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Steve Flink: Rivalry Renewed

5/17/2010 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

There they were, back at it again on the clay courts of Madrid, extending their illustrious rivalry into a seventh consecutive year, testing each other in one exacting exchange after another. The game’s preeminent clay court player was pitted against the top ranked player in the sport.  The most industrious and indefatigable competitor faced a singularly stylish and elegant shot maker. An unshakable left-handed warrior took on the defending champion. And when all was said and done, after a pair of bruising sets, after both men gave the duel everything they had, Rafael Nadal had once more overcome Roger Federer by scores of 6-4, 7-6 (5) for his tenth triumph in twelve career meetings on his favorite surface against his formidable adversary. Moreover, Nadal gained a 14th victory in 21 skirmishes with Federer on all surfaces. With this important win, Nadal takes a three tournament, 15 match clay court winning streak into Roland Garros, and establishes himself unequivocally as the overwhelming favorite to win a fifth French Open championship.

No one had ever swept the three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 clay court crowns leading up to the big one in Paris, so Nadal has placed yet another feather in his cap. It was apparent all through his showdown with Federer that the left-handed Spaniard was burdened by the weight of considerable expectations from passionate observers across his nation. A year ago, in the semifinals of the same event at Madrid, Nadal had endured a grueling, four hours, three minute clash against Novak Djokovic at the end of a debilitating campaign en route to Roland Garros. The next day, drained and devoid of his customary emotional intensity, not moving with his usual alacrity, seemingly spent, Nadal bowed in straight sets against an opportunistic and exceedingly sharp Federer. Two weeks later, he suffered a startling loss in the round of 16 at the French Open against Robin Soderling; he would later withdraw from Wimbledon with tendinitis in his knees.

This year, Nadal realized he could not play four out of five weeks on the clay leading up to Paris, as he had done in 2009. He romped in Monte Carlo at the cost of a mere 14 games in five impeccable matches, then withdrew from Barcelona, a tournament he had captured five years in a row. That gave him a week off prior to Rome, where he dropped only one set in five matches during his title run. After Rome, he had another week off before returning to Madrid, where he conceded only one set in five more victorious matches.

In the championship match with Federer, Nadal was always bolting in front, only to have an unwavering Federer keep fighting back forcefully. All three times Nadal lost his serve in the contest, he was up a break; all four times Federer was broken, it put the Swiss down a break. Furthermore, both men had healthy first serve percentages. Nadal finished at 73% and Federer connected with 67 %. Nadal took only 54% of his first serve points, an unusually low figure which may have been caused by too much predictability in going wide to Federer’s backhand. Federer captured only 59% of his first serve points, which was a tribute to Nadal’s uncanny ability to get difficult returns back into play and thus force Federer to work the point. And yet, there was a sizeable gap between the two competitors on second serve points won; Federer took 14 of 29 for 48% and Nadal secured 14 of 22 for 64%. In the end, Nadal’s returns off the second serve were far more productive, allowing him to seize control of rallies. Federer could not hurt Nadal frequently enough on his second serve returns, which may well have cost him the match.

The early stages of the match were compelling. Federer made a confident start, holding at love in the opening game with consecutive aces. Nadal saved a break point in the second game when Federer weakly chipped a backhand, second serve return into the net. At 1-1, Nadal got the first service break of the match, but not without a lot of effort. Federer gamely saved one break point with a backhand passing shot winner crosscourt. Nadal was well positioned to play a forehand volley on that shot but chose to let it go. At break point for the second time, Nadal drove a forehand long as the ball flew off his racket; as was the case a year ago, the altitude in Madrid bothered Nadal and other players as they sprayed balls out of court that they would normally control with ease.

Yet Nadal came through on his third break point, pinning Federer behind the baseline and eventually drawing an error from the Swiss with a deep backhand down the line. Nadal was ahead 2-1, but not for long. Federer broke back at 15 in the following game, assisted by three unforced errors from the Spaniard. But Nadal got the crucial break of the set at 3-3. Federer was down 0-40 in that pivotal seventh game but he aggressively worked his way back to deuce. Nadal reached break point for the fourth time but Federer wiped that one away briskly. Federer advanced to game point, but Nadal’s obstinacy was on display.

The Spaniard backed Federer up with a penetrating forehand down the line, and Federer answered with a sliced forehand crosscourt, keeping the ball reasonably low. But Nadal stepped around and whipped a forehand inside-in down the line for a winner. He then passed Federer cleanly off the backhand, and took control again from the back of the court, driving his trademark forehand near the sideline, luring Federer into a netted slice backhand. Nadal was back up 4-3 and he survived another tough service game. On his third game point, he hooked a forehand up the line for a winner on the eleventh stroke of an excellent rally. Nadal was at 5-3.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal was hard pressed once more. He double faulted off the net cord to trail 15-40, but Federer could not exploit the opening. He missed a running backhand long down the line, then set up his favorite inside-out forehand on the next point. But Federer tightened up and drove that shot into the net. Federer earned a third break point but netted a topspin backhand return crosscourt off a second serve. On his fourth and last break point of that game, Federer chipped a backhand return long off a well placed first serve. Nadal finally made his way to set point, and took it in spectacular fashion with a deceptive, heavy topspin forehand pass crosscourt narrowly out of Federer’s reach. Set to Nadal, 6-4.

Raising the trajectory of his returns to make Federer play awkward, shoulder high balls, Nadal broke in the opening game of the second set, but Federer struck back immediately as Nadal won only one point in the following game. At 2-2, Nadal pounced again. Federer was ahead 40-15. Federer played one loose point, but then Nadal exploded into a golden patch. A blazing, flat crosscourt backhand winner brought Nadal back to deuce. He then closed out that game with back-to-back backhand passing shot winners. A soaring Nadal moved quickly to 4-2, having collected nine of eleven points in that stretch.

Federer, however, was not ready to concede anything. He held at love in the seventh game, making all four first serves, including one ace. With Nadal serving at 4-3, Federer used a tactic that he has employed with increasing frequency and effectiveness over the past year on clay. He caught Nadal dead in his tracks with a superb forehand drop shot approach. Another scintillating forehand drop shot inside out winner from Federer put Nadal in a 0-40 bind. Nadal managed to save two break points, but Federer was fortunate on the third. His miss-hit return of serve seemed to throw off Nadal, who missed wildly off the forehand. It was 4-4.

From 30-30 in the ninth game, an energized Federer delivered consecutive aces to hold for 5-4. Nadal had lost three games in a row from close to the brink of victory. He now served at 4-5, 30-30, two points away from being dragged into a third set. Nadal knew he had to be the aggressor. His deep first serve forced Federer into a short return. Nadal approached commandingly behind a crosscourt forehand, and then put away an overhead emphatically. With Nadal at 40-30, Federer went with a backhand drop shot down the line, and came in behind it. He kept it low, but Nadal was unimpressed. He scampered in and passed Federer with an exquisite backhand slice crosscourt. Back to 5-5 was the Spaniard.

Both men held to set up the tie-break. Federer reached 4-2 with yet another nicely concealed forehand drop shot crosscourt winner. On the next point, he went for another, but this one did not have enough margin for error. He sent it into the net. Even so, Federer was serving at 4-3. On the 13th stroke of the rally, he miss-hit a topspin backhand long. He then drove a forehand way beyond the baseline, totally unprovoked. Nadal was now serving at 5-4, and Federer gave away another critical point by netting a routine topspin backhand crosscourt. The Spaniard then missed his first serve at 6-4, Federer made a deep return, and Nadal ran around his backhand.

But Nadal got no depth on that shot, and Federer boldly went for the forehand winner down the line, and made it majestically. Federer was still down match point at 5-6. He directed his first serve down the T to the Nadal backhand, who answered with a reasonably deep return down the middle. Federer was half way between the service line and the baseline, trying to take the ball early. He swung and completely missed, an apparent victim of an irregular bonce. On a startling whiffed forehand from Federer, Nadal had the win in straight sets. The two men have had played an uneven match, but the bottom line is that Nadal could not afford to lose to his chief rival in his home country on clay for the second year in a row. The pressure was entirely on him to come through in Spain, and he had done just that.

And so, for the second time in his career, Nadal heads into Roland Garros without having lost a clay court match all season. In 2005--- the first year he competed on the clay at Roland Garros--- he lost his first clay court event of the campaign in the quarterfinals of Valencia to Igor Andreev. Then he swept the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome before prevailing in his French Open debut. The following year, he captured Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, upending Federer in a fifth set tie-break after saving two match points in the twelfth game of that set. He pulled out of Hamburg the following week and went on to another Roland Garros triumph.

On to 2007. Nadal took Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, and then went to Hamburg, losing 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 to Federer in the final. He had played one tournament too many, but still recouped well and beat Federer in a four set French Open final. In 2008, Nadal won Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but lost early to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome in his opening round match as blisters hindered his performance. Nadal bounced back to win Hamburg and Roland Garros over Federer in the finals. And then a year ago, Nadal captured Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome before losing the Madrid final to Federer. His knees acted up in Paris. He was never the same player for the rest of 2009.

A healthy Nadal is going to win the upcoming French Open. He has given himself an excellent chance to succeed by playing only three tournaments in alternate weeks on his way to the French soil. As long as his body holds up, he will beat anyone in the world anytime in a best of five set match on clay. But will he meet Federer for the fourth time in five years in the final? That is a tougher call. Federer has been immensely consistent at Roland Garros across the last five years. In that remarkable span, he was beaten by Nadal in the 2005 semifinals, and by the same man in the 2006-2008 finals. Then he became the sixth man in history to win all four majors when he won Roland Garros a year ago, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi in that elite company of career Grand Slammers.

And yet, Federer has not won a tournament since he secured a 16th career major title back in January at the Australian Open. On top of that, as great a player as he clearly is on any surface, clay is clearly where he remains most vulnerable. It is a testament to his character and competitiveness that he has lost only to Nadal at Roland Garros over the last five years. And he has not failed to reach the final for the past four years. That is no mean feat. Federer is masterful in knowing how to pace himself in best of five set showdowns, and that quality has served him well over the years in Paris.

Nevertheless, I can envision a few players who might end Federer’s astounding streak of reaching at least the semifinals in 23 consecutive majors. Ernests Gulbis beat Federer in Rome and pushed him to three hard sets last week in Madrid. He has improved by leaps and bounds this year. Fernando Verdasco had an excellent start to the clay court season, losing to Nadal in the final of Monte Carlo, winning Barcelona, reaching the semifinals of Rome. He could beat Federer on the right day under the right circumstances.

In the final analysis, Federer has a good chance to reach another Roland Garros final if he plays his cards right. But remember that a year ago during his title run, he had a couple of harrowing five set encounters with Tommy Haas and Juan Martin Del Potro. He needed not only fortitude but luck to get safely through those contests. It will be fascinating to see if he can elevate his game at the crucial junctures of the 2010 French Open. But no matter how Federer fares, the feeling grows that Rafael Nadal is destined to reclaim the world’s premier clay court crown. 

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