Tennis: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Averages

antiMatterSenior Analyst IJanuary 6, 2010

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 06:  Rafael Nadal of Spain salutes the crowd after beating Jan Hajek of Czech Republic in the fourth match of the Davis Cup final  between Spain and Czech Republic at the Palau Sant Jordi stadium on December 6, 2009 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

If Rafael Nadal had chosen to look like how he currently looks from the first time he burst into the scene, from what I hear, he would probably have had many more lady fans—probably a sizeable number from Federer's camp.

And the way he has been playing tennis lately, it seems he will grab a sizeable amount of Federer's points this year.

The deep top-spin forehand is never a bad weapon to hit. However tall you are, you really don't want to be facing top-spin strokes skidding off the baseline for over three hours. Yes, the depth which had disappeared midway last year, and the lack of which had allowed the likes of Juan Martin del Potro to step well inside the baseline and dispatch Nadal's top-spin forehand for inside-out winners, has returned on that same stroke, his mainstay.

The backhand looks frighteningly good crunching flat winners off both flanks. The serve surprisingly has more pace than one could remember. The one-two punch for service holds is back. And one was witness to a few great volleys too, off serve and off beautifully constructed points.

And he is indeed hitting the ball harder, deeper, and more aggressively. And more importantly, he is hungrier than ever as seen from his body language.

This holds in both his games at Qatar, against Simone Bolelli and Potito Starace. Except on a few occasions against Starace in the first set, when for sometime he seemed to be harbouring some special dislike for the ball, Nadal kept his level of play pretty high throughout the match, running away with the match when the opportunities presented themselves.

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I have not seen Federer's second match at Qatar, but from what I saw of the first match, he played like the best man on the planet to play tennis, in the first set of it, finishing it off in 18 minutes. Christophe Rochus literally got schooled in the first set.

It was amazing all court display with great serving, volleying and ground strokes. Federer seemed like he knew what he was doing, what he was going to do, and more importantly what the guy on the other side of the net could do with what he gave him.

But Federer's level was somewhat poorer in the second set. Of course he won convincingly but he was not as lethal as he was in the first set.

This bodes well for the coming season of course, since it seems more probable now that the most awaited spectacle in tennis will take place a good number of times this year.

At the same time it is illustrative of the way the two players pace their matches.

But let's fall back a little bit more first.

A great forehand when it stands alone is not a great achievement. Anybody who swings a racquet blindly has a finite probability of connecting with the sweet-spot and getting it done, to put it loosely.

What matters is consistency. How frequently are you able to do something? The frequency sets apart brilliance from fluke.

This is the very reason why we play for not just one point. The match over the course of its time and points is supposed to average out your level. This average level is how consistent you are and hence how brilliant you are.

That said, different sports average out your level in different ways. Many sports give equal importance to all points, while others give more weight to certain points. Tennis is part of the latter category.

Unlike lots of other similar sports (like ping pong), tennis has a more hierarchical point system. A few points are clubbed together into a game, a few games are clubbed together into a set, and a few sets make the whole match. That is three levels.

How well you played in a game finally doesn't matter to the fullest extend of it, in the sense, it is always only a single game. You might win it to love or to 30, but still it counts as one out of the six games in the whole set.

Again, if you come really close on five occasions on the opponent's service game, say you hold a few break-points, but do not break, you gain nothing. And let's say after this effort you were tired in your next service game, and let off your effort for a couple of minutes and lo and behold, you are suddenly losing.

It is a bit weird, but it is the truth that every point in tennis is not as important as every other point. A simple mental optimization might tell you then, that it is better in most cases to hold your level at a constant average through out the match rather than play God for sometime and then take a break for a few minutes. For if you fail to make the cut in the God mode, you will probably lose the match.

Now looking back at the summary of Nadal's and Federer's performances given above, it is pretty evident that Nadal's level of play, which probably cannot scale the same heights as Federer's does, is nevertheless kept close to its best level for the whole match.

He is relentless in what he does. Keep running and retrieving, pound heavy forehands, punch backhands all over the court, work the opponent around, and finish it off. He is ready to do this over and over again till the match gets over. And he is really really good at doing all of these.

Federer has a lot more, well a hell of a lot more innovation in his game. He has a lot more variety and can hit a lot of stuff out of the blue. But such levels that Federer reaches which probably no one else does, do not remain for the whole duration of the match.

A good example would be the Australian Open 2009, where he thoroughly outplayed Nadal on a lot of occasions, like every even numbered set for example, and a few breaks of serve in the sets that he lost as well. But then he tanked on a lot of occasions. He couldn't keep up that level.

And when he stepped a little off the pedal, Nadal was there at close to his best, to take advantage of the situation.

If average level is the measure of brilliance, then no matter what best level Federer played in that match, Nadal was more brilliant in that match.

Going back a little...

Pete Sampras probably was a better optimization than Nadal is.

Playing at close to your best for the whole match is sort of a brute force method. Though it is simple mathematically, it takes a lot out of you.

Sampras' optimisation was even better—he used to raise his game at will for a few minutes when a small opportunity presented for breaking the game (0-15, 15-30), on his return games. Once he got that break, his superior hold game allowed him to get done with the set.

So he exerted lesser concentrated effort where it mattered the most, and employed his natural ability at other times.

Coming back to more recent times...

While Federer's genius is in his ability and talent, Nadal's is in his perseverance and will power.

Federer was unstoppable in his initial few years of reign simply because even when his level dipped a bit, he was better than the rest. But nowadays it is not really true. He has had to play more brilliantly and more importantly, over longer stretches of time. The first he has shown that he can do. The slight trouble is with the second.

Nadal has shown he can bend his body and stretch the limits of his mind to any extend that his will and determination demand. And for a long time it seemed to take him to the top of the sport, and crowned him King. But the body does break and the mind does snap. He must be wary of both, and that will be his problem.

And the champions that both are, fans can be sure they will fight their foes and partner each other on the pretext of fighting each other, but with one aim in mind—to play great, unrivalled tennis.

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