by Mauro Cappiello
Stefan Edberg and Roger Federer during one of their coaching sessions at the Australian Open
So Stefan's return to the Australian Open was not the one we had all hoped for. He won't be the first man to ever win in Melbourne as a junior, as a professional singles and doubles player and coach. But, as most of the tennis analysts have acknowledged, the response of this first Grand Slam event of the year is that the Federer and Edberg combination seems to work.
This not only because Edberg was the last man standing of the new coaching champions, leaving the tournament one round after Lendl and Becker, in spite of a very tough draw for Federer. But most of all because his impact on Roger's game is clearly visible. And if one praises Lendl, who led Andy Murray to two Grand Slam titles and the Olympic gold medal with the Scot playing exactly the same as he did before, just with a little bit of extra confidence, how can't one praise Stefan, when his contribution in terms of enthusiasm, but especially in terms of strategy, together with the Swiss' newly found fitness, played a big part in rejuvenating Roger Federer? And this was just their first event together...
Nobody had seen Roger Federer play at the net with the percentages he's done against Tsonga and Murray in the last... ten years. This helped Roger keep the matches shorter. In fact he won in less than two hours against the French, and would have taken 2 and a half against Murray, if he had not complicated himself a match he had already won, wasting two match points and the third set tie-break.
Roger Federer has won 83% of his points at the net against Tsonga, 74% against Murray, but only 55% against Nadal
Of course, what we saw against Rafael Nadal can't be enough. Roger knows it and Stefan knows it. For one simple reason. What is enough against any other player suddenly becomes too little against Rafa, who has always presented a different challenge for the Swiss.
The Spaniard being a left-hander, Federer should completely reverse his game when he plays against him. His inside-out forehand, that is virtually a winning shot against any player, is not dangerous anymore, because it clashes against Nadal's lifted forehand. The world number one can so turn a defensive rally into an offensive one, often ending the point with a down-the-line shot in an empty court.
The same holds for Roger's crosscourt backhand. No matter how fast and how early he will play it, no matter how deep he will play it. Rafa will always hook it up with his forehand and force Federer to start the rally again, consuming mental and physical energies.
That is basically why Federer's record against Nadal (10 won, 23 lost) is so dramatically negative, looking more and more the same as Edberg's head-to-head record against his main rival Boris Becker (10 won, 25 lost). With a huge difference: while Edberg prevailed against Becker in the majority of the most important matches of their careers, the best-of-five distance contributes to turn Federer's challenge to Nadal into a "mission: impossible".
In my humble opinion, against Nadal Federer should make a more frequent use of his sliced backhand. Both in the rally from behind, using it as a defensive shot that would give him a little bit of extra time to recover some ground when Rafa commands, and as an offensive shot. The latter should be, of course, a deep down-the-line "razor-like" approach that would allow Roger to take the net on Rafa's backhand and hopefully, on a percentage basis, end the point with the first or second volley.
Of course this is easy to say, not so much to do. I am sure Edberg and Federer have dedicated time to make improvements on the sliced backhand during their coaching sessions in Melbourne (and it would be nice to receive some comments by eye-witnesses...). So why doesn't Federer play it more often? First of all, Rafa's backhand passing is almost as good as his forehand. His ability to find angles from nowhere is possibly unprecedented in tennis history and would be a hard test to face for Edberg himself in his prime. Secondly, Roger's sliced approach has never been a key in his game. And last, if ever the Swiss should execute this plan at perfection, that could even be not enough, since he should be prepared to do it for at least three or four hours, knowing that the slightest drop of concentration could be decisive to put his rival back into the match.
And here we come to the deciding point. Because as much as they can work on it, Edberg can't give back to Federer his prime physical shape to cope with an opponent who is six years his younger. Nadal vs Federer became an ever-lasting rivalry just because the former has been a monster of precocity and the latter is becoming a monster of longevity. But the age difference has always been a factor, in one way or another.
For all these reasons Federer has never beaten Nadal in the Majors in the last six years, since the time Rafa was still completing his grasscourt apprenticeship at Wimbledon in 2007. It would maybe be too much to ask of Federer that he would start doing it again now, that he's on the verge of his 33rd birthday, while his rival is at his top.
Nobody said Federer should always meet Nadal. And, also against the Spaniard, on a single match, he may have better chances later this season, once Rafa has been drained by the claycourt swing, maybe on grass where his tennis is sometimes more shaky, where Roger has more confidence and shorter rallies are more likely, even with today's slower grass.
Wimbledon, that's where Federer has his best chances to clinch the beloved 18th Slam. That was the aim he hired Edberg for: being a Grand Slam contender again. And, for what we've seen so far, we can already say Stefan did (and is doing) a great job!
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