Fast and furious: Hitting with Rafa and Roger
Ever wonder what it’s like to play against Rafael Nadal or Roger
It’s a fast-paced, mentally draining, physically exhausting,
intimidating process that typically results in being worn down to
submission. The little yellow ball zooms forward, twisting in a
swish of speed and power, and the goal is to hit it back – again
and again and again.
Nothing quite prepares even the pros for playing Rafa and Roger.
Just ask their rivals.
Federer’s opponent Friday was 30-year-old Xavier Malisse, a
Belgian who has known the Swiss star since they were 12. They both
turned pro in 1998. Malisse never quite became a household name,
while Federer went on to win 16 Grand Slam titles and is commonly
called one of the greatest players of all time.
”He’s extraordinary,” Malisse said in an interview after
losing their third-round match, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. Like most players
who lose to Federer, he was disappointed but reverential. ”His
style was like that in the beginning, when he was 12. But when you
see how it evolved – it’s another world.”
”When he hits the ball, there’s an incredible speed. You’re
always on the defensive. You have to adapt to each point but you
don’t have time,” said Malisse, who is ranked 45th from a career
high of No. 19. ”He’s a perfect player.”
The 29-year-old Federer exudes calm on the court and an
effortless grace, which belies the intense power of his shots and
his ability to usually outthink and outmaneuver opponents by
anticipating their next move.
Federer often says that after all these years he still enjoys
tennis, and his enjoyment is apparent on the court. He is not
tortured by the pressure of living up to his reputation. After
Friday’s match, he was asked what keeps him excited about tennis
and Federer said he loves playing on center courts around the
”It takes a lot of hard work to get there,” said Federer, who
has a staggering record of 755 wins during his career and 177
losses. ”When you’re there, you want to stay there.”
Nadal’s style is different. The 24-year-old Spaniard is
muscular, intense and phenomenally athletic. He relentlessly chases
down balls and pounds them back with viscous topspin. Since Nadal
turned pro in 2001, he has won 477 matches and lost 102. He owns
nine Grand Slam singles trophies.
Together, Federer and Nadal have monopolized the No. 1 and No. 2
year-end rankings since 2004. Nadal is currently in the top spot
and trying to complete a ”Rafa Slam” by winning his fourth Grand
Slam in a row. Federer is bidding to become the second man in
history to win five Australian Opens. A Federer-Nadal matchup in
Melbourne could only happen in the final.
Frenchman Gilles Simon gave Federer his biggest scare of the
tournament so far, pushing him to five demanding sets in the
Simon has been ranked as high as No. 6. He is one of only three
men on the tour – beside Nadal and Andy Murray – with a winning
record against the Swiss great but he said Federer remains an
enigma to him.
Simon described the experience of playing against Federer as ”a
little bit strange.”
”You look at the ball, and you have the impression that you
can’t do anything in the moment,” he said, adding that he felt
like he was running nonstop for three hours, while Federer was
still speedy at the end. ”I feel like he’s in control, he can do
whatever he wants.”
No. 5 Andy Murray holds an 8-to-6 edge over Federer but has
never beaten him at a Grand Slam, including last year’s Australian
Open final. He makes it a point to study Federer and Nadal.
”If they’re on TV and you’re in the hotel, you’ll definitely
sit and watch some. You can learn a lot from those guys,” Murray
No. 3 Novak Djokovic is directly behind Rafa and Roger in the
rankings but considers the gap enormous.
”I’m in this small group of players behind them that is trying
to challenge them in each event,” Djokovic said earlier this week.
He has succeeded in beating Nadal 7 out of 23 times. He has beaten
Federer in 6 of their 19 matches.
”They are physically fit and mentally very strong,” said
Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion who finished No. 3 last
year for the fourth year in a row.
Like others, Djokovic marveled at Federer’s and Nadal’s seeming
lack of weaknesses and their ability to keep getting better and
”This mental strength is I guess a big advantage over the other
opponents,” he said. ”They always play in full speed, especially
Nadal’s most recent victim was American qualifier Ryan Sweeting
on Thursday. Nadal’s quick, clinical straight-set win didn’t take
long but left the 23-year-old American wiped out.
”Mentally it was draining. It wore me physically,” Sweeting
”I’m running, running, and running just to get a point in the
game,” he said. ”With Rafa, he’s so fast and so strong that he
gets there and he gets the ball back deep and you have to start all
over. You have to win the point two or three times just in order to
get a 15-love.”
But he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
”I was very excited,” Sweeting said. ”It’s not every day you
get to go head-to-head against the No. 1 player in the world,
possibly one of the best to ever play the game.”