In his post-match press conference, Roger Federer said he felt encouraged by his 2014 Australian Open results and remained optimistic about the coming season despite losing in straight sets to Rafael Nadal in the semifinal.
Federer always says the right thing for the cameras but it is hard to imagine that he is feeling anything other than despair about the way in which he was manhandled and sent packing from the tournament in straight sets 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-3.
Federer dedicated the entire off-season to re-tooling his game. He switched racquets, got a new coach, a new strategy, and he gave his ailing back a much-needed rest.
In the first few rounds in Melbourne he looked rejuvenated. His movement was better and his new Edbergesque net rushing tactics were paying dividends in quick, easy points.
After his whipping of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round, it was clear that 2013 was all but forgotten and the Fed swagger was back.
In the quarterfinals, he dominated the Wimbledon champion, Andy Murray, in four sets, and with Djokovic exiting early on the other side of the draw, people started to wonder whether Federer could win his 18th Slam in Australia—an outlandish idea just a couple months ago.
All he had to do was get past Nadal.
Unfortunately for Federer, Nadal has no soft spots for comeback stories. Off the court, Nadal has the deepest respect for Federer but on the court he is as ruthless an assassin as ever played the game.
Nadal seeks out his opponent’s weakness and when he finds it, he attacks it unrelentingly until his opponent is exhausted or out of hope.
Federer’s weaker side is, of course, his one-handed backhand. Against right-handed players, Federer is typically able to run around his backhand and hit forehands, quickly taking control of points.
Nadal’s left-handed forehand, however, spins away from Federer’s body wide into the ad-court. Federer does not have time to run around and hit a forehand, so he ends up hitting backhand after backhand in the most uncomfortable of positions.
In the past, Nadal would occasionally leave his ball short, and Federer could pounce and attack. Or, Federer would successfully direct the ball down-the-line to Nadal’s backhand where Nadal could do little damage.
Since coming back from his knee injury last year, however, Nadal his elevated his game yet another notch. His heavy spin forehands are now landing deep in the court, and he has transformed his two-handed backhand into a weapon. In other words, there is little weakness in his game.
For two-and-a-half hours in their semifinal match, Nadal systematically broke Federer’s game apart. The combination of heavy balls to Federer’s backhand and blasts into the open deuce court wearied Federer physically and mentally.
By the second set, his backhand started to break down, and, by the third set he was spraying errors from his forehand. Many of his misses were on routine approaches aimed too close to the lines—a consequence of being passed repeatedly by Nadal from even the most impossible of angles.
When all was said and done, the swagger was all gone, and Federer looked completely resigned. The realization had set in that 2014 would likely not be a banner year with an 18th Slam because Federer cannot beat Nadal.