King of ClayBy Steve Flink
Coming into his final round contest against Roger Federer at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal had beaten his chief rival in seven of their eleven career skirmishes. But what many overlooked was the fact that the Spaniard had lost to the Swiss maestro three of the last four times they had clashed. After Nadal had upended Federer in the 2006 French Open final, he held a commanding 6-1 lead in the career series, but then Federer toppled the Spanish left-hander in a must win situation at Wimbledon in the championship match last year. They did not meet again until the semifinals at Hanover indoors last November, with Federer the victor again. Nadal reasserted his authority with a victory in the final of Monte Carlo on the clay in April of 2007, but then Federer turned the tables on foremost adversary with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 triumph in the final of Hamburg.
With that win, Federer ended Nadal's astounding 81 match winning streak on clay. He tried to convince himself that he really knew how to beat Nadal on clay and could do it again at Roland Garros. But I don't think he succeeded in building the kind of inner belief that he needed to overcome Nadal when it counts the most on the dirt. Throughout the final, it was strikingly apparent that Nadal was carrying himself with utter conviction while Federer conducted himself as if he thought he would not win. At Roland Garros, Nadal was raring to go all through the fortnight, and he finished off his third straight title run with a convincing 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph over Federer.
To be sure, he had some anxious moments along the way. In the opening set, Federer squandered no fewer than ten break points across three crucial Nadal service games. He pressed on some of those opportunities and could not contain an assertive Nadal on others. But Nadal came out of that set unscathed, breaking Federer twice in a row at the end to take the lead. Federer fought ferociously to salvage the second set but had to work exceedingly hard to make it back to one set all.
Federer disrupted Nadal's rhythm briefly in that second set and secured his one and only service break of the match for 4-3. But finishing off that chapter was rough on Federer. Nadal saved four set points at 3-5 and made Federer serve that set out. And yet it was apparent from the start of the third set that Federer was worn down physically by the barrage of heavy topspin Nadal was throwing at him. In the last two sets, Federer made 23 unforced errors compared to 9 for the Spaniard. In the match, Federer had 59 unprovoked mistakes while Nadal made only 27.
But what was most impressive about Nadal as he closed out this match was his first rate serving over the last two sets. His accuracy on that delivery was uncanny as he forced Federer to play too many tough returns off the backhand in both the deuce and advantage courts. Leading two sets to one, Nadal saved a break point at 0-1 in the fourth and thereafter swept 16 of 18 points on serve. He had problems during the tournament serving out sets against Lleyton Hewitt and Novak Djokovic, but this time around Nadal was entirely composed and aggressive when he needed to be.
He is simply too good for Federer or anyone else on clay, and that is why he has captured 88 of his last 89 matches on that surface. Nadal's propensity to roll his forehand high to Federer's backhand was evident again on this occasion as the Swiss miss-hit countless balls off that side. But, just as important, Nadal largely neutralized Federer's forehand and lured him into clusters of errors off that side as well. Finally, once Nadal got out in front again in the third set, he was controlling the rallies regularly and pounding winners relentlessly off his dazzling forehand. In fact, Nadal's forehand was the fundamental difference between these two champions in this collision; he dominated key stages of the match with that devastating shot, flattening it out to exploit his openings, leaving Federer stranded time and again with the force and deception of that stroke.
So what are the consequences of this encounter? For the second year in a row, Federer lost the chance to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep four majors in a row. He was denied the opportunity to establish himself as the sixth man ever to take all four Grand Slam events in the course of a career. And Federer must live with the fact that Nadal has recorded three consecutive four set triumphs over him at Roland Garros. Moreover, he has suffered only his second loss in 12 Grand Slam tournaments finals, with Nadal eclipsing him on both occasions.
From Nadal's standpoint, the positives are considerable. He joins Bjorn Borg (1978-81) as the only men to secure three or more French Open men’s singles titles in a row. He takes a significant step toward a serious challenge to Federer for the world's No. 1 ranking at the end of the year. Nadal has been victorious in five of his last seven tournaments this season. The key for him this year is to pace himself better, play up to his potential on the hard courts over the summer and indoors in the autumn, and chase the redoubtable Federer down to the wire for supremacy in the men's game.
Federer will undoubtedly come back strong at Wimbledon, and will be the overwhelming favorite to take his fifth crown in a row on the Centre Court. He will also be bidding for a fourth U.S. Open championship in a row, and will be hard to stop there as well. But Nadal made a terrific run to his first Wimbledon final a year ago, and could well make his way back to the title match again this year. He is also due to show us his brightest colors at the U.S. Open, where he has not shined the way he should in New York.
Meanwhile, Nadal must be immensely admired immensely for his prowess on clay. The guess here is that he will make a concerted effort to break Bjorn Borg's men record of six singles titles at Roland Garros. I would not put it past him to equal or surpass the implacable Swede on the Paris clay because he has such an astounding heart and a mental toughness no one else can match.Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com. Steve Flink Archive
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