By Aditya Ramani
We had all been there before. That familiar, sinking feeling in your guts as you watched the match undeniably slipping away from Roger Federer because of just a tiny lapse in his timing, usually on his forehand. And you know that this is not a position Rafael Nadal goes down from.
You've seen him ruthlessly punish everyone from here. Just ask Novak Djokovic at the 2014 French Open. It even happened to Grigor Dimitrov just two days ago in the semi-finals. Rafa was ahead 2-0 in the final set against Roger Federer and, for all the hope that there in the world, it felt like he was ahead for good.
Federerâ€™s backhand is his weaker side. His single-handed groundstroke lacks the reliability or strength that a double-hander might provide. It can be an elegant stroke, a fine stroke of a paintbrush. It can even be skiddy and dangerous like an iced up road. But penetrating and solid are not the words one uses to describe it. Itâ€™s not a bad weapon against most but when it comes up against the heavy topspin forehand of Rafael Nadal, itâ€™s uninspiring. This familiar pattern of play was on show yesterday. And just like 23 times before, Rafa was reaping the rewards. Federer had struck just 6 winners in 4 sets off his backhand. The numbers were telling.
And yet, it was this stroke that rose to the occasion. He hit winners down the line, he hit them cross-court and forced errors like never before. Federer generated 5 break points even though Rafa saved them all with his trademarked clutch play. The feeling of being sucked into the black hole was still there but it was being counterbalanced by all the chances that the backhand kept producing.
â€śI could have been left disappointed there and accepted that fact.â€ť Federer said, after the match. â€śI kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility I could win this match.â€ť
Down 2-3, Federer managed to raise two more break points. This time, he converted on one of them. And then served to consolidate as if he had never been under pressure. Somehow, Federer had drawn himself out of a hole against Rafael Nadal in the fifth set of a grand slam final. While the rest of the world weighed themselves down with the impossibility of the task on hand, Federer played without the burden.
â€śI told myself to play free, be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here.â€ť Federer said. And the rewards came. He was winning 80% of his points on the first serve, he was returning 82% of Rafaâ€™s serves. He hit 23 winners in the fifth set alone and 8 of them were off his backhand.
Five more break points came Federerâ€™s way and with one final backhand return, Federer forced an error and was serving for the match. Although it wasnâ€™t a walk in the park in that final game (Federer saved two break-back points and struck a forehand inside-out winner that had to be inch perfect) he finally got to match point. The ultimate forehand winner was challenged by Nadal and Hawk-Eye announced to the rising scream of fans in the stadium that it was in.
In hindsight, it looks clear now that all the break points Federer kept creating meant that Nadal who was under pressure throughout, despite the score. There was a hint of tiredness in Rafa and Federer was striking freely. But then, each break point lost felt like it was the last opportunity and it had been squandered. Their history only suggested one outcome.
Commentators like to talk about athletes having selective memories. That is, they should only remember what they did right when they won and forget what went wrong when they lost. When you have played each other 34 times, won only 11 times, and even lost many times when playing really well, it must be really hard to remember exactly what it was that won it for you. When such is the case, what can be better than not having any memories?
Last night, in that final set, Federer played the ball in front of him instead of the man across the net. At the age of 35, four and a half years after his last major title, against his greatest opponent and against the expectations cast by their history, Federer forgot the past and found a way to win.