This is going to be a tough one to swallow.
In the first semifinal meeting at a major since the French Open in 2005 (on Nadal's 19th birthday), the Spaniard came through once again to defeat Federer 67 62 76 64 in three hours and 42 minutes. The loss for Federer now brings his Grand Slam head-to-head to 2-8. The loss will sting for many Federer fans for quite a long time because we all know that Roger could have played much better over the course of the 4 sets.
Federer started the match off with brilliant tennis and got ahead to a 3-0 lead. The mighty Nadal broke to get back to 4-1 however, and the set went to a tiebreak, which Federer took after getting back to his emphatic best. The second set looked like it might to be much of the same when Roger broke in the opening game. Then, as if a precursor for things to come, Rafa broke back and won 5 of the next 6 games to take the 2nd set 6-2. In the 3rd, the match was back to even terms and both men played point-for-point tennis until 3-3 in the set. At that time, Roger broke Nadal, and looked poised to win the crucial 3rd set. Then, as if destiny forced its hand, Nadal broke right back once again, and then took the set 6-4. Backbreaking stuff for Roger. Nevertheless, the fourth set was dead even as well until 4-4, when Rafa broke. In the final game, he held off a few Federer break points, including one spectacular defensive lob that caught the baseline (however it did I am furious with the Tennis Gods for that one) and forced Federer into error. A couple of points later Nadal won the match when a Federer forehand sailed long (as they usually do when Fed loses a big Slam match), and the realization came that another Slam went by without Federer having the chance to win it in the final.
As a diehard Federer fan, this loss hurts. Granted, it is nowhere near as painful as the final loss three years ago to Nadal was, but it still leaves me with questions of "what if?" In my match preview, I outlined all the reasons why Federer had an amazing chance to beat Nadal this time around. In the first set, as if he was reading my article himself, Fed did everything he needed to. He was patient, controlling the rallies with peppering shots to Nadal's backhand. Even when he hit relatively tame backhands down the line to the Spaniard's weaker side, he couldn't put much on it and it allowed Roger to control the point. Everything was looking great in the first set, and then right out of the blue, it vanished. Roger started reverting back to his impatient attacking style of game, and it cost him the match. For instance, on many approach shots, he went up the line to Nadal's forehand instead of going cross to the backhand. Why? For what possible reason could Fed have for doing this? The Nadal forehand on the run, especially when given time, is the most lethal shot in the game. It wasn't that Fed was hitting to the Nadal forehand on the approach, but he was doing it in the wrong way. He was very successful when he was decisive in attacking that side, after wearing Nadal out on the backhand side. In that way, he could keep the Spaniard guessing. But what Roger did was attack the forehand during times when Nadal was clearly in the court and the wiser play would have been to go back to the backhand. This didn't just happen on approach shots either. For some strange reason, Fed wanted to direct his forehand up the line, which created a plethora of uncharacteristic errors into the net. The bottom line in this match was that Federer could not play against Nadal in the same way that Nadal plays against Federer. Roger did not consistently attack the backhand and fell into the same familiar trap of Nadal forehand to Federer backhand rallies. It is just VERY frustrating because when it was the other way around, the Federer forehand to Nadal backhand, the Swiss Master won many of those points barring Nadal did not come up with something extraordinarily special.
Although this loss stings because I know that Roger had all the tools to beat his nemesis this time around, all we have to do as fans is move on. I know that Roger already has, and that has been his mindset for quite a while. He is there as a contender at the end of majors, he just cannot break through. But his time will come, and I am confident of that, as the man himself is. Perhaps what hurts the most is to see such a well-played tournament from Federer end in such a disappointing fashion. We saw genius displays of tennis against Tomic and Del Potro, and even at times against Nadal (the first set mainly). One thing is for sure, and that is that Roger strays far from his comfort zone when playing Nadal because he must. He cannot go out there and play the same tennis as he does against anyone else, even a Murray or Djokovic. Against anybody else, Fed would not make the same kind of mental mistakes that are forced upon him by the relentless defense of the Mallorcan. He knows Nadal can handle his very best attacking tennis and make him play those few extra shots that will bring about unforced errors. As I have already stated, it is just extremely frustrating, because THIS TIME, Fed could have done it, and he let the match slip off his strings. I guess we must accept that Nadal is the kryptonite to Federer's Superman.
In speaking of what Federer could have or should have done differently, let me be clear that I am not taking anything away from Nadal. The defense he displayed was out of this world, and as I previously mentioned, HE causes Fed to second guess himself with his relentlessness. However, it was not only his defense that was immaculate. His forehand was punishing as usual and forced Roger into errors (both physical and mental). He served at a VERY high percentage, although, in a positive statement about Federer, he did return many of them and gave himself many chances on Nadal's service games. The big factor for me in the match was Nadal's return. I spoke about the effect that the out-wide serve on the deuce side could have been the difference, and to Rafa's credit, he returned spectacularly. He routinely covered that one serve and sent a deep looping ball to Fed's feet, allowing Rafa to dictate the points the way he wanted. However, as I said before, when Fed got to Rafa's backhand side, he could not do anything to defend against it, which is why I stand by the belief that Roger made things easier on Nadal by setting up the looping forehand in the strike zone too frequently. In the end, no matter how much analyzing is done, Nadal is the ultimate opponent for Roger because of the way he plays. We just have to accept that Fed is affected by Nadal in the same way that Roddick was affected by Federer. In both instances, Federer and Roddick know they must play their very best over the course of 5 sets to gain the upper hand, and even then, sometimes it is not enough.
Roger will go back to the drawing board after this match with Paul and discover what he could have done differently. I'm sure many of us Federer fans will never want to watch the match again, but for Roger, he will have to if he ever wants to beat Nadal outdoors again. The advantage Roger has this time is that he did have the right strategy versus his biggest rival. Now, he just needs to understand how to maintain it over more than a set at a time. If he can do that, he will beat Nadal once again.
In the second semifinal, Djokovic defeated Andy Murray in a thrilling 5 set match 63 36 67 61 75. I did not see the match live but did record it and, if you'd believe it, my recording ended at 3-2 in the 5th! So I only found at the score at the end, but was not surprised to find Djokovic had won. The mental strength of Djokovic right now is something we have never seen before, not even from the likes of Federer or Nadal. At times throughout the match, Novak looked physically exhausted, and it certainly looked like Murray had a great shot when he won the 3rd set. But Novak turned it up another gear and won, clawing and scratching his way back in it. There is something about the Serb winning decisive 5th sets in Grand Slam semifinals 7-5. He did so against Federer in 2010 and 2011 at the US Open, and did so once again against Murray. It speaks to his mental and physical fortitude that he can outlast his big rivals in tight 5th sets when the match comes down to a few shots here and there.
Novak now plays Nadal in a 3rd straight major final. Even with the questions dealing with Djokovic's health, I still must take him because he holds a mental vicegrip on Nadal, much like Nadal holds over Federer. Nadal may be the fresher man, but in the end that may not matter if Djokovic can direct his strong backhand at Nadal's forehand in more consistent ways than Federer could ever dream of. My full preview of the men's final shall come shortly.
This Federer loss will be a tough one to absorb for a long time, Fed fans, but remember that there will be better days ahead. Three years ago, things looked much gloomier for our favourite player, and look how he responded that year, under the biggest pressure in his life. Roger is very capable of winning a Slam this year, and I believe he will. You should as well. As the old saying goes, "if you count Federer out, you are a damned fool." (I just came up with that right now, but the sentiment is real. Never count out a great champion like Roger, especially after a tough loss like this. Remember 2009. Remember.)
With the deepest of thoughts,