Roger Federer’s Shanghai Masters win on Sunday was significant in more ways than one.
Not only did Federer bag his 94th career title to tie Ivan Lendl for second on the list of most ATP Tour titles won (Jimmy Connors leads the way with 109 titles), but - and perhaps more significantly - it was also Federer’s fifth straight win over great rival Rafael Nadal.
It was the first time in the duo’s storied rivalry that Federer has beaten Nadal five times in a row and the comprehensive manner in which he dispatched the current world No 1 suggested he has finally solved the puzzle against a player he's struggled against so often in the past.
Nadal still owns a 23-15 winning head-to-head record against Federer, but his last win came at the 2014 Australian Open.
Since then it’s been all Federer and there are a few reasons for Federer’s recent dominance.
The biggest is Federer’s backhand has improved markedly - and a racquet change shortly after that Australian Open defeat had a lot to do with it.
In 2014, Federer opted for a bigger, 97 square-inch frame racquet - a change that no doubt aided the Swiss great’s late career revival.
It took Federer some time to get used to the bigger Wilson frame - he had previously played with one of the smallest frames on tour - but greater power and consistency allowed him to elevate his game to greater heights.
Federer is serving as "big" and precise as ever, but improvement in one shot in particular has proved vital in his match-up against Nadal.
Federer’s topspin backhand has become a major weapon that Nadal has struggled to deal with.
Thanks to greater control with the new frame, the Swiss great is coming over his backhand more often and with greater effect - especially on the return of serve.
In the past, Nadal’s heavy left-handed topspin forehands would go straight to Federer’s backhand, with the Swiss often either slicing or chipping the ball back, allowing Nadal to dictate.
It was a simple strategy for the Spaniard, but with Federer displaying more confidence in going over his backhand, Nadal has been unable to make enough inroads of late.
Federer’s epic five-set win over Nadal in this year’s Australian Open final was his first major title in five years, and served as a launch-pad for more successes against Nadal.
His heroics Down Under no doubt instilled greater confidence in Federer when facing his greatest rival.
Nadal was comprehensively beaten in straight sets at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters, before more of the same took place in Shanghai on Sunday.
Federer is remarkably also yet to drop serve in his last six sets against his Spanish foe.
In a press conference following Sunday’s win, Federer was asked what had enabled him to turn the tables.
He acknowledged that the bigger racquet, the RF97, had improved his serve and backhand.
“I feel I'm connecting better on the backhand and I'm serving good, and that consistently. 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," Federer said, as quoted by the ATP's official website.
On Sunday, 11 of Federer’s 28 winners came off the backhand wing.
“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," Federer continued.
Federer’s recent wins over Nadal have all come on relatively quick hard courts, and the Spaniard will argue that the tables will be turned on his beloved clay.
The "King of Clay" has won 13 of the 15 meetings with Federer on the red dirt, but their last meeting on that surface came back in 2013.
That, Federer believes, has helped him improve in the head-to-head stakes against Nadal.
“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. But, yeah, I think I have also played him well. Clearly avoiding him - not playing him on clay has helped,” Federer admitted.
Therefore, for Federer to continue his dominance against Nadal the answer is clear-cut: avoid clay!
He is on the wrong side of 35 and given the physical demands of the clay surface, it wouldn’t surprise me if we never see the 19-time major winner appear on the surface again...
Herman Mostert works at Sport24, is a struggling golfer and enjoys tennis...
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