Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal on November 28 in the ATP Tour World Finals in London. This came as a surprise to many, as Nadal had a 14-7 edge in their matches. Many have said that Federer is the best tennis player of all time, but right now he may not even be the best of his generation, which is paradoxical to say the least.

Nadal’s strategy against Federer is simple: camp out on Federer’s backhand and pound high balls there until he gets a short one and then rifle it away for a winner. This has worked perfectly in the past. Federer would start to get defensive because he couldn’t hit an aggressive shot when the ball jumped up so high and the 14-7 advantage in match play told the story.

That scenario was different in this year’s final.

One could see Nadal’s strategy early in the match—keep it away from the lethal forehand of Federer and make him hit those high bouncing backhands. But Federer started to do something differently this time around. He started to hit them earlier, time them perfectly, and hit them away for winners. We haven’t seen something like that in the Federer-Nadal matches since the early days, when Federer really had a fighting chance against Nadal whenever they played. This was the Roger of old, the Roger who left us in awe in his early days and led to a moving and lengthy 2006 Sunday New York Times article entitled Roger Federer as a Religious Experience

What happened?

Well, one can say he hired a new coach (which he did), who told him to be more aggressive out there (which he was). But there is a tiny detail that had to be part of the puzzle before that strategy could be successful. It is called execution. Why could Federer execute this strategy in this match, while he had difficulty executing it in former matches? That is the real question.

Here is the answer.

Signals about the shot bypassed his pre-frontal cortex and went directly to his motor system, which allowed his cerebellum to fire his fast-twitch muscles. This resulted in more racquet head speed and better timing. Now since everyone understands those dynamics, I can end this article here. 

Alright, maybe not.

Sports is all about motion, motion is all about the muscles, and the muscles have an operating system. That operating system is located in the brain. Therefore, if you want to understand why Federer beat Nadal in that match, you have to look at what was happening in Federer’s brain. Something different was happening from previous matches that allowed him to take those high backhands of Nadal and slam them back as winners. 

To create motion in the body, a signal enters the brain. If it goes directly to the motor system and bypasses the pre-frontal cortex, then world-class motion can be produced. This is exactly what Federer did.

Essentially this is done by thinking less, since the pre-frontal cortex is the intellect. But why was he able to do this in this match and not other matches? That is a really interesting question.

Federer was waiting for the ball differently in this match. How you wait for the ball determines how you hit the ball, because 90% of the shot is formed when you are doing nothing on the court. To prove this, here is a simple example that anyone who has played a tennis match has experienced.

Let’s say deep in the second set of a match your opponent hits a first serve that is two inches out and is not in play. You proceed to hit a perfect return. But of course the point doesn’t count because the serve was out. Your opponent then has to hit a second serve. Your opponent hits a second serve that is two inches in and you have to play the point out. You return that second serve with a defensive, somewhat weak, off your back-foot return that barely gets the ball in play. Why did you hit such a good return on the first serve when the ball was out and such a mediocre return on the second serve when it counted?

Because how you waited for the ball after you acknowledged whether the ball was in or out was different. It’s as simple as that. Even though this drama is unfolding in fractions of seconds, these fractions of seconds are where tennis matches (and most sporting events) are either won or lost.

Federer waited for Nadal’s shots the same way you waited when you acknowledged that the serve was out. Because of that, he was able to hit out with freedom. He waited for the ball the same way he waited for the ball in all those years when he dominated tennis like no other player in the history of the sport. When that happens, and he waits for a ball in deep silence, the signal about the shot bypasses his pre-frontal cortex and goes right to his motor system. This allows his cerebellum to fire his fast-twitch muscles, which produces winners. 

The result:

6-3, 3-6, 6-1 for Roger.