Rivalries Of 2017: Federer vs. Nadal
It is one of the greatest rivalries of all time, but, with both players recovering from injury as the curtain drew on the 2016 season, there were doubts of its renewal going forward. Their streak of 12 consecutive seasons with at least one encounter had come to a halt, and it was looking improbable that the drama would be rekindled with the same gripping intensity.
Would a new chapter be written in 2017? Not even Federer and Nadal could have predicted such a dramatic flip of the script. As the calendar turned to the new year, both players rediscovered their vintage form behind resurgent campaigns. Fans across the sporting world would not be disappointed as the rivalry was renewed in earnest. Not just once or twice, but on four occasions and with a trophy at stake in three of them.
A catalogue of pulsating clashes had marked their FedEx ATP Head2Head series over the years and they wasted no time in January, kicking off the season with a five-set classic in the Australian Open final. Eight years after they last squared off for the title at Melbourne Park - won by Nadal in five sets - Federer would exact his revenge. The Swiss recovered from a 1-3 deficit in the decider to capture his 18th Grand Slam championship and fifth Down Under. The two gladiators left the left the capacity crowd on Rod Laver Arena on the edge of their seats for three hours and 38 minutes.
The drama could not have been more palpable, with Federer trailing their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 23-11 to enter the year, including five losses in their previous six encounters. But a seismic shift would ensue in 2017 and their Melbourne meeting would set the tone for the year to come. Federer put an authoritative stamp on the rivalry with a significant change in tactics. The Swiss soared behind an offensive assault, predicated on his serve and a fearless backhand barrage, while Nadal was unable to effectively adjust his own gameplan.
Traditionally, Nadal had owned Federer's backhand with his curling lefty serve and forehand, but the Swiss turned that vulnerability into a weapon. With new coach Ivan Ljubicic, he refused to press or hesitate from the baseline, rather swinging through his backhand for stunning winners. Federer had accumulated six backhand winners in the first four sets of the Aussie Open final, but he crushed eight in the decider.
“I’m out of words,” said Federer, a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 winner. “I'd like to congratulate Rafa on an amazing comeback. There are no draws in tennis, but I would have been very happy to accept one and share it with Rafa tonight.”
With a bigger frame and fewer shanks, the 2017 version of Federer's backhand proved to be like nothing Nadal had ever seen. He refused to be bullied by Nadal's fearsome forehand and took every opportunity to step inside the baseline and go on offense, hitting a steady stream of clean winners to all corners of the court.
Federer defeated Nadal 6-2, 6-3 in the fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open, before eventually clinching his fifth trophy at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. It marked the first time he had taken three straight meetings in their rivalry. And another clash would ensue just two weeks later, as Federer and Nadal battled for the Miami Open presented by Itau title. Same match-up and same result. The Basel native extended his run of dominance with a 6-3, 6-4 victory, cementing a 19-1 start to the season.
Federer would complete a perfect 4-0 season against his longtime rival, also adding a 6-4, 6-3 victory in the Shanghai Rolex Masters final - his 27th at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 level. One glance at the stat sheet tells the whole story. Federer broke down Nadal's vaunted return game throughout the year with precision strikes on serve, claiming a combined 80 per cent of first serve points to Nadal's 62 per cent. Quick service games put constant pressure on Nadal's delivery and the Spaniard would concede 15 breaks, saving just 63 per cent of break points. Federer, meanwhile, turned aside 82 per cent of Nadal's break chances.
But while Federer started stronger in 2017, it was Nadal who had the last laugh. The Spaniard is known for his relentless work ethic on the court and that was on full display throughout the remainder of the season, en route to claiming year-end No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. The 31-year-old denied Federer the top spot, despite the Swiss lifting a tour-leading seven trophies. A ruthless clay-court campaign in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Roland Garros, in addition to an impressive hard-court run at the US Open and China Open in Beijing, vaulted Nadal to No. 1.
"The year played out the way it did and Rafa was better," Federer added. "He deserves to be there. I'm really happy for him because he had a rough season as well in 2016. It's great for him."
As the spotlight grew and the drama built to a gripping crescendo in 2017, both stars raised their games to new heights. Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev may have staked their claim for a changing of the guard atop the ATP World Tour, but Federer and Nadal have refused to concede their mantles just yet.
"He won two Grand Slams, a few Masters 1000s and is second in the Race with a lot of points, so he played well for the whole season," Nadal said about Federer. "He played very high level of tennis during the whole season, so well done for him and I'm happy to see him play well."
Federer vs. Nadal: 2017 Meetings
||Hard||F||Federer|| 6-4, 6-3
||Hard||F||Federer|| 6-3, 6-4
|Indian Wells||Hard||4R||Federer|| 6-2, 6-3
| Australian Open
||Federer|| 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3