It's obvious now that when Rafa is in his best shape, he can't be defeated. For some, the strategy against him means improving again and again and tweaking every aspect of their games to become way better players. Roger Federer, on the other hand, has already all the weapons to disturb the Spaniard. The question is now: How can he use them effectively?
It's obvious again that the King Federer of the pre-Nadal period is struggling. Sure he has won a Grand Slam this season, played the quarters in two other ones and the semifinal of the fourth one. But his level is going down and though it's tough to know why (the communication from the Swiss and his people is notoriously clouded) it could be that he's still suffering from his back. That would explain a lot of his recent losses and why a trainer is now following him all the time. Maybe he's paying the hard way emotionally for his triumphs last year at the French Open and Wimbledon and for the birth of his twin girls. Whatever it is, Roger obviously isn't the same player. It's clear to everyone -- from people inside the game to people watching on television. Despite all of this, he remains the main rival of the Spaniard, mostly because his game owns enough abilities to mess with Rafa's plans. Here is the strategy that, in my opinion, he should set up against Nadal.
He must believe in his ability to win
What strikes me the most in the Nadal-Federer battles is the lack of belief of the Swiss. In most of their matches, Roger seems to have the key to win, but he's not as efficient as he is against any other player. In 2009, when Rafa won the Australian Open final, Federer looked overall better in terms of level of play. But he was too hesitant and waiting too much instead of dictating the game and later was advised to find a famous coach in order to find new tactical solutions against Nadal. I admit I had been shocked by this position because I really find the Swiss to be precise in his mental game. So why can't he overcome Nadal?
First, he often lacks lucidity because he's suffering from a slight inferiority complex that hampers him in key moments. He's also not entering the court in front of Nadal with a really clear mind on what he's going to do this time. He seems to try to beat Nadal playing the Spaniard's game, without thinking of a whole strategy. He lets Nadal dictate things. The least we can say is that it's not working very well.
Getting Nadal out of his comfort zone
The next reason why Federer is lacking focus against Nadal comes from the fact that it's Rafa who is making him play in his game style. After six- to eight-shot rallies, Roger's focus starts to go down. He's becoming hesitant or too impatient to end the point. He's struggling because the forehand of Rafa comes on his own backhand with heavy topspin and high rebound is preventing him from speeding up the pace.
Against Rafa, Roger isn't allowed to doubt. He has to throw caution to the wind, accept unforced errors and to possibly get passed at the net. But above all, he must dictate the rhythm. He must put the Mallorcan under pressure and shorten the points. Until now it's Rafa who is neutralizing Roger by sticking him on his backhand and forcing him to play high balls and and be uncomfortable.
It seems obivious, but it's still crucial. Roger's first serve is really great because it has everything needed at this level: accuracy, speed, and effects. He can slice on the deuce side and use the kick on the advantage side in order to get a player out of the court and get openings as soon as the second shot. Against Nadal, strategy demands constant aggressiveness and turning the first serve percentage up is the main key. Get it in, take the initiative on the point and go for broke on the second shot.
Attacking the second serves
Keeping up with this aim of depriving Nadal from time, Roger must, as Sampras was doing, be aggressive on the second serves. Rafa hates to be rushed when he prepares his shots. He needs time to play deep balls and to find his timing. So Roger must take the ball early and go in full force on Rafa's forehand. Sometimes he should follow his shots to the net; sometimes he should wait a bit to get a short ball. In any cases, Rafa's second serve is a big opportunity for Roger to dictate the point, to put the opponent under pressure and force him to play too short. Roger should really use it. Sure he'll be more prone to mistakes but will also get more winners this way. He has to put Nadal out of his comfort zone to prevent him from playing stuck on the baseline, what he likes the most.
Don't be scared of the net
One of Nadal's main strengths is to push his opponent to hit him the same shot again and again. His defensive skills are amazing so it's hard to get him out of the way. His topspin often makes opponents play far from the baseline, preventing them from taking the ball early. When it comes to rallies, Rafa is the best in the world. And it's enough of a reason for trying to shorten the points at the net. Roger isn't a serve and volley player, not the type who comes at the net because he feels comfortable and strong there. But he remains really good in the net game, so it has to be a tool when facing the Spaniard. It's the last step he has to make when he has taken the lead in a point. He'll often get passed but will get many points too and, even more important, he'll deprive Nadal from his best abilities: the point will be over before Nadal would have been able to bring back all those unreachable balls. Points will be shortened too. It's a little, but enough to disturb the Rafa machine.
Fitness, fitness, fitness
When one is facing Rafael Nadal, he has to be in his best possible shape and this for several reasons: The player you're facing is always going to be fitter. Nadal is the most in-shape player out there. That's what often happens on clay. Rafa's opponents seem to be fine for a time and then they're in a burn out. Mistakes come quickly and the games fly away.
To be continued ...
P.S.: Congratulations to Daria Gavrilova, member of my Academy, who won the juniors title of the U.S. Open and is currently the No. 1 player in the juniors ranking.
- Rafael Nadal