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French Hors D'oeuvre
by Steve Flink

After five previous defeats, Federer finally beat Nadal on clay.
I don't know about you, but I was up bright and early on Sunday morning to watch the latest episode in the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal head-to-head series as it unfolded on the Tennis Channel. The two best players in the world clashed on the red clay in Hamburg, with Nadal holding a commanding 5-0 career lead over Federer on clay. Moreover, the Spaniard had captured 81 consecutive matches on his favorite surface. He had never lost a clay court final. The weight of his record and the size of his slow court reputation made Nadal the clear favorite to win once more against his primary rival.

Not only had Nadal swept three straight clay court titles on his way to Hamburg, but he had also recorded triumphs in four of his previous five events overall in 2007, while Federer had been beaten in his last four tournament appearances, including two on clay. But the Swiss stylist reminded us all that he is a man of rare gifts and strong stock. After a dismal start, he rallied gamely to topple Nadal 2-6, 6-2, 6-0. Federer was completely outplayed in the opening set, confused about when and how to attack, serving abysmally, missing too many high balls off both sides. But Federer found his range in timely fashion, bailing himself out of a serious corner at 1-1, 15-40 in the second set, stepping up his attack to close out that chapter.

In the first game of the third set, Federer was down break point but produced an excellent first serve to Nadal's forehand that set up a swing volley winner. From that juncture, an increasingly confident and often dazzling Federer would not look back. Nadal made a cluster of uncharacteristic unforced errors across the last two sets, finishing with 34 for the match, which was three more than Federer. Nadal hardly ever beats himself, but on this occasion he did to some extent. He also lost his length off the ground.

Nonetheless, Federer deserves full credit for recouping so boldly. He broke free of his inhibition and played precisely the free wheeling brand of tennis he likes most, displaying his unique capacity to orchestrate points with panache, taking command from the baseline, moving forward opportunistically.

But as brilliant as Federer was, as well as he regrouped over the second and third sets, this was not the essential Nadal. Federer recognized how crucial it was for him to win his first clay court tournament in two years, and finally found a way to overcome Nadal on clay. Federer clearly needed to iron out some serious wrinkles in his clay court game at Hamburg, but Nadal had already done the grooming. Hamburg was his fourth tournament in a demanding and debilitating five week stretch. My guess is that he would have preferred not to play in Hamburg, but in both 2005 and 2006 he had pulled out of the event after exhausting five set finals the week before in Rome against Guillermo Coria and Federer respectively. He felt obligated to show up this time around and not let the German fans down again, but playing ten matches in less than two weeks was, in the end, too taxing for the Spaniard.

He was listless in the latter stages against Federer, devoid of spark, unable to find anything like his customary level of intensity. He is a champion fueled by emotion, lifting himself and his game demonstrably when it counts, sensing when it is time to take the initiative. Not so on this occasion. In the last two sets, only seven points lasted 10 strokes or more. Federer served exceedingly well in the last two sets, was aggressive when he needed to be and knew when to release his biggest shots. And yet, Nadal was missing alarmingly, allowing Federer to reach a larger comfort zone from the back of the court. Nadal knows it is critical to keep probing until he gives Federer enough opportunities to miss, but on this occasion the left-handed Spaniard was impatient.

How significant is this win for Federer? He could not afford another loss to anyone coming into Roland Garros, and a sixth straight clay court defeat at the hands of Nadal would have been very bruising. On the eve of his duel with Nadal in Hamburg, Federer speculated on what a victory would do for his morale."That would surely boost my energy, my motivation and my confidence for the French Open," he said. He will now approach Roland Garros revitalized, with renewed conviction. Had he not come through in Hamburg, he would have been pessimistic about the French Open. His uneasiness about how he was playing was evident all through the tournament in Germany as the world No. 1 lost a set in all but one of his five matches. But after a stirring finish against Nadal, Federer will be exhilarated about performing again in Paris. He will like his chances.

Nadal, however, will not be swayed by suffering a fourth loss in 25 career final round appointments. The night before facing Federer in Hamburg, Nadal said,"I have no pressure," said Nadal of that match."Win or lose I will go to Paris with the best of confidence." Realizing how drained he was, Nadal may have been hoping for the best yet bracing himself for the worst in that match. But the view here is that Nadal will be confident about conducting a third triumphant campaign in a row at Roland Garros. Nadal fully believes he is the finest clay court player in the world, and has the record to prove it.

Roger Federer raised the stakes for Paris by defeating Rafael Nadal in Hamburg but Nadal will rise to the challenge at the next Grand Slam event. Nadal remains the man to beat at Roland Garros.

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