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Steve Flink: Rafa Greatest Ever on Clay

6/5/2011 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS—The way I see it, the debate is now over: Rafael Nadal is indisputably the greatest men’s player ever on clay. I have immense respect for Bjorn Borg, and saw him capture his six French Open crowns with style, grace, and an unshakable demeanor that set him apart from all of his rivals. Borg was magnificent on the dirt, imperturbable to his core, machinelike with his groundstroke accuracy, and an astonishing athlete and sportsman who could beat his rivals to a pulp with his uncanny consistency and ball control that seemed at times to be out of this world.

But Rafael Nadal has taken the clay court game to another level, and I believe simply by tying Borg here at Roland Garros with six championships he deserves the honor of being considered the best player ever on his favorite surface. Nadal has lost only one match in seven years on the red clay of Roland Garros, and it is hard to imagine that he won’t win this tournament at least two more times. It is the place he most loves to do his work, the tournament that seems to inspire him the most, the setting he prefers beyond all others. He is a champion through and through and a man of immense character, which he demonstrated again today with a hard fought  7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 triumph over Roger Federer in a contest that lasted three hours and 39 minutes, on a day when the Spaniard was not at the top of his game.

This was Nadal’s fourth final round victory over Federer at Roland Garros, and his fifth win over the Swiss at the French Open altogether, including a semifinal triumph back in 2005. The score line doesn’t do justice to either the quality or closeness of the match. This was a suspenseful contest from start to finish, and the unwavering spirit of both competitors was evident at all stages as both Nadal and Federer threw themselves at full force into the skirmish, refusing to surrender, withstanding deep blows to their morale, giving the fans their best played final on this fabled stage. At the outset, Federer was strategically right on the mark, mixing in the serve-and-volley unpredictably, swinging his slice serve wide in the deuce court to open up the court for his lethal inside-out forehand, and sparring well with Nadal from the backcourt.

Nadal, meanwhile, was unusually apprehensive, getting insufficient length on his shots, allowing Federer to dictate the rallies far too frequently. Most alarming of all for the Spaniard were the clusters of unforced errors coming off his racket. He was clearly inhibited, and Federer sensed that quickly, allowing the Swiss the luxury of swinging freely and controlling the flow of the match. Federer held at 15 in the opening game of the match, serving-and-volleying on the last point of that game, releasing a terrific low forehand first volley winner. Nadal was tight as can be in his opening service game, falling behind 15-40 with miss-hits and unprovoked mistakes. He rallied to deuce, fell behind break point again, saved himself again, but then gifted Federer that game by netting an easy forehand approach off a short return.

Federer was right where he wanted to be at 2-0, and then held at 15 for 3-0 with two aces and another well orchestrated serve-and-volley combination leading to a winning first volley down the line. Federer rolled on to 5-2, holding at 30 in the seventh game with another unexpected serve-and-volley combination leading to an easy volley into the open court.

With Nadal serving to stay in the set in the eighth game, the Swiss reached set point on the Spaniard’s serve. Federer attempted a backhand drop shot down the line, but missed it narrowly wide, and Nadal held on from there, taking that game with a backhand passing shot winner. Still, Federer was serving for the set at 5-3, and had not even faced a break point. He got to 30-15, two points away from taking a set he needed much more than Nadal. But Nadal got back to 30-30 by using his trademark crosscourt forehand with heavy topspin to force Federer into a topspin backhand error. At 30-30, the depth of Nadal’s return caught Federer on his heels, and the Swiss netted another backhand. Now down break point down, Federer had a very short ball on his backhand but did not get enough bite on his approach, and Nadal cracked a forehand pass up the line that Federer could not handle on the low forehand volley. Federer connected with only one of six first serves in that pivotal game.

Just like that, Nadal was back on serve, but he trailed 15-30 at 4-5. Nadal remedied that problem by coaxing another backhand error from Federer, releasing a service winner to the backhand, and then luring Federer into a third consecutive mistake off the backhand. It was 5-5, and Nadal had his bearings. He reached break point in the eleventh game at 30-40, but Federer saved it with a spectacular inside-in forehand winner. At deuce, however, Nadal jarred Federer with a brilliant reflex backhand volley that forced Federer to retreat. Nadal then anticipated Federer’s forehand pass down the line, punching away a forehand volley crosscourt winner. Down break point for the second time, Federer had no answer to a deep crosscourt backhand from Nadal, netting a difficult forehand to drop that game. At 6-5, Nadal served out the set from 15-30 down. After taking the next two points, he pulled Federer out of position on the forehand side, and set up a winning forehand crosscourt to close out the set emphatically.

Unsurprisingly, Federer was vulnerable at the outset of the second set, winning only one point in the first two games. Nadal had a 7-5, 2-0 lead and had won seven games in a row. He looked capable of breaking the match wide open, but Federer was far from through. In the third game of the second set, Federer held on from 15-30, serving two aces in the process. At 1-3, Federer was in a bigger bind, down 15-40, in danger of going two breaks down. But he produced two clutch aces in a row and eventually held for 2-3. Nadal got to 4-2, but Federer was back in his groove on serve and held at love in the seventh game before breaking back to 4-4 as Nadal made an abysmal backhand error to concede that game. Yet Federer was broken again in the ninth game as Nadal unleashed a deep running crosscourt forehand. Federer tried to be aggressive with his response, but drove his backhand wide down the line.

Nadal was serving at 5-4, hoping to gain a two set lead. But rain started falling at 40-30 as he stood at set point. Nadal’s forehand clipped the net cord but landed wide. The players had to leave the court for ten minutes, but as soon as play resumed Nadal earned a second set point. Federer kept him on the run and Nadal was pressured into a forehand passing shot mistake. Nadal’s anxiety at this stage was unmistakable. He drove a forehand long down the line and then completely miss-hit a forehand, allowing Federer back to 5-5. Both players held to reach a tie-break, but Nadal always had the upper hand in that crucial sequence. He raced to 4-0 as Federer made three unforced errors off the forehand in that stretch. Federer took the next two points, but Nadal advanced to 5-2 and then sparkled on the following point, rolling a topspin lob over Federer’s backhand side to back the Swiss up for a weak overhead, then cracking a backhand pass immaculately crosscourt. Two points later, Nadal sealed the set, using the wide serve to the backhand to open up a big avenue for a forehand inside-out winner. Set to Nadal 7-6, seven points to three in the tie-break.

At that juncture, Nadal seemed certain to move inexorably toward a straight set victory. Federer was clearly not giving up, but Nadal was serving first in the third set, and the Spaniard broke Federer at love to open up a 4-2 lead. This was a time to press his advantage, to try something deceptive on serve, to make certain he was in control of his own destiny as he closed in on the title. Nadal did not display that kind of assertive attitude, not in the least. Federer gamely went after him. He opened the seventh game with a topspin backhand down the line winner off the return, then forced Nadal into an errant passing shot, and then released a bounce smash winner for 0-40. Federer realized Nadal was hitting everything short in this game, and broke at love with a forehand drop shot winner.

Federer had a new spring in his step, a renewed sense of optimism, and a self assurance that was surely disconcerting to his deflated opponent. Federer held at fifteen for 4-4 before Nadal held at love to move ahead 5-4. Yet Federer was not daunted by serving to stay in the match. He held at 15 with an ace, broke Nadal with a forehand winner directed behind the Spaniard, and served out the set at fifteen, finishing that chapter convincingly by going with the wide serve in the deuce court to open up the court for another dazzling forehand winner. Federer had collected 12 of the last 15 points to steal the set away from Nadal, and his admirers at Roland Garros cheered unabashedly as he improbably brought himself back into the match.

The opening game of the fourth set was critical for Nadal, who seemed listless, weary, and largely distressed at not closing out the match when he had his chance in the third set. Nadal drifted to 0-40 in that first game. But he seemed to recognize his dark predicament for what it was. A backhand crosscourt winner took him to 15-40, and then the Spaniard connected with a forehand inside-out winner for 30-40. An ace down the T from Nadal made it deuce, and Nadal quickly collected the next two points to hold on for 1-0. He was back in business, and that stand surely was a big blow to Federer as he tried to sustain his momentum. Federer did hold for 1-1, but that would be the last game he would win.

Nadal was now zeroing in on his target of the title, and nothing was going to stop him. He held at 15 for 2-1, closing out that game with a devastating forehand inside-in winner, and then broke Federer at love for 3-1 after Federer served his first and only double fault of the match to fall behind 0-40. Nadal surged to 3-1, 40-30 and then stopped as Federer hit a backhand down the line wide. The umpire checked the mark, and confirmed that the ball was indeed wide, and so Nadal was at 4-1. Federer saved a break point in the following game, but he was delaying the inevitable. Nadal broke for 5-1 with his patented play working again. The Spaniard’s high hopping topspin forehand was too much for Federer to handle on the sliced backhand. The rest was a formality as Nadal held at love to complete a 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1 victory in three hours and 39 minutes. He had captured 21 of the last 27 points and five consecutive games at the end.

The 25-year-old Spaniard was not in peak form and was often far from it. His first serve percentage—72 percent—was a good number, but he was entirely too predictable, almost always going deep to the backhand in both the deuce and ad courts. Federer was returning with great depth at times and was anticipating that serve. Nadal needed to try going short and wide with his slice serve in the ad court, and could have gone selectively to the forehand in the deuce court to keep Federer more honest. In turn, Nadal should have closed the second set out sooner, and inexplicably lost control of the third. Federer felt that Nadal was tired at that stage, and he may well be right. But Nadal seemed reenergized in the fourth set, so perhaps he had been battling himself as he had so often during the tournament. The fact remains that Nadal still stopped an inspired Federer once more at Roland Garros to raise his record to 17-8 over the Swiss across their careers, and 7-2 overall at the Grand Slam events.

The view here is that the pressure will now be off for Nadal, and he will be increasingly sure of himself the rest of the year. He knows that one loss is not going to throw Novak Djokovic into disarray. He realizes that Federer will get a boost from this event and will head into Wimbledon highly encouraged after reaching his first Grand Slam final since winning the Australian Open in 2010. He understands that Andy Murray is ascendant once more, and will be a force for the rest of 2011. But, for the time being at least, Rafael Nadal has no need to worry about his fellow competitors. He can celebrate a French Open triumph that was hard earned and richly deserved. He can be proud that he cast aside his deep inner doubts in the end and won another major title, claiming a victory for the tenth time in 12 major finals. And, above all else, Nadal has every right to feel that his best is yet to come.

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