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Steve Flink: Nadal's Glory

6/5/2008 2:59:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS - It was entirely fitting that Bjorn Borg was present to witness Rafael Nadal take apart Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final of the French Open. Borg, after all, had come to Wimbledon last year to see Federer tie his modern record of winning five men's singles titles in a row on the lawns of the All England Club in 2007. He seemed genuinely delighted for Federer on that occasion. Similarly, Borg has no problem with Nadal equaling his record of taking four Roland Garros championships in a row. As he said the day before the final, "If Nadal can win for the fourth time tomorrow at the French Open, it's an unbelievable achievement. I mean, the competition today is really, really tough with a lot of good players around. To win tournaments and to win Grand Slams is a hell of an effort."

Quite clearly it is. Nadal, however, did more than simply win this Grand Slam event to extend his stupendous match record to 28-0 on the red clay of Roland Garros. More than that, he took his game across this fortnight to another level. The 22-year-old did not concede a set for the first time in his four victorious campaigns, and that included triumphs back-to-back over his two premier rivals Novak Djokovic and Federer. He becomes the first man since Borg in 1980 to win the world's premier clay court event without losing a set, and Nadal is only the third man in the Open Era to realize that gigantic feat in Paris. Ilie Nastase in 1973 was the other man to record that achievement. Better still, Nadal joins an elite cast of only five Open Era men to win a Grand Slam event without conceding a set, joining Borg, Ken Rosewall, Nastase and Federer in that lofty territory.

What Nadal did to Federer this time around was breathtaking. To be sure, Federer was unmistakably apprehensive from the outset. It was apparent in the opening game of the match that the world No. 1 was overanxious. When he missed his trademark inside-out forehand off a relatively short return from Nadal at break point down, Federer's vulnerability was immediately established. Nadal broke him three times in sweeping through that set and then raced to 2-0 in the second set.

Then Federer made his move, and fought with quiet fury to find a way back into the match. Swinging away freely off both sides and taking well calculated risks, Federer got back to 2-2 and then held on again for 3-3. He knew full well that allowing Nadal to build a two sets to love lead would irreparably damage his chances. At 3-3, Federer had a break point which would have given him some breathing room at last, but Nadal, an uncannily intuitive big point player, wiped that chance away with a backhand drop shot down the line that Federer could not handle.

Thereafter, Federer's desperation was painfully evident. Serving at 3-4, Federer fought valiantly, but it was all to no avail. He threw everything he had at Nadal in that critical game but Nadal always had the answers. Three times he played serve-and-volley but the Spaniard was undaunted. The tactic backfired each time as Federer missed a drop volley and Nadal passed him cleanly twice. Federer managed to save three break points, but on the fourth Nadal's speed and anticipation were too much for the Swiss. Federer punched a solid forehand volley crosscourt but Nadal read that shot beautifully, chasing it down and whipping a backhand passing shot down the line for a winner.

That was essentially the match. Nadal comfortably served out that set, and never looked back. In the last five games of the match, he lost only seven points. Federer was understandably demoralized because the combination of his own ineptitude on the day and Nadal being in the zone was overwhelming. Nadal was painting the lines with winners, firing his inside-out forehand into the corners to leave Federer stranded, and never missing when it mattered. Nadal was relentlessly authoritative from the back of the court while Federer was injuring himself overwhelmingly with unprovoked mistakes. There was no way Federer could hold his own with Nadal from the baseline so he kept pressing forward. Nadal enjoyed having a target, and kept finding every opening to lace his passing shots.

In the opening set, Federer succeeded with only 3 of 9 net approaches. He improved to 13 of 23 in the second set, but, with the despondency unmistakably setting it, Federer won only 2 of 10 points coming forward in the third and last set. And so he suffered his most lopsided loss at a major since taking over at the top of the men's game early in 2004, and the worst loss any world No. 1 has suffered at a major in memory. No other Federer loss as the world's best player at a major was even close to being this one-sided. And what makes it even more remarkable is that Federer connected with 68% of his first serves in the match, and yet he was broken no less than eight times in the brief encounter.

This match is probably going to have lasting implications for both players. Nadal will be brimming with confidence as he heads into Wimbledon, knowing he made it to the finals there the past two years, hoping he can give himself another chance to prevail on the grass. Winning so emphatically over Federer after dismissing Djokovic in straight sets on the Paris clay will provide a considerable boost to the Spaniard as he goes out onto the grass. But Federer could have considerable difficulty recovering from such a devastating loss.

To be sure, Federer will redouble his efforts now to come through at the All England Club. He had won only one of nine tournaments he has played this year, and has lost consecutive Grand Slam events for the first time since 2005. That year, he was beaten in an epic by Marat Safin in the semifinals and then was ousted by Nadal in the semifinals at Roland Garros. To his great credit, he responded like an authentic champion and won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to close that year in style.
It might be a taller challenge this time around for Federer. While he remains irrefutably the game's best grass court player, he knows how close he came to losing the 2007 final on the Centre Court to Nadal, when the Spaniard twice had him down 15-40 in the early stages of the fifth set before Federer regrouped boldly to garner the title. This year, Djokovic, who beat Federer in the penultimate round of the Australian Open, will be a big threat along with Nadal on the British grass. Federer will not be able to let his guard down as he pursues a sixth crown in a row.

Be that as it may, Nadal must be saluted now for the magnitude of his accomplishment in Paris. For the fourth year in a row, and the third straight year in the championship match, Nadal upended Federer. Hard as it is to imagine, Nadal this year played the clay court game much better than he ever has before. He took matters into his own hands, took larger control of points, forced his adversaries to deal ceaselessly with his almost tangible intensity, his consistency, and his assertiveness. He stationed himself with much more regularity inside the baseline to take control of points.

Nadal is well on his way to surpassing Borg as the greatest clay court player in the history of the game. He should have at least five more good opportunities to win three more championships in Paris and move past the Swede in the record books. Federer got to the heart of the matter after his loss to Nadal. Asked if a great defense will beat a great offense on clay, he responded, "I don't know with Rafa if it's got that much to do with a great defense or a great offense. It's just his movement on the clay. It's just better than all the rest. He plays like two forehands from the baseline because he has an open stance on both sides. I can't do that, so I lose a meter or two here and there from the baseline. So he's got a huge advantage in this aspect."

The bottom line is that Federer made every conceivable attempt to take Nadal out of his rhythm. He rolled his ground strokes frequently at a higher trajectory, making Nadal deal with high, awkward balls on his two-hander. He tried to come in at unexpected moments. He mixed up his game more than he has in the past against the Spaniard on the Roland Garros clay. Nadal was simply so good that Federer became absolutely disheartened.

The King of Clay is riding high. To be sure, his task was eased by Federer, who self destructed toward the end of a jarring afternoon. But the fact remains that Nadal was soaring as he had been the entire fortnight, and when he is playing that way on the dirt he becomes an inexorable force. The frightening thing for his adversaries is that Nadal is probably going to get even better on clay over the next couple of years. The hope here is that one of these days he comes through deservedly at another Grand Slam championship outside of the Roland Garros gates.

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