Roland Garros 2019: Federer seeks to Upset Nadal – What He Will Try & Will it Work?

Ivan Ljubicic has helped guide Roger Federer to his most successful stint versus Rafael Nadal.  He did so by telling Federer to stay close to the baseline and try to rob Rafa of time taking advantage of court positioning.  He has also encouraged Roger to flatten out his one-handed backhand.  This can work as Rafa does give up real estate on a tennis court.  Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko used a strategy of taking the ball early with some success versus Nadal.  Djokovic and Davydenko have also hit some crisp backhands in their wins over Nadal.

The big difference is that they each have two-handed backhands that can absorb heavy topspin on clay more fruitfully than a one-handed backhand tends to.  Also, in the genealogy of tennis tactics Davydenko and Djokovic seem to be in the Connors and/or Agassi family tree while Federer is much more in the Becker-Edberg-Sampras-Stich like of succession even if he attacks the net far less frequently than his 1980s and 1990s fore-bearers.

The basic point Federer proved in 2017 that he could hang close to the baseline and hit enough big serves to derail Nadal may not really work on clay over 3 out of 5 sets in part because Federer is not a natural counter-puncher or grinder.  He likes to dictate play and attack.  Clay doesn’t allow for this as often as he would like.  Beyond all of that, the dimensions of the back-court in Paris are especially roomy.  Hitting winners against someone as quick and dogged as Rafa is particularly difficult on that specific court.

So yes, Federer will try to take the ball on the rise.  He will try not to get into long rallies.  He will flatten out his one-handed backhand.  He will make judicious, but frequent by today’s standards, approaches to the net.  He will have some confidence based upon 2017’s results versus Rafa.  All of that could add up to?

I think in a 2 out of 3 set match, that might add up to Federer splitting the first two sets and being in the middle of a competitive third set.  3 out of 5 sets is a different animal.  In 2005-2007, as well as in 2011, Federer won a single set in his Roland Garros matches versus Rafa.  He can retire knowing he won 4 sets off of Rafa at the French Open.  He might get to 5 or 6, but I don’t think 7 is terribly likely.  I don’t think Federer will be wiped out like he was in 2008 even if he loses in straight sets.  Still, Nadal is nearly unbeatable in Paris for many reasons.  Federer may have a good game plan and may have exercised some bad memories.  That solves two of those reasons, but Nadal still has dozens of reasons why he is likely to win over 3 of 5 sets on clay on a roomy court.

Now if the clay is blue tomorrow, all bets are off …

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