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Steve Flink: Federer Reignited in Madrid

5/18/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

He had lost five consecutive times to his prodigious rival Rafael Nadal over the past year, suffering three of those defeats in the finals of Grand Slam championships. He had not won a tournament since securing his 13th career major crown at the 2008 U.S. Open. Since bowing in a magnificent five set final against Nadal at the Australian Open in January, he had not made it back to another championship match. It was becoming increasingly apparent that his self conviction was significantly receding as his game let him down over and over again in the crucial stages of important contests.

But over the course of this past week at the Masters 1000 event in Madrid, everything seemed to fall neatly into place for Roger Federer. He had an excellent draw, casting aside Robin Soderling and James Blake, overcoming a surprisingly effective Andy Roddick, and then removing a listless and almost fatalistic Juan Martin Del Potro in a straight set semifinal triumph. That set the stage for Federer to confront and conquer Nadal. It was an impressive, polished, disciplined performance from the world No. 2, but he was facing an unmistakably fatigued Nadal in clay court conditions that do not even remotely resemble those at Roland Garros.

At first glance, it probably appeared to many observers that Nadal would surely topple the Swiss on the red clay. The Spaniard had, after all, captured 33 consecutive matches on clay and had lost only one of 26 finals on that surface. He had lost only once in ten previous clay court encounters with Federer, and had crushed his formidable rival 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in their most recent clash on the dirt at Roland Garros in 2008. So history pointed powerfully toward another Nadal win on a surface he owns against a player he had mastered in 13 of 19 career head to head showdowns altogether.

And yet, the recent swing of events ended up working entirely in Federer’s favor this time around. His timing in arriving for yet another appointment with Nadal was letter perfect. Nadal had been unassailable during the entire clay court season, losing only one set in the process of capturing the Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Italian Open titles. Competing three weeks in a row was a trying test even for the uncommonly resilient Spaniard, but he had come through impressively. He then took a week off before Madrid. Everything was proceeding smoothly for the world No. 1 as he took apart Jurgen Melzer 6-3, 6-1 and got a default from Philipp Kohlschreiber.

But the first signs of trouble for Nadal surfaced during his quarterfinal skirmish with countryman Fernando Verdasco. Nadal prevailed in a well played first set in this duel of left-handers. At 4-4, 0-30, he stunned Verdasco with a mind boggling backhand passing shot winner down the line from a seemingly desperate position. Nadal did not lose another point in closing out that set, but then fell into a dismal stretch in dropping the first four games of the second set. Verdasco, meanwhile, hit a golden patch off the ground and served inordinately well.

The match seemed certain to go the distance, but Nadal had other notions. In sweeping the next five games, he conceded only six points. Nadal was not dazzling in mounting this comeback, but he was unerring, tenacious and purposeful. He was on the verge of running out the match when Verdasco served at 4-5, 15-40 double match point down. But Verdasco released a kick serve wide to the backhand that Nadal could not handle, and then cracked an ace down the T. The Australian Open semifinalist fought back gamely to 5-5 and, with his adversary tightening up, Verdasco reached break point in the eleventh game, and sent a scorching forehand return down the line. Nadal answered with an astonishing backhand drop shot winner crosscourt.

He then held on for 6-5 and broke a disheartened Verdasco at love to close out a hard fought 6-4, 7-5 victory. It was a well deserved triumph, but already it was apparent that Nadal was disconcerted in the high altitude of Madrid. He was defending skillfully, but was inhibited about shifting onto the offensive and unleashing his forehand at full force when he needed it. Too many shots were flying off his racket and travelling long. At times, he overcompensated and would smother the ball with too much topspin and make unforced errors into the net.

In any case, Nadal next had to deal with Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Djokovic had enjoyed an outstanding clay court season, reaching the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome before losing to Nadal in excellent matches. He pushed the Spaniard to 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 in Monte Carlo and acquitted himself well in a 7-6 (2), 6-2 showdown in Rome. Those were top of the line matches. Djokovic had gone from Italy back home to win the tournament in Serbia. So it was a great credit to Djokovic that he made it to the penultimate round of Madrid; this was his third week in a row on the clay court circuit.

Having lost those two recent finals to Nadal--- not to mention having never defeated his towering adversary on clay--- Djokovic could have showed up for his appointment with Nadal almost resigned to defeat. And yet, Djokovic went right to work from the outset and played a stupendous match. His composure was striking throughout this marathon; he could hardly have conducted himself with more dignity and restraint.

Djokovic had played remarkably well against Nadal in Monte Carlo and Rome, and had performed admirably in a 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 loss to the Spaniard a year ago in Hamburg on clay as well. But he played the clay court match of his life this time around in Madrid. To be sure, Nadal was apprehensive from the outset. The aforementioned problems Nadal was having in the high altitude were compounded by the fact that Djokovic was timing the ball sweetly off both sides and serving with extraordinary consistency and strategic acumen.

Djokovic set the tempo throughout the first set. He broke Nadal for 2-0 as the Spaniard double faulted badly into the net at break point down, and the Serbian never looked back. In that opening set, he conceded only six points in five service games, keeping Nadal absolutely at bay with his variation, speed and accuracy. Djokovic was also the better man from the backcourt, keeping the ball exceptionally deep off both sides, handling the high ball on his two-handed backhand with aplomb, displaying outstanding ball control off the forehand.

Nadal was hanging on for dear life all through the second set as Djokovic refused to lower his lofty standards. At 1-1, he saved a break point as Djokovic missed one of his few backhand returns. At 4-4, Nadal was in a dark corner at 15-40 but he produced some clutch serving to get out of jeopardy. On the first break point, a body serve to the forehand was unreturnable; at 30-40 he went wide to the backhand and Djokovic could not respond. Djokovic was unshakable on his own delivery. Nadal got to break point for the first time in the entire match at 5-6 in the second set, but Djokovic--- one point away from being forced into a third set--- was entirely composed, making an excellent backhand approach down the line that Nadal was unable to counter.

On they went to a tie-break. On the first point, Nadal was the beneficiary of good fortune as his forehand climbed the net cord and fell over for a winner. But during the rest of that sequence, Nadal was phenomenal. With Djokovic serving at 2-3, the Spaniard connected with a pinpoint forehand winner crosscourt, clipping the sideline to go ahead 4-2. Serving at 4-3, Nadal sent a barrage of sizzling forehands that had Djokovic reeling. The last of those shots landed behind a stranded Djokovic in the corner for a winner. It was 5-3 for Nadal. He moved to 6-3, and closed out that tie-break two points later when the Serbian drove a backhand return long.

Now it was one set all, and one wondered how Djokovic could stay with Nadal much longer? The match was already two-and-a-half hours old. Nadal had willed his way into the contest on a day when he was not in full command, at a time when Djokovic was playing one of the great matches of his career. The Serbian, however, still had much in reserve. He broke Nadal for 3-1 in the final set with a cluster of backhands directed behind Nadal opening up an avenue for a forehand winner. But in the following game, the Spaniard finally broke Djokovic for the first time in the match as Djokovic started cramping.

At the changeover, Djokovic had his leg stretched out by the trainer. As soon as he resumed play, it was apparent that he was essentially fine, and a retirement was out of the question. Nadal held on for 3-3, and both men played on mightily. Djokovic kept swinging Nadal wide with the slice serve in the deuce court to set up his penetrating inside-out forehand. Nadal sedulously protected his serve as well. What was unfolding was the best match these two men have ever played against each other, and probably the greatest best of three set clay court match I have ever witnessed. Down the stretch, this was heroic stuff on both sides of the net and perhaps the most absorbing final set I have seen in any match all year.

At 3-4, 40-30, Djokovic was directing all of the traffic in a spirited rally and Nadal eventually missed a difficult forehand pass wide down the line. He reached game point for the second time but double faulted into the net. Theoretically, he was six points away from defeat. But he kept his nerve admirably and held on for 4-4. Djokovic had the distinct advantage of serving first in that final set as he kept boxing Nadal into tight corners by giving nothing away on his own delivery.

At 4-5, serving to save the match, Nadal held at love, opening and closing that vital game with aces, connecting with every first serve. Djokovic was not intimidated. He held at 15 for 6-5 with yet another inside-out forehand winner off a short return from Nadal. Nadal had to work hard to hold at 5-6. He double faulted to trail 15-30, forged ahead 40-30, only to be caught totally off guard. Nadal struck a trademark forehand crosscourt and thought he might provoke an error, but Djokovic, fully stretched out on his two-handed backhand, nailed a startling winner crosscourt into a vacant corner.

Now the Serbian was two points away from his biggest win of the year. Nadal swiftly retaliated. At deuce, he drove a deep backhand down the line, made a delayed approach to the net, closed in quickly, and put away a firm forehand volley. Nadal took the next point, sending the match fittingly into a final set tie-break. How could these two gladiators top what they had already done?

Here is the answer. Djokovic opened this brilliant sequence with an ace. The two players stayed on serve until 3-3, when the Serbian did a masterful job on defense after Nadal took the initiative on this critical point. Eventually, Nadal missed off the forehand side. Djokovic had the mini-break at 4-3. He was closing in on his target again, three points from victory.

Djokovic got his first serve in, but Nadal directed a reasonably deep return down the middle, and the Serbian misfired off the forehand. 4-4. Djokovic remained resolute and calm, purposeful and confident. He came forward behind a forehand and Nadal netted a forehand pass to make it 5-4 for Djokovic. Nadal served his way back to 5-5, but Djokovic kept scraping balls back and defending ably until Nadal drove a two-hander long.

At long last, Djokovic was at match point, serving at 6-5 in the tie-break. His got his first serve in and Nadal’s return was short. Djokovic cracked a two-handed backhand forcefully crosscourt and Nadal was hard pressed to get it back. At full stretch, the Spaniard drove a forehand low and down the line. The two players had a brilliant 20 stroke rally that Nadal concluded by running around his backhand for a brave forehand winner down the line to reach 6-6. But his exhilaration was short lived.

Djokovic took charge of another rally, and his crosscourt forehand was struck with pace and good depth. Nadal drove a backhand long. Djokovic was now ahead 7-6, and he had earned a second at match point. Nadal was the aggressor throughout this riveting exchange, as Djokovic chased down shot after shot with obstinacy and spunk. But Nadal was unrelenting. On the 19th stroke of this sparkling exchange, he stepped around his backhand again for another astounding forehand winner behind Djokovic into the backhand corner.

It was 7-7, and Nadal came up with a punishing first serve deep to the forehand that Djokovic could not handle. Nadal, up 8-7, was at match point for the first time, but Djokovic kept competing valiantly. He threw in a backhand drop shot down the line to draw Nadal in. When Nadal surprisingly sliced his backhand crosscourt, Djokovic had a wide open court for the forehand passing shot down the line. Djokovic had struck back boldly to 9-9.

Would anyone surrender? Nadal went with the percentages, directing his first serve deep to the backhand. Djokovic struck his return soundly, and Nadal was prepared for a difficult forehand half volley flick from just behind the baseline. But the return from Djokovic was inches long. Now Nadal was up 10-9 with his second match point. He probed until he found the opening for a forehand down the line. Djokovic, out of position, chased that shot down but netted a forehand with the ball getting behind him. Match to Nadal 3-6 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9).

Djokovic had thrown his heart and soul into finding a way past Nadal on clay for the first time. He had lost his serve only once, winning 80% of his first serve points, and 59% of his second serve points. He had made only 43 unforced errors in this four hour, three minute skirmish. Nadal won 71% of his first serve points, took 52% of his second serve points, lost his serve twice, and finished with 50 unforced errors. Djokovic had the edge in every key statistical category, and yet he still lost the match. That was a tribute to Nadal’s indefatigability; it was as simple as that. On two of the three match points he saved, he rescued himself with unimaginable winners; on the third, he hit an excellent first serve. It was among the grittiest efforts of Nadal’s career.

And yet, it left him with no time to recoup physically or emotionally for the final with Federer. When he stopped Federer in the Australian Open final, he had gone five hours and 14 minutes before halting Verdasco in a debilitating semifinal. But since that was a Grand Slam event, he had a day off to recover. This time, he was back on the court about 20 hours after his marathon with Djokovic had ended. That was not enough time for him to find the essential spark he needed. He could never quite summon the high intensity that he normally exhibits in big matches.

Nevertheless, he looked more comfortable from the back of the court in the early stages of the final than Federer. Nadal was the sharper player off the ground, pounding his forehand deep and high to Federer’s backhand to provoke errors, displaying better ball control than he had found in the previous two rounds. In turn, Nadal has his usual success directing his serve to Federer’s backhand. Federer made a rash of return errors off that side.

Had Nadal exploited some chances he had in the first set, the verdict might have been different. The Spaniard had a break point for 2-0 after Federer miscued a couple of times off the short forehand. At break point down, Federer put in a routine kicking second serve to Nadal’s forehand, and Nadal drove it inexplicably over the baseline. On his way to a 4-3 lead on serve in that first set, Nadal allowed his adversary only four points in four service games. Meanwhile, he had another break point with Federer serving at 2-3. This time, Federer took a slight risk on a forehand crosscourt approach, but his shot clipped the baseline and Nadal had no play on the passing shot.

At 4-4, Nadal played a poor service game. He started that game with a forehand unforced error into the net, then double faulted for 0-30. After striking back to 30-30, Nadal was beaten cleanly by a smart play from Federer, who ran around his backhand for an aggressive, heavy topspin forehand. Rather than going inside-out, Federer sent that shot back behind Nadal down the line for a superb winner that took him to break point.

At 4-4, 30-40, Nadal could not afford to give anything away, not with the set and perhaps the match hanging in the balance. But he did just that, rolling a routine two-handed backhand into the net. That flagrant mistake cost him his serve, and suddenly the complexion of the match had been altered. Federer held at love for the set in the tenth game, playing serve-and-volley wisely at 40-0 as Nadal released an errant return.

At the outset of the second set, Nadal played two fine service games. He made all eight of his first serves, did not lose a point in either game, and backed up his delivery well. But Federer was undismayed. He broke Nadal for 3-2 when his backhand return hit the baseline and Nadal was lured into rolling a forehand long.
Federer held easily for 4-2, but had to endure some anxious moments in his last two service games. At 4-3, he was down 0-30. He connected with his first serve and Nadal made a remarkably deep return. But on his next shot, Nadal squandered a chance to reach 0-40 when he drove a relatively easy forehand into the net. Federer intelligently served-and-volleyed to reach 30-30, putting away a smash to end that point. Despite missing his first serve on the next two points, Federer held on for 5-3 as Nadal made a pair of unforced errors off the backhand.

Nadal made one last stand. At 3-5, deuce, he was two points from departure but he held on to force Federer to serve for the match. The Spaniard reached 15-40, double break point with some of his best returning of the match. This was his chance to get back to 5-5 and try to salvage the match. But Nadal faltered, and Federer was poised and sturdy. At 15-40, Nadal was conducting his kind of rally and was largely on the offensive. Federer hit a running forehand crosscourt with a safe margin for error, and Nadal overanxiously went for a backhand down the line winner. He missed it wide. At 30-40, Nadal had a good opening for a backhand crosscourt winner but pulled his shot wide.

Federer sensed correctly that Nadal was not going to beat him now. With Nadal leaning to his right at deuce, Federer went down the T with his second serve for an ace. He measured that serve superbly and caught Nadal completely by surprise. Buoyed by that piece of audacity, Federer closed out the match with another ace, this one a first serve down the T. Federer had prevailed 6-4, 6-4. He had not lost his serve in the match, only the second time in 20 career meetings with Nadal that Federer had realized that feat.

Nadal could find none of his usual spark or inspiration on a frustrating day. But Federer played perhaps his best tactical match against the Spaniard on clay. He used the backhand drop shot effectively, served-and-volleyed often enough to keep Nadal honest, covered his forehand with more topspin to make the ball bound up high above Nadal’s shoulders, and even ran around his backhand four times in the advantage court to play aggressive forehand returns. He was a bit more flexible than usual, and his game disrupted Nadal’s throughout the contest. He was first rate.

All in all, Federer had a good week, and the most encouraging sign for him was his serving. He lost his serve only twice all week (once against Soderling, once versus Roddick), and was not broken in his last two matches. These were exceptionally fast and tricky clay court conditions, but Federer knew how to exploit that and get the most out of his game.

As for the road ahead, I would not read too much into his victory over Nadal. To be sure, it is a big boost for Federer’s confidence after a highly disappointing start to the season. He needed a tournament triumph, and he got it in timely fashion. He can now at least start believing in his chances again for Roland Garros. But let’s remember what happened two years ago. He ended an 81 match clay court winning streak by Nadal with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 win in the final of Hamburg, but Nadal still toppled Federer comfortably in a four set final at the French Open.

Nadal did not really need to win Madrid after sweeping the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. He also knew all along that the high altitude in Madrid was not going to be to his liking. He remains the overwhelming favorite for Roland Garros, and this loss will only spur him on more to go full force after a fifth title in a row at Paris. He has never lost a match there and no one has even extended him to five sets. The best of five set format gives him a considerable edge over anyone else in the field. He will rise to the occasion once more this year.

As for the other leading contenders, here is how I see it. Djokovic, despite his agonizing loss to Nadal in Madrid, will be a major factor for the third year in a row at Roland Garros. The only player to beat him during this clay court season has been Nadal. In his last five tournament appearances, he has won one tournament, reached three Masters 1000 finals, and made it to one semifinal. That is some kind of record. I look for him to at least reach the semifinals at Roland Garros, and perhaps to go to the final.

Federer will be revitalized after Madrid, but he still will have a hard time reaching a fourth Roland Garros final in a row. Either Djokovic or Andy Murray would go out there against Federer in Paris liking their chances. Murray had a disappointing clay campaign. He started well in Monte Carlo with a semifinal appearance and a hard fought defeat against Nadal, but then lost to Juan Monaco in Rome and was beaten for the first time by Juan Martin Del Potro in Madrid, falling unnecessarily in straight sets.

Murray should have won that match. He led 5-2 in the first set but then became preoccupied with his string tension and seemed out of sorts. This was reminiscent of his frame of mind during his loss in Rome to Monaco. This was a regression in some ways for a player who has made so much progress over the last year. But to some extent Murray’s showings in Rome and Madrid were understandable. He is still a work on progress as a clay court player and is trying to figure out how to balance his defensive skills with his capacity to step up and be more aggressive. On hard courts, that seems to come naturally for Murray, but on the clay he is still learning.

I still believe he will be at least a semifinalist at the French Open. The hope here is that the “Big Four” all make it to the penultimate round at Roland Garros. If that is the case, I believe Nadal would overcome either Djokovic or Murray on his half of the draw, although he might have to fight long and hard again to subdue the ever charging Djokovic, who just might be playing the best tennis of his life at the moment. As for Federer, he could have his hands full with either Djokovic or Murray. Djokovic has made two comebacks in a row to oust Federer in three set matches at Miami and Rome, taking the latter notably on clay. Murray has not lost to Federer since they clashed in the U.S. Open final, sweeping four matches in a row against the Swiss.

The way I see it, a Federer run to the semifinals is almost inevitable. But if all goes according to plan and Federer takes on either Murray or Djokovic in that round, he will find himself in a fierce struggle for survival. I can envision a blockbuster, five set semifinal confrontation pitting Federer against one of the two players ranked right behind him. But no matter who comes through on Federer’s half of the draw, I fully expect that competitor to bow in the championship match to a towering clay court figure who seems destined to rule at Roland Garros for a fifth consecutive year.

That man, of course, is Rafael Nadal.

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