Federer outclasses Nadal and takes over storied rivalry

This year, the personal rivalry between Federer and Nadal, which the latter once dominated, reversed course completely. After overcoming Nadal in the Australian Open final, Federer crushed the Spaniard in the Indian Wells final and then outclassed him again in the Miami Open final.

Roger Federer poses with the trophy against the backdrop of the Miami skyline. He outclassed Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in the Miami Open final. That makes it four straight victories over Nadal, a record Federer shares with Nikolay Davydenko.   -  AP

As Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were warming up for the 37th episode of their historic rivalry, ESPN analyst and 1980s standout Darren Cahill rightly exalted it. “You don’t have to be a tennis fan to know about this rivalry, to love it, to embrace it. It goes beyond tennis. In 50 years’ time, we’ll look back at this rivalry, and it will be (considered) one of the greatest in sports and not just in tennis.”

Just two months ago, the two ageless legends turned back the calendar to treat us to yet another classic in the Australian Open final. With scintillating shot-making, Federer rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to grab the last five games for the coveted title. That ended the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate, at least for this year. Federer’s 18 Grand Slam titles clearly trumped Nadal’s 14. Only diehard Nadal loyalists objected, pointing to his still-decisive 23-12 lead in head-to-head matches. After all, they argued, you can’t be rated the best ever if you lose almost two-thirds of the time to your archrival.

Although Rafael Nadal was crestfallen from losing his fifth Miami final in five attempts, he was optimistic about his 2017 resurgence.   -  AP

 

That argument has never held water because the goal in tennis is to win titles, no matter whom you beat. But this year their personal rivalry, which Nadal once dominated, reversed course completely. Federer crushed Nadal 6-2, 6-3 in the Indian Wells final two weeks ago and then outclassed him again 6-3, 6-4 in the Miami Open final on April 2. That makes it four straight victories over Nadal, a record that Federer shares with Nikolay Davydenko.

Thirteen years ago on the same Miami court, 22-year-old Federer, then the new king of tennis with two Grand Slam titles, met Nadal, a 17-year-old upstart, for the first time. The kid stunned the champ 6-3, 6-3. Federer recently said that although he was thoroughly impressed with Nadal, he had no inkling they would eventually go on to capture a combined 32 major titles and an equally astounding 53 Masters titles.

Now, in Miami, their celebrated rivalry had come full circle. “I’m definitely doing a few things better than I ever have before,” Federer said before the final.

The biggest improvement, in fact, turned a glaring weakness into a surprising late-career strength. Nadal had for years pummeled Federer’s vulnerable one-handed backhand with his vicious topspin crosscourt forehand. No more. Now Federer took the ball on the rise and inside the baseline. That not only negated Nadal’s biggest weapon but sometimes even overpowered it.

To counteract that successful tactic, Nadal’s new coach and longtime friend, Carlos Moya, advised him to change his own tactics. The new game plan was to go first to Federer’s forehand to create court space to better attack his backhand. So Nadal served wide in the deuce court and directed groundstrokes more frequently than ever to the Federer forehand. For this plan to succeed, Nadal would have to hit shots with more power, accuracy and depth to break down, or at least neutralise, the Federer forehand.

With the heavily Latin crowd cheering for the Spanish matador, Nadal had four break point chances in the first set. But each time he failed to convert them. The new tactic backfired. Ultra-confident Federer owns the most lethal and versatile forehand in tennis history, and it either produced outright winners or dictated the big points. Nadal lost his serve only twice to fall behind 5-3 in the first set and 5-4 in the second set. But both proved decisive because Federer’s serve was impregnable, winning a terrific 87% of his first-serve points.

Although Nadal was crestfallen from losing his fifth Miami final in five attempts, he was optimistic about his 2017 resurgence. “I think I am close to where I need to be,” said Nadal, who didn’t reach a major semifinal in 2015 or 2016. “I am at a very high level of tennis, and I believe I am ready to win these titles. I already played three finals this year, and today I lost to a player that had lost only one match.”

Though the somewhat predictable final disappointed fans, Federer had barely survived two thrillers earlier. In the quarters, he staved off two match points to stop Tomas Berdych 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (6). His other cliffhanger came against volatile Nick Kyrgios. If Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, the top two players last year, don’t rebound from elbow injuries, the 21-year-old Australian should give Federer his toughest competition this season. On Madrid clay in 2015, Kyrgios had upset Federer 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (12). Fed avenged the loss with an equally close and intense 7-6 (9), 6-7 (9), 7-6 (5) verdict in the Miami semis. Six sets and six tiebreakers!

This time, with nearly all the boisterous spectators rooting for Federer, Kyrgios led 5-4 with two serves coming in the deciding set tiebreaker. The match was on his racket. But his racket hand can fire rocket serves and wicked forehands, and execute magical trick shots only if his brain is fully engaged. When a female spectator yelled “out!” when Federer’s shot landed near the baseline, the distracted Kyrgios shanked his shot for a costly error. Enraged, he shouted, “Oh my god, shut up! Shut the f--- up! What the f--- are you doing?” Totally unglued, he then whacked a 128-mph second serve. It landed two inches deep for a double fault. Kyrgios meekly lost match point on a return of serve error. Distraught, he banged his innocent racket three times until it broke as badly as his composure had. The crowd jeered as it had several times before when he had exploded in anger.

Afterwards, an empathetic Federer, who had temper problems himself as a teenager, downplayed Kyrgios’ fiery antics. “He’s clearly got a big-time game; he has one of the best serves in the game,” praised Federer. “He’s got great focus now on his serve, which I like to see. It’s just going to take time for him to really be able to focus point for point and improve that. Crowds jump on him pretty quickly, but it makes for a good atmosphere at the end of the day, so it’s not all that bad. I think he’s good for the game.”

Even better for the game is the brilliant tennis this 35-year-old father of four is producing after missing the last six months of 2016.

“The dream continues,” Federer told the crowd afterwards. “What a start to the year. Can’t believe it.”

Late-bloomer Konta keeps climbing towards the top

Ever since she was a little girl, Johanna Konta dreamed of winning Grand Slam titles and being the best player in the world. But even two years ago, the dream seemed far-fetched. Konta, then 23, was ranked so low she couldn’t even make the main draw at the Miami Open.

The struggling Englishwoman never lost hope. She stayed committed and surged all the way to No. 10, earning the WTA “Most Improved Player” award for 2016. When asked after winning Miami this year why she was a late-bloomer, the introspective Konta confided, “Everybody’s journey is different. I needed a little bit more time and a few more experiences to accumulate the knowledge I have. Now I think I play smarter tennis and calmer tennis and that just took time. On paper it looks like a quick turnaround, but it’s definitely been a lot of years, a long time coming.”

When asked after winning Miami this year why she was a late-bloomer, the introspective Johanna Konta confided, “Everybody’s journey is different. I needed a little bit more time and a few more experiences to accumulate the knowledge I have.”   -  AP

In 2015, British Fed Cup captain Judy Murray asserted Konta suffered “really bad performance anxiety.” So Konta hired Juan Coto, a mind coach, to help her handle stress. It paid off handsomely. In 2016, she boasted a terrific 11-2 tiebreaker record, including a perfect 5-0 tiebreaker record against top-10 opponents. Her mental turnaround succeeded so well that in January a statistics group from Tennis Australia rated Konta the top-performing WTA player during moments of increased pressure in a match, such as facing break points.

Konta faced the ultimate pressure in the Miami quarterfinals when she staved off two match points in a come-from-behind 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 victory over third-seeded Simona Halep. In the semifinals, she fearlessly attacked the 110-mph serves of Venus Williams from just inside the baseline to eliminate the 2017 Australian Open runner-up 7-5, 6-3.

“Konta is a great example of how players can work on weaknesses and turn them into strengths,” pointed out former U.S. Fed Cup captain and two-time major finalist Mary Joe Fernandez. “I remember watching her two or three years ago. Her forehand was a big liability, and her serve wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now. And the mental strength wasn’t there. Now when she misses a point, you don’t see any frustration on her face. She goes right back to work.”

In the final, 10th-seeded Konta would need all those attributes, plus her formidable backhand and reliable volley, against 12th-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, a former world No. 1. The far more experienced Dane had earlier ousted two heavy hitters — French Open champion Garbine Muguruza and second-seeded Karolina Pliskova — in three sets after losing the opening set.

Would the relentlessly steady and superbly conditioned Wozniacki, who ran the 26.2-mile New York Marathon in 2014, wear out Konta, another heavy hitter, in 86-degree heat that felt like 97? Or would Konta overpower Wozniacki, as she had 6-3, 6-1 at the Australian Open in January?

The 5’11”, 154-pound Konta epitomises the Power Game that has taken over women’s tennis this century. Belting big returns, she broke Wozniacki’s serve at love and then easily held her own serve for 2-0 to set the tone for the rest of the match. Even though Konta lost her serve twice in the opening set, she broke Wozniacki three times, the last when the Dane double-faulted twice, to lead 5-4. A crosscourt forehand winner in the next game gave her the first set 6-4.

Konta maintained her aggression throughout the second set. She struck first with potent serves and returns and then pounded groundstrokes in the corners, again breaking Wozniacki three times, the first coming on a forehand volley angle winner in the opening game. She saved one of her best points for the last service break on championship point. Displaying yet another shot in her repertoire on April Fool’s Day, she fooled Wozniacki with an unreturnable slice lob that landed smack on the baseline.

The rising star decisively defeated the two-time US Open finalist 6-4, 6-3. Konta’s huge 32-8 edge in winners confirmed the maxim: great offence beats great defence. As all-time great Martina Navratilova told BT Sport, “Very few can hit Caroline off the court like that: Serena Williams, Muguruza, Sharapova.”

The mentally toughened Konta also impressively converted six of 10 break point opportunities.

By claiming her biggest title yet and the most prestigious by a British woman since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977, Konta rises to a career-high No. 7. Her all-court game, elite talent, and ever-growing confidence make her a threat now to win at every Grand Slam event. “Jo Konta can beat anybody on a given day,” asserted Navratilova. “She’s definitely on the right track. If you put in the work, it will pay off.”

Last June, Konta, whose Hungarian parents raised her in Australia before she immigrated to England at age 14, contrasted herself with Andy Murray, her higher-profile and temperamental compatriot. “I work differently. I enjoy creating a space around me and not getting too high or too low,” she explained. “But I am continuously looking to get better — not just as a tennis player but also as a person dealing with new experiences. I take a lot of enjoyment out of imagining myself as … I dunno … a wall. I keep adding bricks to my wall or little house.”

The ever-improving Konta certainly added plenty of solid bricks to her wall during her breakthrough experience in Miami.