ROGER Federer has closed out the first set 6-4 with a surgically precise service game. Rafael Nadal, serving 15-0 in the first game of the second set, swings one into Federer’s body, the ball kicking and swerving away from the right hander.
Federer plays a checked, looping backhand down the middle, a defensive response calculated to buy some time to get back into the point. Nadal sets himself up on the baseline and hammers a piledriver of a forehand back at his rival.
Nadal’s relentless strafing of his weaker side pushes Federer further onto the defensive. He tries to change the angle of play with a blocked backhand cross court. Rafa runs onto the ball, his momentum giving his forehand added venom.
Rafa’s cross-court forehand has been Federer’s bugbear ever since the two first met in Miami in 2004. Thanks to a combination of venomous topspin and high bounce, Federer is forced to play his backhand at about the level of his shoulder or even higher.
This Rafa shot is a replica of all the shots he has tormented Federer with over the last 13 years – loaded with spin and bounce, swerving out wide and jerking Federer off-court as if on a string. Federer’s response, an attempted pass down the line, is weak; Rafa runs across to cut off the angle and volleys it deep into the untenanted desert that is Federer’s forehand side.
Vamos! The Rafa battle-cry echoes around the stands; the answering call of ‘Come onnnnnn Roger’ is equally fervent. And sometimes – possibly a trick of the acoustics, probably wishful thinking, or maybe a very real comment on the nature of the most remarkable rivalry in contemporary sport — it feels like the same people are rooting for both players.