When did Federer really believe he could ‘hurt Nadal’ on clay?

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Ivan Ljubicic: Coaching, playing and knowing Roger Federer
Tennis Podcast, 35.09 minutes, on all usual podcast apps

After going nearly five years without a Grand Slam title Roger Federer turned to his good friend and former World No.3 Ivan Ljubicic in a quest to end the drought. The partnership worked as Federer won three more Grand Slams to take his tally to 20, starting with the 2017 Australian Open win over Rafael Nadal.

“I remember the meal we had together and he casually asked me to consider coaching him… I was surprised and I was overwhelmed and excited,” Ljubicic tells the host of the Tennis Podcast, David Law. The two had been talking on and off about Federer’s game before the Swiss great asked Ljubicic to take a full-time role.

Law says he has been trying to get a Ljubicic interview since 2016 but it was only when Federer decided to retire that the Croatian agreed. The timing, as Federer plays in the Laver Cup, is perfect and Ljubicic does give some wonderful insights related to past matches when he was coach.

The Croat talks about why Federer took a break after the 2016 Wimbledon, how they trained during the long break before the Australian Open and why after beating Nadal in five gruelling sets at Melbourne Park, Federer felt superior to him on other surfaces (other than clay).

“I think that match changed his way of experiencing Rafa I believe… After that match, he felt more and more confident that he has it on his racket which wasn’t the case with Rafa many times before that. And so I think after that match he believed more and also played tactically a bit different.”

So high was Federer’s confidence in his game that when he played Nadal in the semifinals of the 2019 French Open, he believed he could ‘hurt Nadal on clay.’

If not for a dust storm, the 2019 French Open semifinals, which Nadal won in three sets, would have been a closer affair, Ljubicic believes.

Hitting over the backhand instead of slicing it, playing close to the baseline and coming more to the net when needed are some of the changes Ljubicic and Federer worked on.

“Because slicing makes you run a lot and makes you defend, which is ok when you 23-25, but when you are 35, defending a lot… it is just physically draining. I felt Roger is best inside the court and on the baseline instead of far away from the baseline,” Ljubicic tells Law.

When the two teamed up, the goal was to win a Grand Slam again. Federer regained the No.1 ranking in February 2018 and at 36 became the oldest ever to achieve the feat. “No.1 spot was amazing.” He defended the Australian Open title a year later in 2018 and also won Wimbledon in 2017.

After one of the greatest Wimbledon finals — 2019 versus Novak Djokovic — which didn’t for Federer’s way, Ljubicic didn’t really have anything to tell Federer about his game because he had played near perfect.

Ljubicic talks about how emotional he was when Federer beat Nadal in the 2019 Wimbledon semifinal and then lost in a five-hour marathon match in five sets to Novak Djokovic.

“There is no way around it… I felt he played extremely well… It is painful.”

Cut to 2022, and till the time around Wimbledon, Federer’s comeback seemed to be on track but then things changed, Ljubicic reveals.

“…all the way until Wimbledon was good progress but after Wimbledon it was the first setback. Roger started to think probably enough now. He is 41.”

Ljubicic and Federer go back a long way and they hit if off as friends off the court even before Federer’s rise – from a tantrum-throwing youngster to arguably the greatest tennis player ever.

Ljubicic, now 43, also rewinds to a time when he was 17 and Federer 15 and the both of them first met during a Futures tournament.

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