Manolo Santana has done it once more. The chairman of the Mutua Madrid Open will have the luxury of hosting the titan clash between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the third successive year.
Apart from the majors, no other tournaments on the tour have had the luck of staging a Rafa-Roger encounter. Of course, it will be the first time to happen in a semifinal round at the Madrid Open since the Swiss has dropped to World No. 3.
Many might remember the 16-time Grand Slam champion won in 2009, when Rafa was at 50 percent of his capacities after his four-hour marathon victory over Novak Djokovic.
Nadal took his revenge last year. Can this year be another story?
The Spaniard, who already won two clay court tournaments this year, leads the man from Switzerland 15-8 in their ATP Head to Head series.
On paper, it's a 50-50 match, but I have a gut feeling that Nadal is going to beat Federer for the second consecutive time this year. Both men already met in Miami, with Rafa winning 6-3 6-2.
Nevertheless, it's interesting to analyse the strategy the current World No. 3 is going to have.
For some, the strategy merely involves improving again and again to become better players. Federer, on the contrary, already has all the weapons to disturb the Spaniard. The question is, how can he use them effectively?
Roger and Novak remain the Spaniard's main rival, mostly because they have enough ability in their game to mess with Rafa's plans.
Here is the strategy that, in my opinion, he employ against Nadal.
What has struck me the most in recent Nadal-Federer battles is the lack of belief of the Swiss. In most of their matches, Roger seems to have the keys to win, but he's not as efficient as he is against any other player.
So why can't he overcome Nadal? First, he often lacks lucidity, because he's suffering from a slight inferiority complex that hampers him in key moments.
And I think he's not going onto the court to face Nadal with a really clear idea of what he's going to do this time. He seems to try to beat Nadal playing the Spaniard's game, without thinking of a whole strategy. The least we can say is that it's not working very well.
Another reason why Federer is lacking lucidity against Nadal comes from the fact that it's Rafa who is making him play in his game style.
After six to eight-shot rallies, Roger's lucidity starts to wane, and he becomes hesitant or much too impatient to end the point. He's struggling, because the forehand of the Spaniard comes on to his own backhand with topspin and high rebound, preventing him from picking up the pace.
Against Rafa, Roger should not allow himself to doubt his own game. He can make unforced errors, he can passed at the net, but he must dictate the rhythm.
He must put the Mallorcan under pressure and shorten the points. Until now, it's Rafa who is neutralising Roger by pinning him on his backhand and forcing him to play high balls, making him uncomfortable.
Roger's first serve is great, because it has everything needed at this leveli—it's accurate, quick and effective.
He can slice on the deuce side and use the kick on the advantage side in order to get a player out of the court and create openings as early as the second shot.
Against Nadal, his strategy must centre on being constantly aggressive. Improving his first serve percentage is the main key.
If he tries more for effective serves, he'll be able to retain a high percentage and to take command of the points early on by being offensive on the second shot.
Keeping up with this aim of depriving Nadal time, Roger must be, as Sampras was, aggressive on the second serves.
Rafa hates to be rushed. He needs time to play deep balls and to find his timing. So Roger must take the ball early and go in hard on Rafa's forehand. Sometimes, he should follow his shots to the net. Other times, he should wait a bit to get a short ball.
In both cases, Rafa's second serve is a big opportunity for Roger to dictate the point, to put the opponent under pressure and force him to play too short. Roger should really use it. Sure he'll be more prone to mistakes but will also get more winners this way. He has to put Nadal out of his comfort zone to prevent him from playing stuck on the baselinew—what he likes the most.
One of Nadal's main strengths is forcing his opponent to play one more shot again and again. His defensive skills are amazing so it's hard to get him out of the way. His topspin often makes opponents play far from the baseline, preventing them from taking the ball early.
When it comes to rallies, Rafa is the best in the world. And that's enough of a reason to try to shorten the points at the net.
Roger isn't a serve and volley player and is not the type who comes to the net, because he feels comfortable and strong there.
But he remains proficient in the net game, so it has to be a tool when facing the Spaniard. It's the last step he has to make when he has taken the advantage.
Sure, he'll often get passed, but he will win many points too and even more importantly, he'll deprive Nadal of his best abilities—the point will be over before Nadal has a chance to send back unreachable balls, as he is capable of doing.
Points will be shortened too, which should be enough to disturb the machine.
When facing Nadal, Roger has to be in the best possible shape for several reasons.
When you're facing the fittest guy out there, you cannot afford to get tired. If you do, you'll be less clear-minded. That's often what happens on clay, where Rafa's opponents seem to be fine for a while before they eventually burn out.
If someone wants to try an anti-Nadal strategy, he'll need to be very punchy and fit enough to take the ball early. Being late for just half of a second means the ball is already spinning like mad and likely to force errors.
It would be a major surprise to me if Roger upset Rafa, but it can happen. The magic of tennis makes many factors unpredictable in a match.
There's a good chance the Swiss will play better in Madrid than he did in Miami.
It is also Roger's time to show the world he will be a major force at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
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