Roger Federer’s career has been marked by a lot of record setting. Yet, his head-to-head deficit versus Rafa Nadal has been the source of a lot of debate. Roger won their first 5-set major final by taking the 2007 Wimbledon final in an epic fashion. The 2008 Wimbledon final was a sequel that surpassed the original with Rafa prevailing 9-7 in the 5th set. At the 2009 Australian Open final, Nadal prevailed in 5 sets and left Federer in tears. Roger rebounded to reclaim #1 in 2009, but Rafa seemed to have the goods to beat Federer is they ever squared off in a big match. 2013 was a particularly bad year for Federer’s back and his rivalry with Nadal (losing 4 matches and 8 of 9 sets).
When it comes to their place in history, there is a lot of commonality. Each has an olympic medal in both singles and doubles. Nadal’s two golds slightly outpacing Federer’s silver in singles and gold in doubles. Each has had Davis Cup success. Each has surface specific results that set them apart from many in tennis history. Federer’s numbers have been more consistent than Rafa’s, but his 17-14 major lead was Roger’s best asset in any comparison with Nadal. Rafa’s head-to-head record versus Federer is his best asset. If Rafa were to beat Federer again in a major final, he’d add to his best case and erode Roger’s best case.
Federer winning a 5-set final over Nadal leveled their career 5 set record at 3-3. Roger’s 2005 Miami title, 2007 Wimbledon title, and 2017 Australian Open title all involved 5-set championship wins over Rafa. Similarly, Nadal’s 2006 Rome title, 2008 Wimbledon title, and 2009 Australian Open title all came with 5 set championship wins over Federer. Roger also boosted his non-clay court Grand Slam final record versus Nadal to 3-2. This win was helpful to Roger’s narrative when being compared to Rafa. Roger did something he had not done since 2007 in staring Rafa down to take a major title.
New Mental Outlook
Federer spoke openly about scars from clay court clashes with Nadal in previous years before the Australian Open commenced. Federer spoke again about this reality after his semifinal win. Admitting a problem is often the first step in addressing it. Federer’s team tried to emphasize that he was playing well enough to beat Nadal, but he had to mentally embrace the moment. Federer made a tactical change in hitting his backhand more flatly during the match. His rolling top spin backhand is often admired, but against Nadal it is an invitation for trouble. Federer’s bigger serve since adopting a more powerful racquet in 2014 and his more specifically hardcourt minded strategy with his backhand helped him to close some of the typical match-up issue he faces versus Rafa. Federer hit 20 aces to Rafa’s 3 and won 29 net points out of 40 approaches. This helped him to consolidate early breaks in the 1st and 3rd set and only need 2 breaks to come back in the 5th set. Roger’s 18th major is not the final statement in the never ending deliberations about tennis history. It is not insignificant either.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 29, 2017