Although their 38th meeting ended in a 6-4, 6-3 win, his fifth in a row against his Spanish southpaw rival, Federer still trails Nadal 15 to 23 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head. The Nadal playbook has always been simple, but historically effective against Federer: use heavy topspin forehands to pound away at the weaker Federer one-handed backhand and attack the open court at the first opportunity.
But in 2017, the Swiss has managed to flip the script.
“I think I'm maybe serving consistently better. I get easier power ever since I switched to the bigger racquet, the RF97. I feel I'm connecting better on the backhand and I'm serving good, and that consistently,” said Federer, who at one point in Sunday’s final won a service game in 52 seconds with four straight aces.
“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,” he added.
Aggressive backhand play has been a characteristic of the 36 year old’s renaissance this season, allowing him yet another dimension in his fluid, attacking style of tennis. Although his one-hander hasn’t always been a weapon, 11 of Federer’s 28 winners in the Shanghai final came off that wing.
“I think it was hard for me to consistently just keep on attacking with the backhand,” Federer said. “Today it seems almost not a problem anymore to do it."
In what has been one of tennis’s most storied rivalries, Nadal has often come out on top, particularly on his beloved clay courts, upon which he owns a 13-2 record against the Swiss legend – Federer admits that those matches took their toll on him in previous seasons.
“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. I do believe I still lost that Wimbledon final in '08 because of the French Open beatdown he gave me. It just affected my first two sets when I played him at Wimbledon.
“But, yeah, I think I have also played him well. Clearly avoiding him – not playing him on clay has helped,” added Federer. “So I'm able to stay on the hard courts or on faster courts against him, but I have been playing very well when I have faced off against him."
Federer’s Shanghai crown this week keeps him in contention for the year-end No.1 spot in the Emirates ATP Rankings, which would have been all but sealed for Nadal had he emerged victorious in the final. With strong results at the upcoming tournaments in Basel and Paris, Federer has the opportunity to set up a dramatic climax to the season: a fight for No.1 at the Nitto ATP Finals for the second straight year (Murray d. Djokovic in 2016 to claim the top spot.)
Despite closing the gap with Nadal on both the No.1 ranking and in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series this season, Federer insists that they aren’t targets for him – especially in the latter metric, where the Spaniard still leads by eight wins.
“It's not going to happen,” said Federer bluntly on overtaking Nadal in their rivalry. “We don't have enough years left on the tour, and we're ranked too good that we play each other only in finals at the moment. It looks like that's going to stay like this for a few months more. So can't win them all against Rafa, to be honest. He's too good of a player.
“I'm just excited I'm on a good stretch right now. Head-to-heads? Yeah, sure, I would like it to be different, but I have utmost respect for Rafa. It's been a tough matchup for me, and I tried my best. I have played him a lot on clay in the beginning of my career. No problem. I tried. I was close on many occasions, but he's better on clay. I try to win the other ones that I can, and this year has been great so I'm happy about it.”