I know the title doesn’t make much sense but trust me, it will (or will it?).
First of all, what are the odds that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are going to meet each other in the final of the Australian Open 2011? It almost seems like they have entered into a secret pact not to make it to the final of a slam at the same time. So, the odds are pretty slim, aren’t they?
On the other hand you can say that it is about time that the two GOAT contenders finally meet each other after almost two years. In which case, I haven’t wasted my time trying to ponder over that strange 'X-Factor' that came into play in that WTF final but will no longer come into play in the Australian Open, assuming of course that they make it to the final in the first place.
Now what is the X-factor that I am talking about?
Well, just before the start of the WTF Final (no, we aren’t done with the postmortem yet), I had a weird feeling which in words can be described as "Rafa is gonna lose this one." The feeling is weird especially because the reason behind it was such a weird one. It wasn’t the usual reason like "Rafa is fatigued or rusty or out of form or blah blah blah" or "Roger is playing brilliantly and blah blah blah" or "it is an indoor tournament and other technical blah blah blah."
After all, Federer always seems to play sublime tennis until he runs into Nadal (case in point—Wimbledon '08 and Australian Open '09), and a fatigued Nadal has managed to beat Federer before (Australian Open '09). So, what was the reason I felt Rafa would lose?
The answer, which I now call the X-factor, is: Federer and Nadal are playing against each other after almost seven months!
So what? Why on Earth would someone lose a match just because he is meeting a guy after seven months? Weird, isn’t it? Yes, I thought so too. But this thought has been floating in my head for a week now, which has led me to analyze it a bit further for its merits or demerits, and weirdly enough, the merits outnumber the demerits, which in turn has led me to postulate a theory which I now call the X-factor theory.
Though I admit the theory has a lot of holes (big ones) in it, which I will mention later on, but it also seems to have a bit of base.
So, according to the X-factor theory, Nadal was slightly at a disadvantage coming into this match because he hadn’t played a single match against Federer for seven months.
But why Nadal and not Federer?
That is a difficult question to answer.
To try answering this question, let us take the Federer-Nadal rivalry into proper perspective and let me coin another term—'Rust Factor.' The rust factor comes into play in a rivalry or a matchup when the two guys who are part of this rivalry haven’t played against each other for quite some time. In other words, the Federer-Nadal rivalry got a bit rusty and this rust factor favoured one player and thereby put another player at a disadvantage.
Now the question is why did it put Nadal at a disadvantage and not Federer? It is my observation (or belief or whatever) that Nadal feels more comfortable and is more likely to win against Federer when he is used to playing against him; i.e when he is meeting Federer on a pretty regular basis.
Now, why is that? Frankly speaking, I have got no idea.
All I can point out is that playing against Federer and winning so many times against him on small and big stages had somehow given Nadal a sort of stranglehold over Federer both technically as well as psychologically. The reduced frequency of meetings in the last two years (three matches in two years) and the long hibernation in the rivalry that followed after the Madrid Open provided Federer with a whiff of fresh air and a much needed reprieve.
In other words, when the Federer-Nadal rivalry is oiled enough or when the frequency of their matches is good enough, Nadal seems to get accustomed to the style, the pace, the tempo of Federer’s game and thus, Federer starts to get more and more uncomfortable with the tempo, the pace and the playing style of Nadal.
But when the rivalry gets rusty or when they haven’t met for quite some time, then they are back to square one, in which case Nadal has to work his way towards getting used to Federer again and till then, Federer is likely to win the initial matches more.
So, in the end , the X-factor is all about getting used to your rival. Therefore, in the WTF final, what actually happened was that an in-form Federer was playing against a rusty Nadal in a rusty rivalry! Almost all the odds were stacked against him. So, the X-factor of "getting used to" wasn’t in Nadal’s favour. It put him at a disadvantage and thus gave Federer the initial advantage.
Now, I know I haven’t properly explained Federer’s side of the story; i.e why the X-factor would favour Federer more when the rivalry is rusty. The truth is that the X-factor doesn’t favour Federer at all. It doesn’t affect him. It affects Nadal. So, when the X-factor works against Nadal, it automatically affects the balance of the rivalry and thus, Federer gains an automatic advantage.
I know all this stuff sounds like a load of nonsense (maybe it is) but look at it this way. Suppose A is meeting B for the first time. Now, won’t you feel that there is a chance that A may lose this one because he hasn’t played against B before? Yes, you would. After all, isn’t there a fear factor involved when your favourite player is up against an unknown qualifier? That is the X-factor in its infancy.
So, the Federer-Nadal rivalry had got so rusty that the experience of playing against Federer after such a long time made Nadal a bit uncomfortable, but after this recent meeting, the rivalry is oiled again. The rust is gone.
They are supposed to play two more exhibition matches against each other in December. So, what does this all mean? Federer unknowingly and unintentionally, has put himself at a disadvantage against Nadal before the Australian Open and if they meet again in the final there, Nadal will have the X-factor of "getting used to" in his favour.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of loopholes in the X-factor theory. Let me mention them one by one.
Why didn’t the X-factor work against Nadal at the Madrid Open in 2010? That is a good question. But it has a very simple answer: it was on clay; and on clay, Nadal’s dominance dwarfs all the other factors. The difference between Nadal and Federer on clay is so huge that the X-factor will never matter. That is not true on hardcourts and grass, where they are almost on a same level.
But one problem with this argument is that just like on clay, Federer has proven himself to be pretty dominant against Nadal on indoor hardcourts (3-0). So, why will the X-factor play a role in this WTF final which is indoors? True, but the thing is that the difference in their levels on indoor HC is no longer as much as it once was, which is why the X-factor did actually play a role in the WTF final.
Another rule of the X-factor theory says that the X-factor doesn’t affect the majority of tennis rivalries. It only affects a few of them, one of which is the Federer-Nadal rivalry .
I conjured up this rule to save myself from any statistical embarrassment that can follow but seriously, it makes sense because no two rivalries or matchups are alike. So, I am pretty sure that the X-factor is an intrinsic characteristic of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. It may or may not be present in the Nadal-Djoko or Nadal-Murray rivalry because even though the X-factor affects Nadal only and not Federer in their rivalry, it affects Nadal because of Federer.
Anyway, I didn’t even try to check any statistics to back up my insanely weird theory because there is no point in wasting time. All I would say is that the X-factor is a subjective factor just like Nadal’s elemental will or Federer’s ethereal courage and therefore, you can’t find any damn statistic to support those things. These are feelings that are evoked while watching a match.
Now, another question that springs up is: Shouldn’t the X-factor and the rust factor cease to play any role after the first set, after which the players are accustomed to each other?
Now, I admit this is a good question. But somehow, I feel you can’t shake off the rust of seven months in just one set. That is why I feel that it was still a factor.
Anyway, the main reason to write this article is to point out how meeting in WTF final before the Australian Open is actually a good thing for Nadal, but not such a good thing for Federer. In fact, it is almost a blessing in disguise for Nadal, a sort of divine intervention (okay, now you can officially laugh).
Of course, one can say that Federer won the encounter, so that gives him more confidence against Nadal, and so Nadal will be under more pressure and blah blah blah. But does it really matter who won?
No. Did it ever matter in the past ? All that matters is that they played each other after such a long time.
Now, I know that still the X-factor theory doesn’t make much sense, but let me ask you one question: Did the theory of relativity make any sense? Excellent analogy. Einstein would be very happy with that one.
If Nadal beats Federer in the final of the 2011 Australian Open in straight sets, then don’t forget to thank Andy Murray for letting a slightly out-of-form Nadal slip through to the WTF final.
On the other hand if Federer beats Nadal in straight sets, then forget that you ever read this article and I would forget that I ever wrote it.