Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal; the old dogs are still learning new tricks in battle for global supremacy

Simon Briggs
The Telegraph
Nadal will take on Federer for a place in Sunday's final - AFP
Nadal will take on Federer for a place in Sunday's final - AFP

Gary Neville once wrote in this paper that football takes place on two different levels: all the hype and noise and controversy on one hand, as opposed to the actual ball-kicking on the other.

When we think about tomorrow’s show-stopper at Wimbledon – the collector’s item that is Roger Federer’s 40th meeting with Rafael Nadal – a similar rule applies.

These two titans create a sense of awe with their records, endorsements and celebrity admirers. They are the Achilles and Hector of tennis – near-deities whose fan-bases run into tens of millions. And the commercial appeal of tomorrow’s match can be measured by the mind-boggling ticket prices quoted on Wimbledon official debenture site: £7,600 for a pair.

In all the hullabaloo, it is easy to forget that the real business happens within the 11 painted white lines that make up a tennis court. Neither man has ever lost sight of that essential lesson. On Thursday, Nadal performed his preparations on Court 7, and in an adjustment to his usual routine, he spent 20 minutes hitting slice backhands.

This will be no coincidence. He was surely preparing for a particular line of attack. To adapt a quote originally applied to William Gladstone, Nadal does not even drink tea without a strategy.

<span>It's a trip down memory lane for Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
It's a trip down memory lane for Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon Credit: Getty Images

When you have played each other as many times as these two – and for as many big prizes – the similarities to a World Chess Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are striking, even down to the entourages trying to pre-empt your opponent’s next move.

As Novak Djokovic’s analyst, Craig O’Shannessy, said of the Big Three last month: “There’s a hidden game going on where they know the weaknesses so they’re modifying and adjusting their game plans much more than the average person would realise.”

Just being able to compute your options on this exalted level is a talent in itself. For most players, even professionals, tennis is a source of as much frustration as satisfaction – hence the shards of broken rackets that litter the world’s biggest stadiums.

But the Big Three are different. In a combined total of just over 20 hours on the court this fortnight, Federer and Nadal have committed only 163 unforced errors – which adds up to less than 10 per cent of their shots.

Because they have mastered the mechanics of their perfectly grooved swings, as well as their own psychological spaces, they have more free head space than their rivals. Which may explain why Federer’s galaxy brain has long been known as the ultimate tracker of serves, logging his opponent’s choices like a card-counter in a casino, so that he knows which way to jump when break point arrives.

Increasingly, this uncanny gift is supported by professional number-crunchers. As The Telegraph revealed last week, Federer has a private and previously unreported deal with Golden Set Analytics, a Californian company staffed by mathematicians and economists who churn out vast screeds of data.

Some may scoff at the idea of paying a hefty six-figure sum for these readouts, which then have to be parsed by your coaching staff. But if they help you win one extra point at the right moment, that can be worth millions of pounds, let alone the invaluable cachet that comes with finishing this era of legends on top of the grand-slam winners’ table.

Think back to last year’s extraordinary semi-final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, which lasted more than five hours yet was decided by the most minuscule of margins. If Nadal had broken in his opponent’s penultimate service game, as he had a chance to do, he would have changed the result, and then faced a half-crippled Kevin Anderson in a foregone conclusion of a final.

The overall shape of the great “Fedal” rivalry favours Nadal, with 24 wins to 15. Yet the balance has been partly redressed since the start of 2017, when Federer returned from a six-month injury sabbatical and won the Australian Open straight off the bat, beating Nadal in an epic final that perhaps ranks second only to their legendary 2008 Wimbledon meeting in drama.

This shift in emphasis was no mere happenstance, for nothing changes between these great champions without a reason. Federer came out of his lengthy break determined to end his suffering on the backhand wing.

Equipped with his expanded 97-inch racket-head, and urged on by a new coach (Ivan Ljubicic), Federer started crushing the ball like his compatriot Stan Wawrinka.

His backhand return of serve was a revelation – particularly the diagonal ball hit inside-out from the deuce court. To return to the chess analogy, this unfamiliar shot was akin to a grandmaster coming up with a new variation of the Sicilian Defence.

Nadal had spent more than a decade targeting the Federer backhand with sliding lefty serves and high-bouncing forehand bombs, but now he was forced to return to his own drawing board.

<span>Nadal had spent more than a decade targeting the Federer backhand with sliding lefty serves</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
Nadal had spent more than a decade targeting the Federer backhand with sliding lefty serves Credit: Getty Images

The science of marginal gains will be in play today on Centre Court – a venue that has not seen a Federer-Nadal clash for 11 years.

Even Wimbledon’s TV viewers have been largely denied the chance for repeat viewing of that 2008 show-stopper, which might have become as much of a rain-delay staple as the Borg-McEnroe tie-break but for the unveiling of the tournament’s first roof a year later.

Looking back, it seems bizarre that the 2008 final was seen at the time as a possible Federer swansong. The fact that both men remain jointly pre-eminent – along with Djokovic as the eternal third wheel – stands as a tribute to their never-ending search for self-improvement.

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