Roger Federer's humiliating defeat to Rafael Nadal Friday night was a bit shocking for a few different reasons. Of course, the beatdown on the court was jarring enough as Nadal destroyed Fed, 6-3, 6-2.
But, the largest jolt, for me, was watching how Federer lost that awful second set. I've never seen Federer essentially "lose it" on the court like that. I don't mean "lose his temper," but, rather, lose his confidence and concentration to the extent that he did. He hit many shots WAY beyond the baseline. He hit many shots into the net. He hit a few volleys right back toward Nadal rather than angling them for winners. He even missed an opportunity to hit an important forehand — an easy, playable shot — in the ninth game of the first set by shanking it into the stands.
I got the sense that Federer was feeling so totally frustrated, that, unlike in the past, it impacted his game significantly. His attitude contributed to his poor play. He was psyched out by Nadal, but, then, as he began to play worse and worse, he seemed to grow more rattled and played even worse as the match winded down. He often appeared to be just going through the motions. He certainly didn't seem "determined" and "eager" to win. No, he seemed deflated, and, for a change, he couldn't hide it.
It was as if Federer was holding up a poster that said: "I don't know how to beat this guy and I'm really sick of it, so, I'm just waiting for this match to end."
Federer looked so helpless toward the end, I was reminded of how helpless another favorite champion of mine, Muhammad Ali,had looked at the end of his boxing career in 1980 against Larry Holmes. Ali had taken some medication that weakened him that night and he stood on the ropes as Holmes pummeled him. He couldn't do anything to fight back and he knew it. Like Roger did on Friday.
For me, it was the worst I ever saw Federer play. Why? Because I had never seen him not only play awfully, but to do so at least partly because he was so mentally beaten and discouraged on the tennis court. His "losing outlook" didn't just last for a game or two, but for the whole second set, and, in other moments during the match. It was sad and painful to watch. (I'm a huge Fed fan) It was worse than the loss to Rafa in the 2008 French Open Finals(1-6, 3-6, 0-6) because, then, Fed at least seemed more into the match.
You can analyze all the stats from the match. Federer had 38 unforced errors to Nadal's small number. Federer's serve was broken four times. He lost the only break point he got against Nadal in the second game of the second set, and seemed to mentally collapse after that.
Federer seems between a rock and a hard place against Nadal. He's trying a new approach, with the help of his coach Paul Annacone, to be more aggressive and keep rallies shorter. Yet, at times, he seems a bit out of sync trying the new game plan after years of doing it his way.
But, there are other important negative trends in Federer's game that seem to suggest he'll have a hard time defeating Nadal or Novak Djokovic and perhaps other top players. A few parts of Federer's game have diminished just a bit and that decline is enough for Nadal and Djokovic to take advantage of.
For example, his first serve, once a critical, outstanding part of his game, is now inconsistent, and, often made playable enough by the top-notch return skills of Nadal and Djokovic. Federer does seem a bit slower with his racket speed.
On Friday, he hit many shots deep to Nadal, but, usually, not hard enough to force Nadal out of position. In fact, often Nadal showed he could take the best forehands from Fed and wait for a weaker one to pounce on. So, what's making Federer slower? It's as if his actual (eye) vision has deteriorated a tiny bit, at times. He doesn't seem to tee up his shots so quickly enough to really belt them like he did a few years ago. Instead, he hits predictable shots that are too often easily returned by Nadal. Federer stopped hitting hard forehands for winners, especially cross-court, but, even down the line, too. His backhand seems to lack a bit of its former power. He even seemed a tad bit slower catching up to balls Friday night. His return of serve seems weaker than ever.
So, I'm concluding, painfully, that yes, Fed's physical skills have deteriorated a little bit.
What's left? Well, there is the question of Federer's belief, going forward. Does he really think he can beat Nadal or Djokovic now? Not now, probably, but, what about in the future? ESPN2 TV commentator Patrick McEnroe, after Friday's match, speculated that if Federer has matches like this one vs. Nadal against others in the months ahead, he might face a difficult decision of whether he wants to be struggling in uphill battles to win tournaments just for the occasional chance to win another major.
I'll tell you one thing: In my mind, the Federer-Nadal rivalry ended in Key Biscayne, FL, Friday night. I know it was just one match. I know the slowness of the court and sticky conditions favored Nadal. But, to me, the unique dynamics of this Miami beatdown now more than symbolize the end of the Fed-Nadal era.
It was in the second set of this match, after all, that Federer, seemed to all but throw in the towel against Nadal. OK, not literally, but, Federer, along with the rest of us, knows that a "rivalry" is not a rivalry" if only one player wins all the time.