be like giving a makeover to the Mona Lisa. Some things are meant to be appreciated forever the way they are.
Nadal is also more than the sum of his whirlwind topspin. He has raised the bar for seemingly every aspect of clay footwork, retrieval and patience. There is arguably nobody who can top his mental toughness and determination to be a champion. Opponents like Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis can bring out a big backhand, but they will still need the fortitude and talent to seize the biggest points and dominate three of five sets.
French Open 2013 promises to be a spectacular display with Nadal determined as ever to combat his focused competitors. Whether or not someone can beat him with a big double-backhand, that challenger will need a big heart and legendary determination.
Nadal will not hand over his crown.