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Thursday October 6th, 2011

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal

After Roger Federer became the first player to beat Novak Djokovic in 2011, nemesis Rafael Nadal defeated him in the French Open final. (Jessica Kluetmeier/SI)

Last week in The Toss, SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno and Courtney Nguyen compared the excitement levels of the ATP and WTA. In our poll, an overwhelming majority (72 percent) thought the top-heavy ATP was more enthralling to watch than the topsy-turvy WTA. This week, SB Nation's Ben Rothenberg, a contributor to The New York Times' Straight Sets blog, joins Courtney in a hypothetical debate.

Today’s Toss: If Roger Federer had beaten Novak Djokovic in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, who would have won in a final between Federer and Rafael Nadal?

Courtney Nguyen: If not for "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," I don't think we'd be talking about Federer's first Slam-less year since 2002.

Admittedly, the numbers don't exactly help my case here. Federer hasn't beaten Nadal en route to a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2007. Nadal has a career 17-8 record against Federer, including 3-0 this year (2-0 on clay, 1-0 on hard court). The last time the two met at a hard-court Slam, Nadal won in five sets in Australia in 2009. While Federer always seemed to carry the edge on hard courts, their head-to-head on the surface is even at 4-4, with Fed failing to win on an outdoor hard court since the Shanghai Masters Cup in 2007.

But things were looking perfectly scripted for Federer in New York. He had come in under the radar (or as "under the radar" as he could be), and while all the talk focused on Djokovic, Nadal, rain and bubbling, he was making clinical work of his opposition. Federer looked reinvigorated.

I was most struck by his movement. He was quick to dance around to get into position to hit his forehand from that backhand corner and get on the offensive. Up until "The Forehand," Federer was playing a near-perfect match against Djokovic. He seemed clear in mind and purpose, embracing the challenge. In other words, he was looking and playing like a man with destiny on his side. Had he survived Djokovic and played Nadal in the final, I would have given him the edge on intangibles. He struck me as having a chip on his shoulder, wanting desperately to quiet the whispers and, perhaps most notably, knowing and believing that he could.

Lest I be accused of focusing too heavily on what amounts to a "gut feeling" about Fed's prospects (how very un-Moneyball of me!), Rafa's serve was a liability throughout his final against Djokovic and I'm not convinced he would have fared much better against the Swiss. In the past, Federer's willingness to chip back serves got him into trouble against Nadal, as he struggled to wrestle control of those neutral points away from a player who could pin him to the backhand corner with ease.

But Federer kicked up his aggression against Djokovic, hitting through more returns than I expected he would. If he transferred that level of aggression on his return games to a match against Nadal, the Spaniard would have had to work much harder to hold. While the rallies wouldn't have been as grueling as those against Djokovic, which eventually ground Nadal down to a level of exhaustion rarely seen, Rafa's inability to hold easily would have taken both a mental and physical toll.

Ben Rothenberg: For me, imagining what would have happened if Federer had been able to stop the seemingly unbeatable Djokovic in a Grand Slam semifinal and faced defending champion Nadal in the final isn't an entirely hypothetical proposition. The exact same scenario occurred in June at the French Open, and Nadal won.

Yes, I know there's a difference between tennis on clay courts and hard courts, especially in matches that involve Nadal. But with new Babolat balls, the French Open played faster than ever this year, helping Federer, if only slightly, in his battle against the clay-court G.O.A.T. Conversely, the slowing of the U.S. Open surface was more to Nadal's liking.

Sure, Federer is a vastly superior hard-court player to Nadal. The 2011 U.S. Open final was only Nadal's third Grand Slam final on a hard court, and it would have been Federer's 12th. And a large part of the reason that the overall Federer-Nadal head-to-head is so lopsided is because of Nadal's ability to reach clay-court finals during the part of his career when his hard-court game was at its worst. Fourteen of the 25 career meetings between the two have been on clay, an absurdly high ratio given that only one-third of the tennis calendar is played on the surface.

I agree that Federer would have had plenty of looks at Nadal's serve in a U.S. Open final, but I don't think it would have mattered ultimately. Federer's ability to generate chances hasn't slipped in the years since his dominance, but his ability to convert on those chances has dropped off dramatically. That's the scary part of Federer's 2011 for admirers of his game, like myself. His physical gifts appear nearly undiminished, but his mental toughness is nowhere to be found. Before the French, Federer had never lost a Grand Slam match after winning the first two sets, but has now done it in consecutive Slams. I don't know that I've ever seen Nadal blink under pressure, but it seems to be all Federer does now in big matches.

Nguyen: Federer's propensity to get tight in the big moments is indeed a major development in the Federer mythology. He's built a career (and a brand) on being calm, cool and precise, and we're seeing less and less of that Federer these days. Whether that's more attributable to age or competition is a separate (and very dicey) debate. While his ability to fire a big ace on break point or execute a perfect serve and volley in a tight tiebreaker used to be like clockwork, now I find myself waiting for his game to go off the rails. Talk about a shift.

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But Nadal-Federer matches are a different beast, and as much as we can focus on the technicalities of their matchup, I think a clash at the U.S. Open would have come down to one thing: confidence. Had Federer closed out Djokovic, he would have been the only man to beat Djokovic twice in 2011, both at a Slam. He would have done so playing aggressive tennis and asserting himself over a guy who has owned Nadal all year. We already saw how much a win over Djokovic amps him up. At Roland Garros, Federer played a superb first set against Nadal in the final before his rival dug in and showed why he is the greatest ever on clay. Now imagine that scenario but on hard courts, where Federer is more comfortable.

I think a five-set win over Djokovic, particularly after blowing a two-set lead, would have done wonders for Federer's mind going into the U.S. Open final. He would have been pushed to the limit and come out on top, both physically and mentally. He would have relished an opportunity to set his year right by playing Nadal in a final, this time on a surface that rewards his serve and aggression. Buoyed by his semifinal win, Federer would have seized the moment.

Rothenberg: Because of the nature of this hypothetical (and the fact that he, at this point, is almost undeniably the more interesting case study of the two), we've both focused our entire arguments on Federer, not Nadal. But there's a lot to be said about just how well Nadal was playing by the end of the Open.

Thanks to an incredibly uninspiring August (low-lighted by a loss in Montreal to Ivan Dodig), Nadal came into New York playing some decidedly subpar tennis. He gave himself every chance to lose at least one set to Andrey Golubev in the first round, an alarming match given that Golubev had recently put together an 18-match losing streak.

But as the tournament rounded into its second week, Nadal began playing at least as well as he had at the 2010 U.S. Open. His serve wasn't all that it was the year before, but the rest of his game was firing on all cylinders. Nadal angrily stormed off the court trailing Gilles Muller 0-3 in the first set of their rain-delayed fourth-round match, appearing rattled and abnormally petulant. But when the match resumed the next day, Nadal rolled. He came back to win the first set, and then lost a combined three games in the second and third sets. His performance the next round against Andy Roddick was even more dominant, losing only six total games against the big-serving American. A third consecutive Grand Slam semifinal victory over Andy Murray was made to look routine.

Sure, Federer would have been confident going into the final, but Nadal would have been just as much so. Add to that his 3-0 record against Federer this year, especially his demoralizingly dominant 6-3, 6-2 win over him in Miami. I think Nadal would have entered that U.S. Open final with as much confidence as ever, and Federer would have gone into it seeing his perennial nemesis and tormentor across the net. You decide: Vote in our poll above and sound off in the comments for your take on The Toss.

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