This year marks the 10th anniversary of what is universally regarded as the greatest tennis match ever played: the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Over the next few days, there will be lots of stories looking back at that historic match. This is not one of them.
Instead, it is a story about the Federer-Nadal rivalry, the tactical mismatch that enabled Nadal to rack up a lopsided head-to-head record against Federer, and the long-deferred change that allowed Federer, at the age of 35, to finally flip the script on his longtime nemesis and to cement his status as the greatest player the men's game has ever seen.
When Federer walked off the court in tears at Wimbledon on that overcast July night 10 years ago, surely no one imagined he'd still be playing a decade later, let alone that he would be returning to Wimbledon in 2018 as the defending champion. And very few imagined that he would ever find an answer to the particular challenge posed by Nadal. It took a while, but he did.
In January 2017, Federer defeated Nadal in five sets to win the Australian Open, claiming his first Grand Slam crown since 2012 and his first win over Nadal at a major since 2007. The key to Nadal's mastery of Federer had been his high-kicking lefty topspin forehand, which he used to pummel Federer's one-handed backhand, a task made easier by Federer's tendency to play conservative, defensive tennis on that wing.
Nadal took the court in Melbourne that Sunday night having won 23 of his 33 matches against Federer, an imbalance that was partly attributable to the fact that most of their matches had been on clay, but that was mainly a function of Nadal's success in breaking down Federer's backhand.
But Federer, returning to competition from a knee injury that had sidelined him for the second half of 2016, arrived in Australia with a retooled backhand. He had used his time off to turn his weakness into a strength, and it carried him past Nadal for arguably the most satisfying and significant win of his career.
At the time, there was a lot of discussion about the changes Federer had made on the backhand side. At Indian Wells in March, Federer told ESPN.com that contrary to what many people seemed to assume, it was not something that he suddenly decided to do while rehabbing his knee; he had been thinking about it for years. But while he recognized that Nadal had caused him problems on the backhand side, particularly when they faced each other on clay, it was not as if his backhand was a liability.
Federer had managed to win 17 majors with that backhand. "People make it sound as if my backhand was terrible before and I never did anything with it, which was not quite true," Federer said. He pointed out that he had used his backhand slice to great effect, and often had a lot of success going up the line with the backhand. "I didn't really have to change things around so much because nothing was broken, to be quite honest," Federer said.
Federer said the first step to tweaking his backhand was his decision in 2013 to switch to a larger racket head. For years, Federer had used a 90-square-inch head, and he had stuck with it even as all of his peers were using larger rackets (97 inches and up). Federer had a miserable summer in 2013, losing in the second round at Wimbledon and the fourth round at the US Open. He was dealing with back problems, but it was also clear that, with all the pace and spin that players were now generating, the smaller, much less forgiving racket head had become a liability.
The transition to a larger racket wasn't seamless. At one point, Federer switched back to his old racket before ultimately settling on a 97-square-inch head. But as he became more comfortable with the new stick, he saw the advantages, and especially on the backhand. "It gave me more options, different options," he said.
But the racket change was just one part of it. Changing his strategy on the backhand side, and having the self-belief to stick with that change in pressure situations, was the other, more challenging part. In Indian Wells, Severin Luthi, Federer's longtime coach and one of his closest friends, said Federer and the other coaches Fed worked with -- Paul Annacone and then Stefan Edberg -- often talked with him about tweaking the backhand in order to parry Nadal's topspin forehand.
But they could only suggest and encourage, and while Federer was always receptive to advice, there was a certain resistance on his part simply because he had done so much winning with the backhand he had. "He had so much success; it's not easy to let something go," Luthi told ESPN.com.
The extended break in 2016 gave Federer the opportunity to experiment in a sustained way with a more aggressive backhand. More aggressive meant standing closer to the baseline and sending the ball back with topspin rather than slicing or chipping it.
"I had to recalibrate and adjust my game," Federer said.
""I wasn't surprised that he did it well, but I was surprised that he was able to convince himself to stick with it at the big moments."" Paul Annacone on Roger Federer's backhand
He didn't tinker with his grip, but he had to change his footwork in order to be able to play closer in, and he also had to strengthen his upper body. "You have to be highly explosive if you want to play from there, with a strong upper body to be able to drive hard through the ball," Federer said. "I gained confidence from doing it time and time again."
Luthi was so impressed by what he saw that autumn ("Roger is so good, it feels that anything that's possible on a tennis court he can do") that he told Federer that he was convinced he could win the Australian. However, as he put it, "From being able to play a great level in practice or in one match to winning a Grand Slam, it's a long way."
That's especially so if the road to a title runs through Nadal, which it unexpectedly did in Melbourne last year. Like Federer, Nadal had missed the fall season in 2016 because of an injury -- in his case, to his wrist. No one could have imagined a Federer-Nadal final -- or that the tweaked backhand Federer had just unveiled would be put to the test so soon against the opponent it was designed to thwart.
Annacone, now a Tennis Channel analyst, said he never had any doubt that Federer could execute a more aggressive backhand; the question was whether he would remain committed to it at pivotal junctures. Annacone admitted he had doubts. Federer had played a certain style for so long that there was a good chance he would revert to it under pressure.
That Sunday night in Melbourne, the test came when the match went into a fifth set and Nadal broke for a 3-1 lead. But instead of backing off, Federer maintained his attacking posture and reeled off five straight games to take the title. "I wasn't surprised that he did it well," Annacone said, "but I was surprised that he was able to convince himself to stick with it at the big moments."
Federer followed up the win in Australia with straight-sets victories over Nadal in Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai last season. They have not yet played this year, and while it is probably too late in their careers for Federer to make much more of a dent in the head-to-head record -- Nadal now holds a 23-15 edge -- his victory in Melbourne and newfound mastery of Nadal has convinced even many fence-sitters that he deserves to be regarded as the greatest men's player of all time. (Of course, the argument will be reopened if they happen to play at Wimbledon this year and Nadal wins.)
But the success Federer has had with the new backhand raises an intriguing question: If he had made this change years earlier, would he have had more success against Nadal -- and, more to the point, might he have been able to beat Nadal at the French, where he lost four times in the finals to the Spaniard? When I posed that question to Federer, he gave a smile and a slight shrug of the shoulders. "Maybe," he said, in a breezy tone that suggested he is never going to lose sleep over the question.