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The Takedown

May 18, 2009
May 18, 2009

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May 18, 2009

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
BASEBALL
NBA PLAYOFFS
  • The greatest testament to the Lakers' star's offensive brilliance might be the lengths to which Rockets defensive specialist Shane Battier will go to stop him

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The Takedown

How did Rafael Nadal humble the great Roger Federer and take his No. 1 ranking? It wasn't a simple triumph of will or youth or brute strength. It was the tennis, stupid

The number thatbest summed up Roger Federer in his prime? There are plenty to choose from: therecord 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, the 13 major titles, the 10 straightGrand Slam finals and 19 straight semifinals. But let's try this number: zero.Because the most astonishing thing about Federer's four-year run atop protennis, from February 2004 to August 2008, may be the difference between hisexalted estimation of his own skills and what he actually did. There wasnone.

This is an article from the May 18, 2009 issue

For those inclinedto deflate the self-adoring, though, Federer didn't present an easy target. Hisoffhand tone imbued the most conceited comments—from the frequent "I wasalways so talented" to this reading of the crowd at his 2007 U.S. Openmatches: "I have the feeling they're watching greatness"—with genialdetachment. Hearing Federer speak of himself was like listening to a professordescribe, while paring his fingernails, the work of his most brilliantstudent.

And even if somewere irked by such statements, could they really dispute them? Federer was onlyechoing the tributes of John McEnroe and Rod Laver, who hailed him as thegame's new gold standard; Pete Sampras, who predicted that Federer wouldshatter his record of 14 major singles titles and finish with 19; and AndreAgassi, who in 2005 said Federer "plays a game in a very special way. Ihaven't seen it before." Everyone agreed: Federer would end up the bestmale player ever. His talent was indeed extraordinary. Greatness was exactlywhat we were seeing.

Then, late lastspring, all that abruptly changed. Federer woke up in Paris on Sunday, June 8,with history in his grasp. Besides having won 12 Grand Slam titles, he wasabout to play his third straight final at the French Open, the lone major hehad never won. If Federer's career had ended right there, before he faced worldNo. 2 Rafael Nadal, a convincing case could be made that he had alreadysurpassed Pistol Pete, who never reached one singles final at RolandGarros.

But Federer'scareer didn't end there. By sundown that day he had suffered the worst loss ofhis 10-year career, a 6--1, 6--3, 6--0 thrashing. Hardly anyone had seen itcoming; though Nadal was the three-time defending French Open champion, Federerhad beaten him on clay the year before in Hamburg—by a score that also includeda third-set bagel—and had won the Australian Open, the last five Wimbledons andthe last four U.S. Opens. "I can beat Nadal on all surfaces: clay, grass,indoor, hard," Federer said in the summer of 2007. "And once you beat aplayer three or four times, you know you can beat him every singletime."

In retrospect thatstatement marked the first disconnect between the Great One's words and hisdeeds. Federer hasn't beaten Nadal on clay since. Worse, at last year'sWimbledon, Nadal beat Federer, winner of 65 straight matches on grass, on whatamounted to his home court. "A disaster," Federer said after the epicfive-set final. He salvaged his year—and maintained a shaky dominion on hardcourts—by winning his fifth straight U.S. Open after Nadal was eliminated byeventual finalist Andy Murray. Then, on Feb. 1, Nadal beat Federer again, 6--2in the fifth set, to win the Australian Open and raise the flag over Federer'slast redoubt, asphalt. Federer wept at the trophy ceremony. "God, this iskilling me," he said.

It was the tennisequivalent of the British surrender at Yorktown, where an empire retreated anda band supposedly played The World Turned Upside Down. In completing one of thegreat reversals in sports history, Nadal hadn't just dethroned King Roger, hehad harried him all over the world and dismantled his mightiest weapons.

Nadal has nowbeaten Federer in five straight finals and 13 of their last 19 matches, and ifthey meet again in the final of the 2009 French Open, which begins on May 24,Nadal will be the prohibitive favorite. What was once a great sports rivalryhas turned into a rout. How can Federer be deemed the best ever when he mightnot be the best of his own era?

But more immediatequestions still haven't been answered. How did this takedown happen? What,exactly, did we just see?

It has the feel ofclassical myth. Twenty-eight years ago the gods decided to create the perfecttennis player, tall and lean and as light on his feet as a blown feather. Theygave him everything: great hands, a stiletto serve, ground strokes that thesport's hero, Sampras, called better than his own. The perfect tennis playercould speak four languages. He was polite to officials, patient with the mediaand so gracious in victory that opponents almost didn't mind losing to him.After a while, this began to gall the gods, who are, after all, capriciousbeings. They don't like to be bored. And, as always, they had given themselvesan out.

They had left onesmall flaw in the perfect tennis player's game. Few could expose it. Indeed,years would pass before anyone realized it existed. The pro tour is dominatedby righthanders, whose crosscourt backhands are incapable of generating thespeed, spin and high bounce necessary to make the weakness plain; only alefty's forehand could probe it consistently enough. But it was there, a placehigh on the backhand side where the perfect tennis player's normally impeccableone-hander, which could absorb the heaviest strokes and counter them withpinpoint accuracy, faltered enough to make him human.

Now the gods justneeded a tool. And in Rafael Nadal, they found it. As a 10-year-old in the townof Manacor, on the Spanish island of Majorca, the naturally righthanded Rafahad played two-handed off both wings. But his uncle Toni, a former table-tennischamp and club tennis pro who was also the boy's coach, suggested that he dropa hand while hitting off his left side and, while he was at it, why not justplay lefthanded? Rafa liked being coached by his uncle. He did what he wastold.

At first the boyhit his strokes fairly flat, and Toni soon realized he needed a bigger weapon.So, recalling his own spin-happy Ping-Pong days, Toni persuaded Rafa to developwhat some players call a reverse forehand—in which, instead of swinging theracket across his body and finishing above his right shoulder, he jerks theracket back after striking the ball and finishes above his left—to impartextreme topspin. Thanks to his remarkable racket speed and to advances instring technology, Rafa was eventually able to hit shots that rotated at anunprecedented 3,200 revolutions per minute (compared with Federer's 2,500),fell inside the lines and, most important, bounced like a frightenedjackrabbit, high and away from the perfect player's backhand. The stroke'simpact? Eric Hechtman, a hitting partner for both players, says returningNadal's forehand feels "like you're breaking off your arm."

In 2004 Federer hadjust risen to No. 1 when he faced the 17-year-old Nadal for the first time, inMiami. Nadal won 6--3, 6--3, and Federer walked off the court puzzled. "Icouldn't quite play the way I wanted to," he said. "He doesn't hit theball flat and hard; it's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce,bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. I tried to get out of it butkind of couldn't."

Nadal, in otherwords, was able to do what no other man could. He made the tour's most elegantplayer—the one with the cream-colored Wimbledon sport coat and the just-sohair—feel awkward. Nadal forced Federer's backhand far out of its wheelhouse,or what Andy Roddick calls the pocket. "It's a huge advantage for Rafa tobe able to pull him off [the court] to his weak side," Roddick says."And we're talking about a foot differential between being in his pocketand being out of it. Play that enough times? It makes a difference."

Nadal won five oftheir next six meetings, four of them on clay, and his unyielding nature andbreathtaking defensive play lifted him to No. 2 in the world. It wasn't enough."When I was a kid, I always thought about Wimbledon," Nadal says."I love that atmosphere. In Wimbledon the Spanish players never did verywell. It was a challenge for me." Anyone questioning Nadal's resolvestopped in 2006, after he won his second French Open. The next day he took theEurostar to London, raced to the Queens Club and practiced two hours on thegrass, his grunts resounding into darkness. There was only one man in hisway.

"Withoutquestion he put a bull's-eye on Federer," says former world No. 1 JimCourier. "Nadal was Number 2 for how long—160 weeks, the most consecutiveweeks at Number 2 for any player? And he wanted to be Number 1. So he found away to get there."

Toni and Rafa bothknew that Rafa's forehand, whose height was lessened by grass and hard courts,couldn't do the job alone. Every dimension of his game had to improve. Toniwould list his nephew's deficiencies, stroke by stroke, each time they facedFederer. "He's so much better than you," Toni would say, "but ifyou believe and work, you can win."

Indeed, it has beeneasy to reduce Nadal's triumph to mere belief and work, as if he were someimplacable primitive: will personified. The truth, however, is that Camp Rafais a fairly sophisticated operation. A Majorcan trainer, Juan Forcades,oversees Nadal's conditioning. Physical therapist Rafael Maymo spends much ofhis day taking notes on when and what Nadal eats; when he goes to sleep andwhen he wakes; how much time he spends hitting forehands, backhands andvolleys. Toni, meanwhile, has harped on his nephew's weaknesses so effectivelythat even in the earliest rounds of last year's French Open, Rafa was scared oflosing. Toni reassured him—"You're Number 1 on clay!"—but it didn'tmatter. "He never relaxes," Toni says. "He's so afraid for everymatch."

From mid-2006through '07 Federer took five of his seven matches with Nadal, including bothWimbledon finals, and he seemed to have mastered his young rival at last. ButNadal took a major step by pushing Federer to five sets in the '07 Wimbledonfinal. As the challenger he had the psychological advantage of chasing, andunlike Federer he was determined to keep adding weapons. To beat Federer ongrass and hard courts, Toni and Rafa were methodically upgrading Rafa's game,making it less reliant on defense and more geared to dictating play andconserving energy.

"I had toimprove," Rafa says. "Sure, having in front of me one guy like Federer,one complete player, it's always pushing me. But I always believed. I thought,I am young, I can improve a lot of things. Without that, I am Number 2, so if Iimprove I have a chance to be in the top position."

These days it'sfashionable to say that Nadal has climbed inside Federer's head. But he neededa ladder to get there. The first rung: consistently staking out an offensiveposition, or, as Nadal puts it, "always trying to go more inside the court.That gives me more control of the point, no? Before I was maybe one meterbehind the baseline, two meters behind." The second rung: a better serve.In his early years on tour Nadal won most of his points with preposterous savesand sterling shotmaking; his serve was strictly a point starter, a predictableslice on which bold returners such as James Blake feasted. Nadal ranked 51st onthe ATP tour in serving in 2004, winning just 77% of his service games. AfterRoddick beat him in straight sets at that year's U.S. Open, the American starwalked off the court thinking, He's not going to crack the top five if thatserve doesn't improve.

It did. Nadal'sserves, which were then clocked at an average speed of 99 mph, are nowtraveling an average of 16 mph faster—and he regularly hits the upper 120s onthe radar gun. But it wasn't just a matter of hitting the ball harder. In fact,Toni says, one reason Federer had the upper hand in 2007 was that he pushedRafa to serve with too much velocity, and the speed of Federer's returns threwoff Nadal's timing. "So we had to learn other things," Toni says.According to Roddick, Nadal now hits to both sides of the service box on hisfirst and second deliveries. "He can kick it, he can slice it," Roddicksays. "You don't really know what's coming." Nadal finished last yearranked No. 1 in the world—and fourth in serving, winning 88% of his servicegames.

Nadal also greatlyimproved his backhand. He flattened out the two-hander and sharpened hisone-handed slice, learning to use it for defense, changes of pace, approachshots and drop shots. Mesmerized by what Courier calls Nadal's"brutish" style, commentators still portray Federer-Nadal matches asbeauty versus beast, matador versus bull. But Nadal's devotion to craft beliesthat caricature. No one can match Federer for artistry, but Nadal has twoattributes just as valuable: imagination and the audacity to use it. "He'sby far the smartest player of all," says seven-time Grand Slam champ MatsWilander. "He's not afraid of changing. With a mind like that? There's nolimit."

The results haveleft Federer demoralized. "To Roger, Nadal's tennis is unorganized: big,loopy topspin forehands, that slice serve, now he's slicing his backhand, he'slefthanded—[it affects Roger] mentally," Wilander explains. "WhenRoger's in his comfort zone, he's a serious fighter. But when he's not in it,he's not able to fight."

The moment whenthat became clear couldn't have been bigger. Serving for last year's Wimbledonchampionship at 8--7, 0--15, with night falling, Nadal ventured as far out ofhis own comfort zone as possible. He had stunned everyone by outserving Federerthroughout the fifth set, but now he took it a step further. Nadalserve-and-volleyed. Then he did it again, and again, winning two of his threeapproaches to the net, beating the ultimate all-court player at his own game.Against such nerve Federer crumbled. His final forehand fell short. An eraended.

Strangely enough2008 might have been Federer's greatest year—better than his 92--5 run in '06,better than the three years in which he won nine majors—because he battled hisbody from start to finish. A bout of mononucleosis in late 2007 had enlargedhis spleen, ravaged his powers of recovery and ruined his off-season training;from the '08 Australian Open on, he played a step slow, which threw off histiming and sent his confidence tumbling. Yet Federer still made the AustralianOpen semifinals and the French Open final, labored back from two sets down tolose the longest Wimbledon final ever by the slimmest of margins, and won theU.S. Open—Hall of Fame stuff for anyone else.

"Federer wasill all season long, and the story was completely missed," Courier says."He hid it from everybody because it's his responsibility to not showweakness, and he played through it because of his commitment to the tour. Whichwas a mistake. Mario Ancic [the Croatian once ranked No. 7] missed more thansix months on the tour with a mono bout; it's a serious illness for ahigh-level performance athlete. Roger needed to get off the tour and gethealthy again."

Last October,Federer conceded at last, retiring from a tournament for the first time in 763matches because of lower back pain. It has continued to bother him, but historywon't care. Nadal "shot him through the heart by winning Wimbledon,"Courier says. "Roger was not at full tilt, but it doesn't matter, becauseit changed the energy between them—possibly for the rest of theircareers."

Federer's breakdownjust before Nadal received the '09 Australian Open winner's trophy was the mostobvious sign of the shift, but there had been earlier indications. Asked theday before the final whether he relished another shot at his archrival, Federersaid, "Honestly, I preferred the days when I didn't have a rival."Nadal had exhausted himself in a five-hour, 14-minute semifinal the day before,but as soon as the final began, Federer seemed out of sorts. Worse, unlikeNadal when he was No. 2, Federer didn't commit himself to attacking his rival,to shaking him out of his comfort zone. Twice Federer ran around his backhandand staggered Nadal with forehand winners, but he never did that again."Twice in 4½ hours?" Wilander asks. "Why not show Nadal somethingdifferent?"

The answer lies inthe regal language always used to describe Federer. Born to rule, he has neverbeen interested in fighting for power; that's why in his current exile he looksless like Napoleon plotting on Elba than like the puzzled Czar Nicholas IIwaiting for the world to right itself and restore his throne.

This attitudeperplexes even Federer's staunchest admirers. Former players, coaches, peers:They all accept that his talent is, as Wilander says, "crazy," but hispassive response to Nadal goes against what they've been taught a superstardoes when he's down. Muhammad Ali came up with rope-a-dope, an aging MichaelJordan perfected the fadeaway jumper: The great ones adjust, sending a signalnot only to their rivals but also to all the newly emboldened. It's no shockthat following Nadal's trail, No. 3 Andy Murray has won six of his last sevenmatches against Federer, and No. 4 Novak Djokovic has won three of their lastfive. "What makes me scratch my head," Courier says, "is how Rogerdoesn't shift."

The remedy mostoften prescribed for Federer's ailing game is hiring a coach such as DarrenCahill, who once counseled Agassi. Federer toyed with the idea in theoff-season, but that he didn't follow up seemed further proof that he's nothearing alarm bells. Others suggest that he serve-and-volley more, or play moredoubles to replicate the Olympic preparation that helped him win the gold medalin doubles in Beijing and the U.S. Open singles title last September. But ifFederer insists on staying back and winning rallies from the baseline, theconsensus is that he must shorten points to save energy for the decisive thirdand fifth sets he has lately been losing: He has to hit more low, short slicesto throw off Nadal's rhythm, and he must put more bite on his flatterstrokes.

Federer did that inthe Australian Open final, but only when desperate; the instant he felt he hadgained the momentum, he went back to the game on which he built his empire—andthat Nadal solved long ago. "Roger still feels he's just better [thanNadal]," Courier says. "And, frankly, he's not."

On March 30, at theSony Ericsson Open at Key Biscayne, Fla., Nadal beat 74th-ranked Frederico Gil7--5, 6--3, walked off the court and disappeared. Maymo waited in the lockerroom until Nadal showed 15 minutes later, steaming from a sprint on theelliptical trainer. "I wasn't happy with my play," he said, "so Ipunished myself."

The next nightFederer, soon to be married to his longtime girlfriend and manager, MirkaVavrinec, with whom he is expecting a child, downplayed the idea that he needsto adjust his game. He said he felt fresh, back in shape at last. "That'sbeen my problem, not really Rafa or Andy or Djokovic," he said. "I feellike I'm about to turn the corner."

Four days laterFederer lost to Djokovic in three sets, but more notable was how, down a breakin the third, his forehand—once the signature shot of the men's game—desertedhim. He danced forward as he had so often, an easy approach shot waiting forhim at the T, swung ... and dumped the ball into the net. Federer stared at hisracket a second, then smashed it on the ground. It made all the highlightshows.

But as the lossespiled up over the spring—to Stanislas Wawrinka in Monte Carlo, to Djokovicagain in Rome—another image from Key Biscayne came to mind. Following Federer'slast win there, after he fielded questions in English, then Swiss-German,someone asked if he could answer a few in Spanish. This is part of tennis's lawof succession: The new No. 1's mother tongue becomes a tour lingua franca.Nadal had deciphered the language of Federer's game, but those waiting to seeif Federer has the stomach to respond in kind would find nothing encouragingthis day.

"I'm not thereyet," Federer said, trying to grin. "Maybe in the next life."

How can Federer be deemed the best ever when he mightnot be the best of his own era?
"Honestly," Federer said at the Australian Open,"I preferred the days when I didn't have a rival."

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PHOTOPhotograph by CORINNE DUBREUIL/ABACAUSA.COMTOO MUCH TO BEAR Having lost to Nadal on grass at Wimbledon last July (opposite), Federer cried when he bowed to him again in February on the Australian hard courts.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by CORINNE DUBREUIL/ABACAUSA.COM [Seecaption above]PHOTOIAN WALTON/GETTY IMAGESSAY UNCLE Toni (bottom) told Rafa how to hit his forehand (left) and, lately, his volley (below) and backhand slice.PHOTOJESSICA KLUETMEIER (FOREHAND)[See caption above]PHOTOCLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES (VOLLEY)[See caption above]PHOTOANTOINE COUVERCELLE/TENNIS MAG/DPPI/ICON SMI (TONI)[See caption above]PHOTOSIMON BRUTYSPACE INVADER Nadal (top) even rushed the net during his epic Wimbledon win over Federer.PHOTOLYDIE/NIKO/SIPAGREAT SPORT Federer (left) was gracious after Nadal beat him in the French Open final for the third straight time last June.