Sports

Old Man, New Trick

How the 37-year-old Roger Federer changed his game to beat Rafael Nadal.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal embrace at the net.
Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain in the 2019 Wimbledon men’s semifinal.
Pool/Getty Images

If you go back and watch the highlights of the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final—and you should, considering it’s the greatest tennis match of all time—you’ll see Gwen Stefani sitting next to Roger Federer’s dad. You’ll also see a 22-year-old Rafael Nadal in a tank top and poofy shorts, vibrating manically between points and snarling after every forehand winner. The 26-year-old Federer, who’d won five straight Wimbledons—Nadal had yet to win one—looks like a champion and/or the preppy villain in a movie about a Swiss boarding school, taking the court in a cream-colored, gold-trimmed, monogrammed, button-up cardigan. But when the ball’s in play, Federer doesn’t seem super-duper confident. He wants to win and hopes he can win, but he isn’t sure he can handle the dude in the tank top and poofy shorts.

The problem, for Federer, was his backhand. Before I re-watched those highlights, I’d forgotten how often he ran around it, doing whatever he could to avoid striking the ball from his weaker side. Nadal, predictably, peppered Federer’s backhand corner, forcing him to reply with sliced one-handers and topspin bloops. Federer fans viewed his backhands through tented fingers, each one a potential embarrassment. Federer’s best shot of the final—a driven backhand pass down the line, when he was match point down in the fourth-set tiebreak—was spectacular precisely because it was so unexpected. Per Tennis Abstract, Federer hit 319 backhand groundstrokes that day. Just four of them went for winners. Nadal won the match in five sets, 6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5), 6–7 (8), 9–7.

Federer, at this point, was near the peak of his powers. Going into Wimbledon, he’d made 10 of the previous 11 Grand Slam finals, winning seven of them; the three losses had all come to Nadal at the French Open. After losing to Nadal at Wimbledon, Federer made another six major finals in a row, winning three. Even so, that match in 2008 felt like an inflection point, the moment when Nadal imposed his own greatness on the greatest player of all time. The sport’s pecking order would never be the same.

Fast forward 11 years, and the sport’s pecking order is … pretty much exactly the same. In 2008, Nadal, Federer, and Novak Djokovic were playing a game within the game, fighting over the top spot as everyone else on tour battled it out for fourth. In 2019, the same three players are in the same three positions, challenging each other while otherwise remaining unchallenged. This is unprecedented, bizarre, and delightful, given that sports doesn’t typically do graceful encores. But persistence shouldn’t be mistaken for stagnancy. The 33-year-old Nadal has hiked up his shorts and added oomph to his serve. The 37-year-old Federer has packed away his gold-trimmed cardigan and rebuilt his backhand.

Federer started ripping one-handers when he returned from knee troubles in 2017, with the help of a bigger racket. While that larger sweet spot gave him more margin for error when swinging big, Federer’s knee injury—a torn meniscus suffered while giving his kids a bath—was perhaps more crucial to the shot’s development, as it gave him a long, unbroken chunk of time to transform his weakness into a weapon. A 2017 New York Times Magazine piece describes “an epic 20-set [practice] match” against the French player Lucas Pouille, one in which Federer “hit thousands of backhands with very little regard for where they landed. After all those stress-free reps, he grew more and more comfortable letting them fly.”

At the 2017 Australian Open, Federer’s first official tournament after the injury layoff, he looked more than comfortable letting them fly. Federer largely eschewed his usual defensive slice in an inspirational victory over Nadal in Australia, one in which he came back from a break down in the fifth set. His confidence hasn’t wavered since. Before a straight-sets defeat at this year’s French Open, Federer had won five in a row against Nadal, merrily pinging backhands all the while.

And yet, this version of Roger Federer—an older man with a new trick—didn’t quite seem real to me until I saw him at Wimbledon on Friday, standing across the net from Nadal on Centre Court for the first time in more than a decade. The two men had played 21 matches in the intervening years, with Nadal winning 12, but they hadn’t met on grass. Last we saw them, Nadal was hoisting the Wimbledon trophy at dusk, while Federer (back in his cardigan) looked on as the newly anointed runner-up. As Federer got set to serve on Friday, ESPN’s John McEnroe whispered, “The wait is over.” The first time he swung the racket, Federer hit an ace down the T.

The second point was a 12-shot rally, one that ended with Nadal forcing Federer to spray a forehand long. On ESPN, Chris Fowler said, “Roger won’t want too many of those rallies today.” Any long exchange of groundstrokes, the thinking went, was to Nadal’s advantage, given his skills as a retriever and his impenetrability on both the forehand and backhand sides. In 2008 at Wimbledon, Nadal won 51 percent of the total points—209 to Federer’s 204—but 55 percent of rallies that went seven shots or longer. For Federer to win, he’d have to keep the points short, dominating with his serve and rushing the net, while using his new backhand to minimize the damage he suffered from the back of the court.

That’s not how the match played out. Federer and Nadal did play shorter rallies than they had previously, but that was largely thanks to Nadal’s improved serve. In 2008, 18 percent of Nadal’s serves were aces, unreturned, or led to forced errors; in 2019, that number leaped to 34 percent. Federer compensated by winning the majority of points on Nadal’s second serve. And despite Fowler’s admonition, he also won the majority—56 percent, compared with just 45 percent in 2008—of the rallies that went seven shots or longer.

With the match tied one set all and Federer up a break, Nadal had a chance to get the break back. Federer, though, got to deuce by winning a 23-shot exchange, driving three backhand groundstrokes and scooping an absurd half-volley backhand off the baseline. Three points later, Federer won a 25-shot rally, hitting over six backhands before Nadal made a forehand error. He held serve one point later, and he’d hang on to win the set.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Federer beat Nadal—which he did, in four sets, 7–6 (3), 1–6, 6–3, 6–4—by dominating him from the baseline. The majority of the points—60 percent—lasted three shots or less, and Nadal won a decent number of the longer ones, particularly in the nerve-jangling final game, which went to three deuces before Federer closed it out. But it also wouldn’t be correct to underplay Federer’s stylistic evolution, and how it made this match feel.

On Friday, the greatest player of all time did not hit hopeful backhands, ones best viewed through tented fingers. If his backhand was not his greatest strength, it was also not a notable weakness. In 2008, Federer could’ve beaten Nadal if only he’d been able to overcome his biggest flaw. In 2019, he didn’t have to transcend his defects because he had no defects to transcend. Whether or not he beats Djokovic on Sunday—and given how Djokovic is playing, beating him would be an upset—this Wimbledon will be a victory for Federer. He still trails Nadal 24–16 in their head-to-head matches, and at this stage of their careers he’s never going to level that score. But Federer can now play his biggest rival on even (or, depending on the surface, more than even) terms. In the Wimbledon semis, he didn’t just look like a champion. He was one.

Thanks to Tennis Abstract for all the statistics used in this story.