Tennis Heartbeat – Federer edges Nadal to win 18th grand slam

It was November 2011. Federer faced Tsonga at the ATP Finals to mark the 100th final of his career. A set and break up, he began serving for the match with less than 90 mins on the clock. I turned to my better half reiterating my prediction about winning Wimbledon in 2012. The one who lives in the moment was not too keen to look that far ahead. The unspoken thought was the earlier loss to Djokovic at US Open squandering 2 match points on serve. Tsonga broke Federer and won the set in a tiebreaker, incidentally saving a match point. Perhaps an hour later Federer started serving again for the match. He closed it out without any drama winning 6-3, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3 to capture 6th year-end title. That hour or so was spent hardly watching the game, mostly remembering the highs, and reassuring that his game was still solid to win 7 matches over 2 weeks.

Cricket is a game of aggregation. A run scored is worth the same irrespective of when and how it was scored. Tennis is slightly dissimilar, some points are worth more than the others. It is a game where a player can lose the match despite winning more points. 980 points were played over 665 minutes between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut over 183 games in the final score that read 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68. Mahut won 502 points setting a new record for most points won in a match yet failed to qualify for the next round. I wrote about this match earlier and during that epic battle, I kept thinking about a way to represent the ebbs and flows succinctly.

Federer won Wimbledon in 2012 win and regained #1 spot. But my belief that #17 was a week away got severely tested during the 3rd round when Bennettau almost followed Rosol in pulling off a sensational upset. Federer’s back also seemed to be a problem while he continued to progress. Then a familiar obstacle in Djokovic awaited at semifinal stage.

Cautiously optimistic, I decided to test my idea of enhanced tennis points during the match. I checked the final score after each game and live tweeted as below:

5 points played in the opening game with Federer holding comfortably at 15. I allocated 4 units to Federer and 1 to Djokovic. Novak held his serve at love so he moves ahead with a total of 5 units to Federer’s 4. Federer broke in 6th game to win the first set 6-3. Since all points are not equal, he earned extra credit for the break and winning the set.

He eventually defeated Djokovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to face Murray in the final. Feeling confident, this time I decided to record each point in a spreadsheet and published a chart at the end of each set:

After title #17, Federer reached 3 more finals, each one against Novak Djokovic. The first was at Wimbledon 2014 which he lost 7–6(9–7), 4–6, 6–7(4–7), 7–5, 4–6. Not expecting a win, I followed the game without recording each point. The fourth set was one of the best I have ever seen and in the early exchanges of 5th, it looked as if Roger was about to stage an upset. Both these players met again at the same stage in Wimbledon 2015. Feeling more confident this time, the spreadsheet was out as a lucky charm for #18. Unaware of his 100% record in winning grand slam finals when I kept a tally of each point, Roger lost in 4 sets 6–7(1–7), 7–6(12–10), 4–6, 3–6.

Another final at US Open against the familiar foe ended 4–6, 7–5, 4–6, 4–6. 2016 was a repeat of 2013 with no appearance in any slam final. After his semi-final exit, injury kept Roger away for 6 months. Jun 2010 prediction of 20 titles or more was quietly downgraded to 50 QF appearances.

The unfathomable Roger-Rafa final happened at the Australian Open 2017. Spreadsheet was out. All points recorded. The break in opening game of the final set did not diminish the hope and soon 1-3 deficit was overturned by winning the next 5 games.

Federer won 6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3. Three sets finished in 9 games but ebbs and flows of each one are different. Following illustrations should help understand how the game unfolded.

set1

In the sparring first set, both treated each other with respect. 4 of the 10 games were held at love and 2 more at 15. 3 other games went as far as 30. The pivotal game was the seventh. Federer went up 0-15. Nadal levelled at 15-15. Federer went ahead 15-30. A perfect drive volley earned him a break point and a wide cross-court by Nadal handed him the game.

Federer won 6-4 in the first set. There were 10 games, each player serving 5 times.The background alternates between blue and dushy pink representing Nadal and Federer serves. Red and Dark Blue colours are used to chart the progress of points won by Federer and Nadal. There are no units or grid lines on y-axis as the actual value of allocated points is immaterial. The state of the game is revealed by the difference between the line curves. On x-axis, each tick represents a point played. Total points played in each game are clearly mentioned. Each player is expected to win on serve hence no additional points for winning a game on serve. We can see that the dark blue curve rises after each tick in the first game while the red one remains at zero. This represents a love hold for Nadal. There are 6 points in the next game with no sharp difference between 2 curves. It means Federer held at 30. Nadal holds at 30 in 3rd game. Federer wins at 15 in 4th. Two love holds in 5th and 6th game. 7th game is the pivotal one where we see the red curve rising sharply denoting a break point. The next tick shows red curve rising slightly which means Federer broke. A love hold in 8th for Federer. Nadal holds a 6 point 9th game. Federer served out in 10th game. Even sharper increase denotes a set point for Federer and the next point concludes the set in his favour.

Set2.png

This the first of three 6-3 sets. Once again Nadal served first and held at 15. Federer dropped only 4 points on his serve in the first set but now his forehand was severely tested in an 8 point game.with 1 deuce (highlighted with a coloured dot). Nadal goes up 0-30 but Federer levels it 30-30. Sharp increase in blue curve represents Nadal’s first break-point which Federer saved. Red dot denotes a deuce. Nadal gets second break point which he duly converts. The difference between red and dark blue at the end of second game shows Nadal’s lead early in the set. The next game is even longer with 12 points. This time Federer earns a break point which was saved by Nadal for the first deuce. He surges ahead but Federer levels for second deuce. The second break point is also saved by Nadal for the third deuce after which he holds to go up 3-0. Federer’s serve is under pressure in 4th game as well. Nadal races to 0-40 earning 3 break points. Federer saves first two hence the blue curve remains flat. Nadal converts 3rd break point to lead 4-0. Federer broke Nadal in 5th to reduce the deficit. No further drama with easy holds in next 4 games. This set ended 6-3 with 3 breaks and a hard fought 4th game that included 2 break points which the final score does not reveal.

Set3.png

Federer won the third set 6-1 but it was not one way traffic. 3 break points at deuce earned by Nadal were saved by aggressive serving in opening game. Aces and double faults were not recorded. If the data were available we could highlight the flurry of aces served by Roger. He doled out 2 love games in 3rd and 5th. Nadal was standing about 8 feet behind baseline. Federer stood no more than a foot behind and capitulated on Nadal’s errors to break him in 2nd and 6th game. In between Nadal held one serve in 4th saving 3 break points in a 4 deuce game. Federer served for the set, two breaks up, but Nadal raced ahead earning first of his two break points. Federer saved the first one and then led to reach set point. Nadal saved it with 2nd deuce then had another opportunity to break. Federer won last 3 points to take the set 6-1.

Set4.png

Momentum shifted again. Federer’s forehand was weakened. Nadal took the opportunity in 4th game to break him with improbable angles. He was under pressure in 5th in a 10 point game without conceding any break points. Federer saved a break point in the 6th game. After that both players held remarkably. The second of 6-3 scorelines was decided by a solitary break.

There were no break point opportunities for Roger in the 4th while his serve was under pressure. Federer took a medical time out before the 5th set ro treat his troublesome groin. ATP physio was also called during the set to massage his thigh.

set5

Nadal broke Federer in the opening game of fifth set. Federer responded with 3 break points on Nadal’s serve but unable to convert any. Federer serves out 3rd game at love. Looking to break even, willing to sit out another 6 months if he had to, he continues to be aggressive earning another break point which is saved by Nadal. An easy hold for Federer in 5th game. Another break point opportunity is saved by Nadal in 6th. After deuce #2, Federer levels converting his 6th break opportunity. An easy hold in 7th. Rafa has shown to have unlimited reserves of stamina. Despite frenetic action, the fifth set is still on server with Roger ahead 4-3. He had to take his chances in the 8th to finish the game quickly carrying on the momentum. He had an opportunity to break in all three games served by Rafa. He wins 3 points in a row to lead 0-40. Surely it is game over now.

Not unexpectedly, Nadal saved all 3 break points. And then a fourth one too. There was a 26 stroke rally in between. But he could not save the fifth one. Roger started the ninth game to serve out for championship. He had conceded only 1 point in his last 3 service games. This should be easy.

In the do-or-die game, Nadal moves ahead at 0-30. Federer pulls one back at 15-30 but soon stares at 2 break points. The collective memories of all the matches, where he failed to close out, overwhelm those on and off the court. Everyone breathes as he saves these break points to move towards championship point. First one is saved though. He earns a second one. He serves again. There is a challenge by Rafa. Hawk-eye replay favours Federer. There was a short delay before he could celebrate winning the 18th slam. Some may argue that the delay was longer.

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