As the 2010 Sony Ericsson Open begins in earnest this week, it might be interesting and informative to examine the tournament that set the bar for their future encounters.
Early on, playing practically perfect tennis against Federer evolved into an art form for Nadal. Nothing seemed to inspire him more or engage his senses more completely than striving to match his considerable strengths against the man many proclaimed, then and now, as the best player ever to wield a tennis racket.
The quixotic mission to overtake Federer drove Nadal for four-and-a-half years, finally propelling him into that vaunted No. 1 spot in August of 2008.
But let us hearken back to March of 2004, when newly dominant 22-year-old Roger Federer, feeling ill and stripped of strength, struggled past Russian Nikolay Davydenko during the round of 64 at the NASDAQ-100 Miami Masters.
His next opponent was 17-year-old newcomer Rafael Nadal, ranked No. 36 in the world. Nadal was a hard-hitting left-hander from Spain, a country renowned for its prowess on clay. This, however, was a hardcourt event.
Anointed No. 1 a month earlier, Federer arrived in Miami having won 28 matches during the previous nine months—including his first Wimbledon crown in 2003, and his first Australian Open title in 2004. Even weakened, Federer expected to win this match.
Nadal had other plans. Playing nearly flawless tennis against Federer, Nadal defeated him, 6-3, 6-3. While admittedly shocked, the tennis world should have stood still or spun backward, because there was never a more prophetic tennis match than this one.
During that match Nadal never faced a break point, and he made 81 percent of his first serves. He even won 13 of 14 net points, punctuating his win with an overhead smash at the net. He played a nearly perfect match against the world No. 1 player.
Keen observer Federer must have suffered a shiver of recognition.
What did Nadal learn during that initial monumental Miami match in 2004?
Besides being told to go to Roger’s backhand, and to continue to attack, Nadal was informed that Roger was the No. 1 player in the world and that there was no shame in losing to him.
This was the psychology employed. Simple enough when you are humble, proud, and 17.
Facing overwhelming odds compelled Nadal even more. He played his best when tilting at windmills. For Nadal, with everything to win and nothing to lose, a victory meant that he was as on an equal footing with the top player in the world.
Integral to his mental makeup is the fact that Nadal never quits. There is honor in defeat, as long as you compete completely.
Nadal never lets up, and he never lets go. Like a terrier locked on your calf, amputation is easier than ridding yourself of this man during a point. This is especially true when the stakes are high.
The 2004 Miami match is the most important one Nadal has played to date. He took away the knowledge that it is possible to play almost perfect tennis, and that he, Rafael Nadal, could beat the best player on the planet.
Federer, on the other hand, in attempting to stare down his future nemesis, blinked. Nadal noticed.
A year later Federer and Nadal met again on the courts in Miami at the NASDAQ-100, this time in the finals. In 2005 the Swiss was enjoying another dominating year as No. 1.
Again Nadal, playing extraordinary tennis, won the first two sets, 6-2, 7-6. Back in 2005, however, the finals of Masters events were extended to five sets, so, instead of walking away with the championship, Nadal needed to win another set before claiming the trophy.
Federer regrouped in time to win the third-set tiebreaker, 7-5, after some nail-biting moments. The pressure was so intense that the man who typically served as the spokesperson for “calm” actually threw his racket in disgust at his inability to take advantage of the many opportunities offered to him.
Federer then went on to capture the fourth set playing at his best as Nadal continued to fade, broken three times in the fifth and final set. In all, the match lasted three hours and 42 minutes.
It was only the second time in his career that Federer came back to win after being two sets down. Now, of course, Federer has accomplished that feat five times—the latest during the French Open in 2009, when he came back against Tommy Haas to move past the German into the quarterfinals.
Even though Nadal lost in Miami, many considered it a breakthrough performance.
When they met again two months later, for their first clay encounter during the semifinals at the French Open, Nadal won the first of 11 matches they would play on clay. Ultimately, the Spaniard would win nine out of the 11 contests.
In total, they have met 20 times, with Nadal holding the edge having won 13 of those matches.
Federer possibly possesses the greatest gifts ever bequeathed to a tennis-playing mortal. His movement, his timing, his agility, his hand-eye coordination, his precision, his analysis, and his speed are all magically forged into one human being.
No one playing tennis has ever, or will ever, have more athletic skill at his beck and call than Federer.
In his early days on tour, Federer’s greatest weakness was his intermittent belief in his ability to win. A game plan that didn’t work right away was abandoned, often prematurely.
Roger never doubted his skill, or his shot-making, or any of the technical aspects of the game he had mastered so easily and so well. He remained inconsistent because he could not always be patient and sustain a game plan, constantly outguessing himself and sacrificing his truer instincts.
Finally, after several years on tour, Federer learned to be calm and not to panic. He mastered patience, making adjustments gradually. Once the Swiss reined in his temperament he began to win. In fact, he became practically unbeatable.
Federer grew skillful at figuring out the opposition. He waited patiently for them to self-destruct or to give up once they concluded that inevitably Federer was going to win. That freed the world No. 1 to play pure tennis.
Nadal, however, never fit into Roger’s world view. Employing his terminator mind set, Nadal played every point as if it were his last. Nadal’s level of play often remained nearly perfect when they met...like a programmed automaton.
At times Nadal’s aggressive and unrelenting play threw Federer back into his impatient, inconsistent past and caused him to freeze, not making the best decisions. Some might deem that as “choking.”
The rivalry between Federer and Nadal could prove to be the greatest rivalry tennis has ever known between two of its greatest players. What is more, it may just be getting interesting, as each player has had to fall back to reassess and to re-tool his game.
So who is really better? Tough call.
But it comes down to this: If Federer had Nadal’s mindset, there is no one who could beat him, including the Spaniard himself. It all goes back to Miami and that seed of doubt planted by Nadal in 2004...the seed that took root and spread vigorously throughout Roger’s psyche.
To this day, Rafa faces Roger with steadfast belief, while Roger faces Rafa with a shadow of a doubt. Faith trumps fear every time.
While Federer and Nadal have new challenges to face in 2010, none of the newfound demons will equal the “head play” needed when Federer faces Nadal on any court, on any surface, anywhere in the world.
It is a match made in tennis heaven that we all pray will happen every time the two warriors enter the same tournament. The setting in Miami this week would be a perfect place to reset the bar.
[This article is updated from an article I first published in September of 2008 here on Bleacher Report.]
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