Roger Federer still trails Rafael Nadal 23-13 in the 13-year rivalry between the modern-day tennis greats. On Thursday, however, the Swiss master beat Nadal for a third consecutive time for the first time in his career. After victories in the 2015 Basel final and this year's epic Australian Open final, Federer breezed past Nadal 6-2, 6-3 in just 68 minutes to reach the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
For many years, the match-up pitted Federer's grace against Nadal's power. However, that narrative seems to have changed in recent years due to Nadal's fading athleticism and Federer's improved backhand. During Thursday's fourth-round match, Nadal had no answer to Federer's backhand winners, which is ironic considering the Spaniard's ability to counter the very same shot in the years gone by.
In previous match-ups, Nadal would often exploit the wing with his high-hopping, powerful, left-handed forehand while Federer would depend on his right-handed backhand. Nadal's power and endurance would often get the better of Federer, who at one stage began to question his mental state while going up against the Spaniard. But Federer's backhand is no longer just fodder for Nadal's powerful forehand, it’s now a credible shot that 'Rafa' must contend with -- especially since his service game remains subpar. Incidentally, Federer admitted during the 2017 Australian Open that he would have “approached matches against Nadal differently” in previous years.
How Roger Federer cracked the Rafael Nadal problem
Federer has made another adjustment that has helped him get the better of Nadal. He's standing inside the baseline, thus hitting the ball a good foot lower. The very same strategy, which involves enticing Nadal with a series of low backhands, had backfired in the past. Not anymore. "By coming over my backhand on the return, from the get-go of the point, I can dominate points right away. It's important to keep your opponent off-guard and know that he has to be careful," Federer, who captured his 18th Grand Slam earlier this year at the 2017 Australian Open, told the Tennis Channel in the post-match interview on Thursday, via ESPN.
Many analysts believe Federer has "finally cracked the Nadal code" and should get the better of the Spaniard in future match-ups, unless they battle on clay courts. Federer also credits the decision to switch to a larger Wilson racket head. "I used to shank balls often with my older racket. But then again, it helped me a lot with my slice and my forehand. But with this racket, I have easier power, and I gain confidence. And once you have the confidence, you step in, and once you step in, then it's easier to pull back again."
After this year's memorable Australian Open finish, it's highly unlikely that tennis aficionados are treated to another Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal Grand Slam final. However, the recent slump in form suffered by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray has opened the doors for Nadal and Federer to renew their rivalry in 2017.