Who would have thought that Federer could play well enough to stop Novak Djokovic's incredible streak last Friday and then be more competitive than he ever has against Nadal on clay at the French Open?
Some observers called his match vs. Djokovic his best performance ever on clay courts.
Had Federer defeated Nadal Sunday, as commentator John McEnroe said, it would have been the biggest Grand Slam victory of his career. Federer made things interesting against Nada, pushing him to four sets. Federer, at times, certainly appeared capable of defeating Nadal, who won 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1.
In fact, Federer came painfully close to giving himself a better chance of winning when he had a set point against Nadal in the first set, and lost it by inches when his backhanded drop shot fell just barely wide of the line. If Nadal had lost that first set, perhaps the dynamics of the match might have evolved differently. Of course, Nadal seems so invincible that the odds favored him no matter how many sets it took.
That's what some people seem to have forgotten about the Federer-Nadal matchup. It has not been a true rivalry since 2008, when they played their landmark Wimbledon final in the twilight. Nadal has not lost to Federer in a Grand Slam event since 2007! His overall record, after today, vs. Fed is 17-8.
So, Federer was a huge underdog today. Though he's remained one of the best in the world, his game had been declining the past two or three years. After losing to Djokovic in the 2010 US Open, in 2011, Federer had lost to Djokovic three times and Nadal twice before the French Open. Federer seemed to be fading from his top competition and perilously close to slipping even further downward and perhaps out of the prime-time arena of men's tennis in 2011.
Yet, despite all this, Federer, in his last two matches, has made a statement to the tennis world. He's injected some new life into his game. He's trying a new, more aggressive approach. Plus, he's just playing at a higher level. For instance, amazingly, he's somehow suddenly used his backhand more effectively.
For years, I've watched Federer-Nadal matches and wished Federer would try new strategies and approaches given Nadal's consistent dominance point-to-point, game to game. It had grown tiring to watch Nadal pummel Federer's backhand side until he repeatedly gained an edge and won the point.
Today, I give Federer, a 29-year-old veteran in the twilight of his career, enormous credit for actually trying a few new approaches versus Nadal.
* I've never seen Federer hit so many ground strokes from one side of the court to the other against Nadal Unlike many of their past battles, it was Federer who forced Nadal to move all over to retrieve shots.
Yes, Nadal played his typically extraordinary defense and stayed in many rallies when you thought Federer was about to gain an advantage and win the point. However, in the past, Federer has often returned balls to Nadal that landed in the middle of the court, only to see Nadal belt a return back that won the point.
* Federer's serve was at least better against Nadal. He aced him 11 times, but had many serves that Nadal returned weakly. Yes, if Federer had served a bit better, he might've fared better; yet, people forget that sometimes—like in the 2009 Australian Open vs. Nadal—Federer's serve was off and hurt his chances very badly.
* Federer's return of Nadal's serve was far better than it has been in the past. Federer jumped on some of Nadal's second serves in a way he has failed to do in past matchups.
* Federer often hit his groundstrokes deeper against Nadal. Again, in some of their past matches, he's left balls short, allowing Nadal to hit more winners.
There were a few times when Federer still suffered mental lapses in key moments. For example, after succeeding to come back in the second set and force a tiebreaker, Federer made a few bad unforced errors and Nadal got off to too big a lead for the Swiss to overcome.
Overall, however, Federer showed more willingness to go for winners and take chances for much of the match. Clearly, this is the only approach that he and his coach Paul Annacone believe will give him the best chance to defeat either Djokovic or Nadal.
I love rooting for Federer and I never thought he still had it in him to make such a memorable, dazzling showing at the French Open, where, in four previous matches vs. Nadal, he had not played nearly as well. It's not easy for an athlete in any sport to play better when he or she is older, with diminishing skills. Federer did that Sunday.
As a result, I've changed my outlook about his chances going forward.
I now think he has a chance at Wimbledon and the US Open this year. Anyone watching him play with new adjustments and strategy in Paris must at least give him more of a chance now.