It’s installment #38 in the greatest rivalry in men’s tennis as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battle for the title at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. Nadal will look to end a four match losing skid to Federer that dates back to the fall of 2015 in Basel.
(1) Rafael Nadal vs (2) Roger Federer
Sunday’s final marks the fourth time this season that we’ve been treated to #Fedal with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battling head-to-head. Prior to their first meeting this year in the Australian Open final, the dynamic duo had not met since late in 2015 when Federer beat Nadal at the Swiss Indoors Basel. Through the first three months of the season, it seemed like the #Fedal rivalry was going to be we saw at just about every tournament. They met in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami – with two of the three meetings being in finals. Outside of the five set classic in Australia, Federer has dominated the other two meetings with straight sets wins.
Their Sunday meeting in Shanghai will mark the 24th time that #Fedal has happened in the final of a tournament. Nadal leads 14-9 in those finals, but has lost three straight. They have evenly split the 18 matches that have been contested outdoors on hard courts. Again however, Federer has been the hot player in that respect though with all three wins this year coming on outdoor hard courts in favor of the Swiss. This will also be the 17th time that #Fedal has occurred at a Masters-level event with Rafa owning those to the tune of 11-5.
Only Two Dropped Sets Combined
So far this week in Shanghai, both Rafa and Roger have lived up to their top billing. Nadal dropped his lone set of the week in a quarterfinal win against Grigor Dimitrov. Federer matched that by dropping the opening set against Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals, before rallying for the 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 win. Nadal experienced his first hiccups on serve in his 7-5, 7-6 (3) win over fourth seed Marin Cilic. After not being broken through three rounds, Cilic was able to take two breaks off Rafa on five chances. Nadal has Cilic under constant pressure however with 12 break points off the Cilic serve. Nadal converted on three. Rafa held Cilic to just a 64 percent win rate off his first serve with the Croat winning under 50 percent off his second serve.
Federer was broken in the opening set by Del Potro in the semifinals to mark the third match out of four where his opponent secured just one break for the match. The rest of the way, Federer was not threatened on serve as he took a stout 87 percnet of the points off his first serve and 56 percent off his second. The 87 percent win rate was Federer’s best of the week. He has faced just ten break points this week with half of those coming in his opener against Diego Schwartzman. The Swiss has converted on eleven breaks against his opponents this week off of 33 chances.
Nadal Looking For Big Win Amid Stellar Season
Despite a fantastic season for Nadal that has seen him win the French Open and the U.S. Open and return to the top of the rankings, you get the feeling that it’s incomplete if he doesn’t beat Federer. For Roger, a hot start to the season has fizzled somewhat and he’s seeking his first title since winning Wimbledon. He’s lost the Rogers Cup final to Alexander Zverev and then fell to Del Potro in the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. I think this is as big a moment for him as he’ll admit outside of a Grand Slam. Even though Nadal has taken the spotlight from him with his rise to #1, another win for Federer seems as if it will give Federer almost a half claim to being the top dog on tour.
In reality, he won’t be close to Nadal in the rankings (2300 point gap) regardless, but these two have felt like 1a and 1b all season. Federer was the definite 1a through early April, but since then it’s been almost all Nadal outside of the short grass court swing. If you don’t think that drives Federer to win, you don’t know Roger Federer. This rivalry is built on one-upsmanship. If you tally up the season, Nadal has six total titles with two at Grand Slams and two more at Masters evens. Rafa also has reclaimed the #1 overall ranking spot.
Federer? He’s got five titles with two at Slams and two at Masters events. A win in Shanghai would give him six this season and make it three at Masters, one upping Rafa. And of course there would be the little matter of the Swiss being 4-0 against Nadal this season. All things considered, Federer would probably consider himself ahead of Rafa if that is the way the cards fall on Sunday. That could set up the Masters event in Paris and the Tour Finals in London as events that help cement one of these two as the King of 2017.
Nadal and Federer might know more about each other’s games than most husbands and wives know about their partners. Tactically, both are going to play the match they way they prefer it. For Nadal, that’s setting up deep on return and getting balls back into play. Nadal wants to force Federer into playing rallies, where Nadal will feel that his grind and grit will win out. Federer wants to serve big and then hit Rafa with aggressive 1-2 punches off that serve. The Swiss wants to keep the points shorter and the long rallies to a minimum. Big fat duh eh?
The thing that Nadal has been able to do most of this week is serve well. That is a big point of contention in the battle against Federer. In both their Indian Wells and Miami meetings, Rafa’s serving was far inferior. The Spaniard barely won 60 percent of the points on his serve in Miami and under 60 percent in Indian Wells. Nadal was broken six times in those two matches on 14 chances. Federer faced just five break points and saved them all. Through all three meetings this year, Federer has won at least 76 percent of his first serve points. Nadal best number in that category was 66 percent in Miami.
I don’t think Nadal can win in Shanghai with similar numbers. He’s got to find something extra, which he has done against his competition up to this point in the week. Rafa will need to go after Federer’s backhand both on return and in the ground game as his best chance to exploit flaws in Fed’s game. When Federer can get around to his forehand the majority of the time, he’s a much more confident player. That is why I would be stunned if Rafa didn’t pepper Fed’s backhand early and often. Make him prove his consistency and that he can find the range off that wing for the match.
As for Federer, he wants to use his power and placement on serve to keep Nadal back with depth to throw him off balance. There are not many players who can do that consistently, but Federer has found the range more often than not in their meetings this season. That’s gone a long way into helping put him into winning positions. When he is able to keep Nadal back early with his serve, Federer gives himself the chance to move in aggressively and finish off quick points at the net. If Nadal is able to get more on his return, then he keeps Federer back and has chances to work Federer into rallies.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
This is a fitting time for these two to meet again after six month break since their last meeting. The motivation for both is easy to see – Nadal wants to end this losing skid to Federer and Federer in turn wants to extend it to stake his claim as the best of the best in 2017. This is as good a set-up as Nadal could ask for in getting another shot at Federer. I think Rafa needs to get off to a good start to give himself some confidence after dropping his last five sets to Federer. If he finds himself down a set, I think that favors Federer to get the job done.
This is difficult to predict. Form says Nadal. History this year says Federer. Somewhere in the middle is where the result shall land. Waffle.
Prediction: Federer wins in three sets