What Nadal managed to do was instill a sense of fear in Federer, till then without a chink in his armour – the “I cannot beat Rafa” vibe clearly began to take shape. Even when Federer made it a Wimbledon five-out-of-five in 2007, it was with a sense of inevitability that it won’t be long before Rafa would make the breakthrough.
And then came 2008. They call it the greatest tennis match of all time. Federer played his part, but even till a few days back, he said that he didn’t play the first two sets (which he lost) the way he should have. It was rooted in the way he lost to Nadal at French Open earlier that year, when he won only four games.
What inadvertently emerged in Sunday’s epic final, was that it was the fear of losing that had dogged Federer all these years whenever he played Nadal. And crucially, it was finally being conquered. These were the same players from the 2014 Australian Open semifinal. Remember, Rafa was struggling with blisters in his hand but Federer was not ready to take the chances that we saw him take on Sunday. The singlehanded backhand that he executed with such precision Sunday isn’t an addition to his armoury. But for the last few years, he lacked the confidence to bring it out at the crunch. Instead he would choose the slice, at most an effective weapon on grass against lesser opponents but not against the super-fit machines, Nadal and Novak Djokovic who replied with those huge double-handed backhands to crush him.
Soon, the Rafa-block was permeating into his game when playing Djokovic. In the 2014 Wimbledon final, Federer had just come back from double break in the fourth. Djokovic was struggling with cramps and all Federer needed was to take the initiative. Yet, he didn’t. He thought of making Djokovic run more for a few more points so that the Serb would tire himself out. In the process, he handed the rhythm back to Djokovic who cantered to a win.