There was incredible shot-making, high-impact assault and nonstop dread.
The semi-finals between Federer and Nadal at Indian Wells had oodles and oodles of high-strung drama. And, more.
But this time, it was the Spaniard who was at the receiving end, although not before Federer put himself through the familiar gut-wrenching tension each time he heard the murmurs of the demons somewhere in the back of his mind.
The demons of yesterday, as usual, had walked in with Federer to the court, striking him at crucial junctures.
The scars of the defeat handed out by Nadal just two months ago at the Australian Open semis did not seem to have healed when Federer went down 15-40 in the opening game of the match itself. But he pulled himself through valiantly with some awesome serving.
Federer struck back by breaking Nadal and gaining a 3-0 lead.
A 3-0 lead would mean the momentum going your way. But that was not to be.
The murmur of the demons got a little louder. Federer let Nadal get back into the set and break him back, thanks to his mishits in the next game itself. The score got even.
Federer stepped up intensity and held his serve comfortably at 4-3. On Nadal's serve, Federer's ground-strokes found more depth, pushing the Spaniard behind the baseline.
A beautiful cross-court backhand shot and a drop shot which Nadal surprisingly failed to retrieve set the pace for the break. Another powerful cross-court backhand winner gave the advantage. Federer lapped it up instantly and went up 5-4.
The demons were put to rest, for now.
As the pressure began to build up on Federer to serve out for the match at 5-2, the long shadows of the past began to flit darkly over him.
Remember that fatal drop shot at the French Open that Federer hit, but saw it sneaking wide when he was up 5-2?
With it collapsed his game plan. The dream start tapered off to a 5-7 first set loss. In short, it changed the complexion of the match itself.
The same happened at the recent AO semis too, despite Federer's flawless start at 4-1. Although Federer won the first set tie-breaker, one could hardly see a flicker of hope in his eyes when the second set began.
At Indian Wells too, Federer wasn't at ease to close out the match, despite a double break.
If there was a way to read his mind at this moment, I am sure we would have heard the demons' ruthless white noise moving to a full tilt.
His first serve deserted him. His fabled forehand suffered a critical loss of self-belief and clipped the net a few times. Unforced errors crept up. A double fault sneaked its way in. He surrendered one of the two breaks. It seemed as though Federer would cave in any moment.
After the untimely, but fortunately harmless rain break, he needed just one more of his famous serves to do the trick and close out the short but intensely fought battle. His sixth ace did just that.
Nevertheless, what should have been a match with a scoreline of 6-3, 6-2 got extended for reasons we are well aware of.
Playing on His Own Terms
There were a few visible key differences between how he fought at the AO semis and this one.
He went with his shots even when he was broken back twice, and unforced errors mounted. So long as the combined effect of all the shots, the game plan, was yielding results, Federer was simply unstoppable.
He did not seem to attack the past and erase it with one shot, one win. Usually, one wrong shot or a service break deals such a heavy blow to Federer that his body language changes instantly. This lets Nadal slither his way back into the match, most often even after losing the first set.
More importantly, Federer played no-holds-barred, aggressive tennis—living and dying by the sword.
There was no hesitation in hitting hard when opportunity showed up; no sense of entitlement ("How could this be happening to me, the Great Federer?"). But just pure fight.
Looks like Federer will go with this strategy when he is up against Nadal: Winning or losing on his racket.
On his terms.
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