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Federer vs Nadal: Can Federer continue his recent dominance over Nadal on the clay of Roland Garros?

Leye Aduloju in ATP Tour 6 Jun 2019
  • Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet at Roland Garros on Friday
  • Nadal is 5-0 over Federer at the French Open, but Federer is on a 5-0 run against the Spaniard
Federer defeated Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final (PA Sport)

Rafael Nadal leads his head-to-head with Roger Federer 23-15, but Federer has won the last five instalments of this great rivalry. Can the great Swiss continue his recent dominance when the rivalry returns to Roland Garros on Friday?

Friday’s meeting will be their first at Roland Garros since the 2011 final, and their first on clay since 2013.

Federer's current winning streak over Nadal began in Basel in 2015, but it is his dominance from the start of the 2017 season that has really caught the eye. The great Swiss had sat out the second half of 2016 as he recovered from a knee injury, but he made a sensational return to action at the 2017 Australian Open, defeating Nadal in the final to win his 18th major title, and his first since Wimbledon 2012.

Federer seemed set to suffer another heart-breaking Grand Slam defeat to Nadal when he trailed 3-1 in the final set, but the Swiss launched an inspired fightback. An ultra-aggressive Federer won the next five games to force his way to a stunning victory.

That performance provided the template for their subsequent meetings, with Federer going on to score straight-set victories at Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai. He has won his last seven sets against Nadal, without losing more than four games in a set.

Nadal's previous dominance over Federer had been built on his ability to get the ball to rear high into Federer's backhand-  with his leftie serve and vicious topspin cross-court forehand relentlessly peppering Federer's single-hander, forcing the Swiss to retreat and give up the error, or open up the space for a winner.

Federer however found an antidote to that problem in 2017. Helped by a bigger racket, he got more purchase, and more confident, on his backhand, and was able to attack more with that shot especially on the return of serve, rather than resort to the slice backhand- which was generally ineffective against Nadal.

“I feel I'm connecting better on the backhand and I'm serving good, and that consistently”, Federer said after their most recent meeting in Shanghai in 2017. “Before I had to slice more just because the racquet was good for the slice, and it was good for the coming over, but I would always shank too many balls”. 
“I think it was hard for me to consistently just keep on attacking with the backhand. Today it seems almost not a problem anymore to do it”.

While the backhand has clearly improved against Nadal, the foundation of Federer's game remains the serve, and he churned out some very good numbers in that department in 2017. In Shanghai, the Swiss sent down 10 aces and won 83% of points on his first serve; 79% on his second. If you are producing numbers like that, the chances of losing matches- against anyone- are very remote. 

Nadal actually served at a higher percentage in that Shanghai meeting, (74% to 68%), but Federer's improved, aggressive returning had the Spaniard in all sorts of trouble, with the Swiss breaking thrice in the 6-4 6-3 victory.

“I just think I'm not so scarred like maybe I have been in the past, not that I was horribly scarred in any way, but I did lose against him sometimes, a lot of the times especially on the clay courts”, Federer said.

So, to the big question- Can the great Swiss continue his dominance over Nadal on the clay of Roland Garros on Friday?

It will be extremely tough for Federer, as clay doesn't just offer higher bounce to Nadal's forehand- thus making it more difficult for Federer to attack- but it is also slower than the venues of their 2017 meetings, giving Nadal- an excellent defender- more time to recover when Federer does get the ball to attack. While it is easier to hit through the Spaniard on the hard courts of Shanghai, it is incredibly difficult to pierce his defences on the Roland Garros clay.

One thing Federer has going for him is a psychological advantage in this rivalry, as Nadal could still be carrying some scars from those 2017 defeats. 

That said, the Spaniard goes in as a heavy favourite to my mind. He is 13-2 against Federer on clay, and 5-0 at Roland Garros, and after a slow start to his clay court season, has been in terrific form in Paris. Federer must give himself a chance by serving very well, and sticking to the ultra-aggressive tactics that got him those wins in 2017, but I don’t think whatever he does will be enough as Nadal is a completely beast on this surface.

Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal is live from Roland Garros on Friday, 6 June.

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Federer vs Nadal: Can Federer continue his recent dominance over Nadal on the clay of Roland Garros?

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet at Roland Garros on Friday. Nadal is 5-0 over Federer at the French Open, but Federer is on a 5-0 run against the Spaniard. Can the Swiss continue his recent dominance over Nadal on the Friday?

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