Top-seeded titleholder Novak Djokovic, five-times champion Roger Federer and world No.2 Rafael Nadal are again the men to beat at the US Open.
In the film Avengers: Infinity War, Dr Strange (played by BenedictCumberswumberstumbers) went forward in time to view alternate futures ahead of a potential end-of-the-universe conflict.
Something we all do regularly, no?
Dr Strange saw 14,000,605 possible outcomes. And out of all those outcomes, the Avengers were the victors in just one.
Roger Federer may not have seen the aforementioned film. However, if he has, the Swiss Maestro may be forgiven for feeling that he has a one in 14,000,605 chance of beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open.
Nadal’s record at Roland Garros is 91 wins, two defeats.
In their clay court encounters, Federer has won on just two occasions. Nadal has won the other 13.
In grand slam matches, Nadal sits pretty with nine wins versus Federer’s three successes.
Specifically, at Roland Garros, the Spaniard has been the victor in all five of their contests.
I refer you, once again, to that very large number a few lines above.
So, what can Federer do to finally break his duck against Rafa in the French capital?
1. Be aggressive
Arguably a vague, sweeping statement, but Federer has to take the game to Nadal.
That means hitting a lot of topspin backhands, preferably as close to the baseline as possible so that he does not get pushed back close to the stands, hitting balls at head height.
By taking it early he has a chance of cutting off the angles and not ceding his attacking territory from around the baseline.
He must use the slice sparingly. However, if he does use it, Federer should keep it low and to the backhand side.
Nadal’s speed and rapier footwork allow him to get to the ball earlier, giving himself extra time to whip those low-risk topspin shots.
By slicing to Nadal, he has time to either get back into a rally when he is on the defensive or to go on the offensive and turn the tables.
Nadal will serve to Federer’s backhand for the majority of the match. That means Federer needs to hit through the ball – as he did in 2017, when he beat Rafa four straight times – and not do his customary chipped returns, which work wonders against big servers but not Nadal.
Now, this may be the difficult part: improving his break point conversion rate.
Federer breaks at 36 per cent. He took just two of his 18 opportunities against Stan Wawrinka. This puts him at 77th in the 128-player field.
Nadal, however, is at 57 per cent. This has to swing drastically in the 20-time slam champion’s favour for him to progress to the final.
It is an unenviable task, but Federer has to hit through his backhand on the return as much as possible, stay on that baseline and take time away from Rafa.
Striking that balance between attack and, well, not attack is such a difficult task. But slaying the clay court Goliath is just that.
2. Variety is key
When Novak Djokovic downed ‘El Matador’ in 2015 on the terre battue (clay), as the French say, he said the key to his victory was mixing it up.
“I tried to mix up the pace, get into the net. Drop shots, high balls, fast balls, always something different.”
This is precisely what Federer must do.
Federer must not be cowed by Rafa’s fearsome forehand.
To get to the backhand, players like Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko went hard into the forehand, which then led to a shorter ball and then they would step into the forecourt and target the backhand, with Rafa on the retreat.
Federer has been guilty of overhitting to the backhand wing. But when Nadal anticipates this, he can run around the backhand, crunch a forehand and then it’s lights out.
Coming to the net is key. It was key against Wawrinka and it can be key again versus Rafa. In the first two sets against his Swiss compatriot, he rushed the net just 14 times, but in the last two sets that rose to 46 times, and it proved to be successful.
Throw in some drop shots, serve and volley and keeping the points short will help too. SABR anyone?
3. He has to serve very well
Federer has always had the better serve of the two. It buys him far more cheap points, but less so on clay.
He has to post first serve percentage numbers of 70 and upwards and he must vary his serve tactics too.
In his five losses to Nadal on Philippe Chatrier, it has become axiomatic that when a rally starts from the back of the court, more often than not, Federer loses it.
Federer must not ditch the serve-and-volley tactic if it is unsuccessful at first.
Giving him a different look and making Nadal think about what Federer is going to do, rather than what he had planned to do, is a worthwhile course of action.
4. Winning the first set is a must
Nobody has ever beaten Nadal at the French Open after losing the first set. Robin Soderling and Djokovic got their noses out in front. Federer has to do this or it could end quickly.
He has beaten Rafa five times in a row so the belief will be there. The larger racquet turned what was a weakness against Nadal (the backhand) into a weapon.
If he can win the first set, he has a chance. If he loses it, it is game over.
At the grand old age of 37 and ten months, fitness may become an issue, so Federer has to try and win this over the shorter distance, which makes his task even harder.
But what does he think?
At a French Open press conference, he said: “Like against any player, there is always a chance. Otherwise, nobody will be in the stadium to watch because everybody already knows the result in advance.”
Ultimately, Nadal is still likely to prevail. The stars will need to align for the old-timer, but there is always hope.
Or as Gandalf once said: “There never was much hope. Just a fool’s hope.”