Monday, 18 October 2010

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: Head-To-Head Revisited

As Rafael Nadal starts picking up more and more slams, one statistic becomes ever more important; his head-to-head with the proclaimed GOAT, Roger Federer.  Ten months ago, Rafa's Grand Slam tally was six whereas Roger's was 16. And Rafa's knees were in an uncertain state, though quickly improving. The most likely outcome of the 2010 season at that time seemed that each of them would win a Slam and perhaps one of them winning two. Instead Rafa took three and secured his career Grand Slam.

With a positive H2H, nine Slams, 18 Masters titles—both of them still counting—Rafa has reopened the GOAT debate that seemed so settled as Roger got to 14, 15 and 16.

It is time to take a look at the H2H to see what it means—and what it doesn't mean.

Before embarking on that, one word of where I'm coming from.  All writers want to be objective, most writers try to, but we all have our favourites and our biases that in most cases do influence our interpretations and what we attach significance to.

Me? I'm a Federer fan who highly admires Rafael Nadal—not least his ability to change and continue to improve his game.

And now to the head-to-head. I've chosen to put the H2H in three phases, the reason being a) to get our facts straight before the discussion starts and b) that the order of domination has been Rafa-Roger-Rafa which I find quite curious given Rafa's age.

Phase 1, 2004-2006A young Rafa dominating Roger six to one. 

In this phase, the two of them met seven times, four on clay and three on hard court. The result? Six victories to the young prodigy and one loss, coming at the Miami Masters in their second encounter, when Roger fought back from two sets down and won the third set tiebreaker before winning the latter two sets quite convincingly. It must be added that Roger was ill in their very first encounter in 2004, where he lost in straights.

Phase 2, 2006-2007Roger dominating a maturing Rafa five to two. 

Counting from Wimbledon 2006, this phase also has seven matches (three clay, two hard and two grass) this time with Roger having the edge with a 5-2 lead—losing two of the clay matches (Monte Carlo and French Open), but winning the rest. The H2H is now 8-6 in Rafa's favor, six of the wins coming on clay.

Phase 3, 2008-2010A matured Rafa dominating Roger six to one. 

This is the period, where Rafa enjoyed his most important victories over Roger, not the least Wimbledon 2008 and Australian Open 2009. Again, the period featured seven matches (five on clay, one on grass and one on hard court). Rafa won all of them, except for a loss at Madrid prior to the 2009 French Open. Many Rafa fans and some pundits have since attributed the loss to the nagging knee injuries. Likewise, many Fed fans and some pundits have attributed some of Fed's losses, especially in 2008, to his mono.


Phase 4? 

We are yet to see, but the way they're playing at the moment, it seems likely that Rafa will extend the past two years dominance.

H2H stats in sum

14-7 in Rafa's favor,
Clay: 10-2
Hard Court: 3-3
Grass: 1-2

What does it all mean?

There's thus no doubt, that Rafa holds the edge over Roger, but dividing it into phases, brings an anomaly to the surface, i.e. the young Rafa dominating the in-prime Federer. Hardly any Nadal fan, would argue that Nadal was the better player over all in this period. But he still managed to dominate the world's best player. How?
It also brings up another interesting aspect, namely that there was a period, where Federer was actually able to beat Rafa on a consistent basis. This is also the period with the fewest clay encounters (three) and the most grass encounters (two). Fed fans will say that this proves Fed can beat a Rafa in his prime.

But Rafa fans will be wise to say: Rafa wasn't in his prime. 
The trouble is obviously their age difference, as it can be argued neither of them have enjoyed their prime at the same time, i.e. Nadal being in his prime 2008 onwards and Fed declining 2008 onwards.
But this fails to take account of the fact that the young Rafa dominated Fed. How is that even possible?

I offer two explanations

1) Even though Rafa was a prodigy, he was still damn good on clay, earning him four of his six victories over Fed in this period. Another victory came when Fed was ill. But that doesn't explain why Rafa was still more than competitive in the other two HC matches, winning one and almost winning the other. Which brings us to:

2) Rafa is simply an extremely bad match-up for Federer. Possibly the worst you can think of. As a Fed fan watching their early matches, I always felt that Rafa didn't win the match. Fed lost it. Fed was the one attacking, he was the one making the vast majorities of the winners, but he always made a pile of unforced errors to go with them. Rafa was just getting everything back and hitting a winner here and there.

Later, and less biased in my viewing, I could see that Rafa was forcing Fed to make all those errors. He was forcing him to have abhorrent break-point stats. Why? Well, against that monster defensive, Federer always had to go for just a little bit too much, and ended up beating himself in the process. He couldn't find enough wholes in Rafa's armour. Tim Ruffin has expressed this as Federer feeling the pressure of an ever-shrinking court—i.e. Federer having nowhere to go with his winners and I think that's a very accurate description. 

Another factor is and was obviously the Rafa forehand to the one-handed Federer backhand. As you watch their matches, you can see that is how the majority of the points go. With a two-handed backhand, Federer might have faired better against this, but then again—he wouldn't have been Federer.
Finally, we have the mental aspect. Against every other player, Fed seems to have had the mental advantage when they meet. But not against Rafa. When the going get's tough, you're left with a feeling that Rafa will come out on top. I think one reason for this, is that Federer knows how hard a time he has meeting Rafa. He knows he needs to keep his unforced errors in check, yet still hit winners to shorten the points and avoid battling with Rafa from the baseline.

A damn hard prospect with little room for error.

So, where do we stand?

Well, the majority of the matches played on clay cannot be counted out. After all, that is Rafa's favored surface. But there's a counter to that. Fed doesn't hold a significant advantage on the other surfaces (5-4), where he should be favored (at least until 2008 for grass and 2009/2010 for hard).

Fed has clearly been a more dominant force on both grass and hard court than has Nadal in the period of their meeting, 2004-2010. So we're left with Nadal equaling Fed despite Fed handling the rest of the field better.
Which points to the explanation: Bad match-up.

Does this take anything away from Rafa? Not too much. After all, him and Uncle Tony created the lefty advantage, when Rafa was 12. But it does explain some of the difference. In my  opinion, it explains enough to leave Fed as the main candidate for GOAT for the time being. But the moment Rafa comes really close to Fed's number and adds records that Fed hasn't achieve—both of which I believe he will—the H2H will be ever more important in deciding who was the better player.

Courtesy: Bleacher Report

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