By Steve Flink
About an hour before Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal staged their gripping five set final at Wimbledon, I was watching the junior girls final out on Court 2. The sun was shining when Billie Jean King walked in to watch that match. I asked her what she thought was going to happen in the men's final. She replied, "It's so tough to say. But I really think Nadal has improved everywhere. People keep talking about the clay thing with him, and some people don't think he has gotten that much better on grass or hard courts. But I do. I really do. I can't wait to see them play the match."
As Nadal kept coming at Federer all across a gripping contest, I kept thinking about what Billie Jean had to say. Nadal has indeed made serious progress on all surfaces, and he gave himself every chance to succeed against Federer. In my view, he should have prevailed, and had he exploited his best opportunities he would now be the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. Instead, the redoubtable Federer has equaled Borg's modern mark of securing five consecutive Wimbledon men's singles titles and he now has eleven majors in his collection, putting himself in a tie for third on the all time list with Borg and Rod Laver, and only three behind the leader Pete Sampras. The man keeps making history, and he must be immensely admired for what he has done and what he will inevitably accomplish in the years ahead.
Federer made his own breaks and turned in a first rate, clutch performance. It was another career defining moment for him because the Swiss maestro so frequently glides through major finals. In his ten previous major finals, Federer carved out five straight set triumphs and five more in four sets. During his four previous victorious campaigns on the lawns at the All England Club, Federer had conceded a total of five sets in 28 matches. No one had ever stretched him to the full five sets--- not in the final, not in any round. So this was a singularly demanding experience for him. It is no mean feat to bring down a man of Nadal's physicality and intensity in the heat of a fifth set, and Federer did just that.
Let's reflect on the key stages of a great contest. The first set could have gone either way after Nadal rallied from 0-3 to 3-3. In the tie-break, Federer had 6-3, triple set point but Nadal stayed with him until 7-7, saving four set points. At 6-6 and again at 7-7 in that breaker, Nadal netted backhands. He did make flagrant, unprovoked mistakes but they were shots he would normally make. An opportunity was missed.
By the second set, Nadal was controlling the tempo of the contest, taking control of the baseline exchanges. He made it back to one set all. The third set was pivotal in many ways. Nadal was agonizingly close to winning it. Federer served at 4-5, deuce, two points away from trailing two sets to one. Here he showed his elegance and class with a wondrous backhand overhead winner, and then went on to record a clutch hold. At 5-6, Federer has his back to the wall again. Serving at 15-30, Nadal had Federer right where he wanted him, pinned in the back court. The Spaniard was poised to reach double set point, ready to nail a penetrating forehand. Overanxious, he drove that ball into the net, and then Federer held on with an ace and an unreturnable serve.
Once they proceeded to another tie-break, which Federer played with characteristic consistency and strategic acumen. But Nadal was his own worst enemy and never looked like succeeding. It was the second disappointing tie-break he had played. I thought at that stage Nadal was in real trouble, but he promptly broke serve in the opening game of the fourth set. Then, at 0-2, 30-30, Nadal used one of his Hawkeye challenges when his forehand was called long. Hawkeye ruled that the ball was on the line, and Nadal went on to get the break.
An aggrieved Federer, asked umpire Carlos Ramos at the changeover, "How in the world was that ball in?.... Hawkeye is killing me today." It was a rare moment when the normally imperturbable Swiss was losing composure. Nadal, despite calling for the trainer to put a bandage on his ailing right knee, ran out the set easily. He seemed on the verge of the biggest victory of his life. He reached 15-40 with Federer serving at 1-1. After Federer saved the first break point, Nadal had him on the run with an inside-out forehand. Federer responded with a fine running forehand crosscourt but Nadal had an opening, running around his backhand, only to miss his favorite forehand.
At 2-2, 15-40, Nadal failed to put a backhand return back into play off a second serve, a crucial error of execution and judgment. Federer then released another service winner and went on to hold for 3-2. He never looked back, soaring to another level. Federer played an outstanding game to break Nadal's serve and break the match wide open. At break point, he unleashed an ineffably biting, low sliced backhand crosscourt that Nadal could only scrape back, and then Federer stepped around his backhand for a glorious forehand which clipped the line for a winner. Federer came through 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2.
So Federer did many things to get himself out of a genuine crisis. The fact remains that Nadal lost the match as much as Federer won it. He had a chance to win the first set, he could and probably should have won the third, and had he broken Federer and gone ahead in the fifth set almost inevitably he would have come through. He should not be castigated for faltering at some crucial moments; this was, after all, Roger Federer on the other side of the net. But, remember, after his opening service game of the match, he was not broken again until he lost his serve twice at the end in the fifth set.
The pity for Nadal is that, despite being able to play this match largely on his own terms and dictating frequently from the baseline, he did not reward himself with a win. He prevented Federer from coming in as much as the Swiss would definitely have preferred. In the entire match, Federer advanced to the forecourt only 51 times, winning 30 of those points. Nadal turned it essentially into a back court contest for the most part, and did a typically good job of breaking down Federer's backhand with a heavy topspin forehand assault to that side, while sometimes going for bigger and more aggressive shots himself during the rallies. But, atypically, Nadal did not pounce when the match was there for the taking in the final set.
Nadal now knows unequivocally that he has the goods to beat Federer at Wimbledon on the grass, which was not really the case a year ago. Conversely, Federer has lost to Nadal three years in a row at Roland Garros, falling each time in four sets. In that setting, Federer has not made progress, but on the lawns of the All England Club Nadal clearly has.
The hope here is that Nadal keeps plugging away until he can capture a major away from the clay. He needs to play up to his full potential on hard courts and try to set up a final round appointment with Federer at the U.S. Open, to not allow Federer to run away with the No. 1 ranking for the year.
And if Nadal manages to do that, if he comes into 2008 with growing confidence, the guess here is that he will find a way to win Wimbledon. Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com. Steve Flink Archive
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