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Steve Flink: French Open Retrospective

6/8/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The view here is that the best Grand Slam championships are the ones when the leading players make it safely through the draw and face each other in marquee matchups at the end. A few surprises along the way are fine. Upsets can raise the level of intrigue for the fans and stir up more interest out there in the court of public opinion. But when the best in the world are are still around to battle it out in the semifinals and final, when the biggest names are still in business, the fans rejoice and even the more casual sports fans get caught up entirely in the proceedings.

That was how it all unfolded this time around at Roland Garros. The game’s four greatest competitors all made it to the semifinals, and the presence of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray gave the world’s premier clay court event a sparkle this year it has sometimes lacked in years gone by. And make no mistake about it: they did not let us down. Murray acquitted himself exceedingly well in his first Roland Garros semifinal, Djokovic was terrific en route to the penultimate round and he went down gallantly in the end, Federer unexpectedly made it to his first final at a Grand Slam event since winning his 16th major back at the 2010 Australian Open, and the redoubtable Rafael Nadal fought his way valiantly past not only his nagging inner demons but also the entire field, winning his sixth title in a phenomenal seven year stretch, taking a tenth Grand Slam singles title in the process.

Nadal’s appointment against Federer was another feather in the cap for both men as they collided for the 25th time in their illustrious careers. Moreover, this was their fifth meeting overall at Roland Garros and their fourth in a French Open final, and it was their eighth confrontation in a Grand Slam final. Remarkably, they have now dueled in at least one major final for five of the last six years. When all was said and done, Nadal was the victor again in a match he had to win against a revered adversary who had very little to lose. The Spaniard knew full well he could not justify a setback against the Swiss in a best of five set match on clay; under those circumstances, Nadal has never lost in seven showdowns with Federer. This was clearly a must win situation for the Spaniard, while Federer was such a decided underdog that a triumph for him would have been nothing short of stupendous.

Ultimately, Nadal was a worthy winner, eclipsing Federer 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1. It lasted three hours and 39 minutes, and was more suspenseful than many anticipated. Nadal lifted his career record to 17-8 over Federer, put himself ahead 5-0 head to head over Federer at Roland Garros, pushed his lead to 6-2 in Grand Slam finals over the Swiss and extended his nearly impeccable match record to 45-1 at his favorite playground. But his victory was tougher than the score would indicate. Federer was more versatile, creative, tactically agile and strategically savvy than perhaps ever before in his clay court history with the Spaniard, and it made life difficult for Nadal. Nadal probably should have lost the first set, could have dropped the second, and did not take lasting control of the match until the middle of the fourth set.

Federer’s selective serving-and-volleying was impressive. Moreover, his topspin backhand during the rallies was more reliable than usual, and his returns off the backhand were sporadically brilliant and consistently deep. He ran around the backhand in the Ad court for some big forehand returns, and he managed to find Nadal’s backhand more frequently than is often the case when they clash on the dirt. Nadal stubbornly served almost entirely to the backhand side of his opponent, and often did not get enough slice to pull Federer sufficiently wide, especially in the Ad court. To be sure, this was an old and glorious show we had seen many times before, yet there were some variations on that theme, some new twists that made it all more intriguing and enjoyable for longtime observers of the sport.

Federer was much sharper early on, while Nadal was slow moving to the backhand side, error prone off both sides, and jittery. The Swiss bolted to a 5-2 lead. At the changeover, Nadal saw the trainer and had the taping adjusted on his foot, which may have explained his inauspicious start and his lack of what he calls “the calm.” In the eighth game, Federer had a set point on Nadal’s serve, and his drop shot off the backhand looked like a possible winner down the line. But the umpire confirmed that the ball was narrowly wide, and Nadal held on. He would break Federer for the first time in the following game with a spectacular forehand passing shot up the line that Federer could not handle on the low forehand volley. Nadal had altered the course of the match. From 2-5 and set point down, he collected seven games in a row to go up a set and a break.

It looked as if the Spaniard might have broken the match wide open, but that was not the case.
Federer gamely held on from 1-3, 15-40 in the second set, erasing the two break points with timely aces. He broke back for 4-4, lost his serve again, and Nadal served for a two set lead at 5-4. The Spaniard advanced to set point but there was commotion in the crowd as rain began to fall. Nadal squandered the set point with a forehand unforced error, and the players left the court. But the delay was only nine minutes. Nadal had a second set point that he could not convert, and Federer broke back. They settled that set in a tie-break, which Nadal won easily 7-3.

When Nadal surged to 4-2 in the third set, he seemed certain to prevail in straight sets. But he did not press his advantage, and Federer hit a golden patch to take five of the next six games for the set. Just like that, Nadal’s lead was cut to two sets to one. When Federer reached 0-40 in the opening game of the fourth set, Nadal realized he had to reassert himself in a hurry, and that is precisely what he did. He drove a crosscourt backhand for a clean winner, nailed an inside-out forehand winner, and served an ace down the T. Nadal quickly took the next two points to hold on for 1-0 and stem the tide. Federer held for 1-1, but thereafter Nadal was nearly letter perfect while Federer wavered off the backhand and lost his conviction across the board. Nadal won 21 of the last 27 points and five games in a row to close out the match on his terms.

Nadal had underlined his supremacy on clay once more, but curiously Federer seemed to see the match through very tinted glasses. Asked if he felt he could come all the way back after salvaging the third set, Federer said, “ Sure you’re not thinking of winning when you are down two sets to love and 4-2 in the third, but you’re thinking of coming back and turning around the match. All of a sudden at 0-0 in the fourth set you think, okay, we have a match again…. All of a sudden, it almost looked like he was going to miss the beginning of the fourth set and I could maybe run away with that. In the fifth set, I would have felt very, very strong like I did back in Miami [in 2005] when I beat him from being down two sets to love. So I knew I had it in me.”

That comment seemed like a very large stretch to me. Even if Federer had broken for 1-0 in the fourth, he would have had a significant amount of work left to do if he wanted to win that set. The notion that a break in the opening game would have led to a quick set seems beyond reason to me. Nadal would inevitably have fought back and would never have conceded that set with anything less than a whole-hearted and full-fledged effort.

Just as surprising was Federer’s response to a reporter who talked about stages when Federer seemed to be dominating the match and whether or not he could have sustained that high level. Federer replied, “Obviously I’m the one that’s playing with smaller margins, so obviously I’m always going to go through more ups and downs, whereas Rafa is content doing the same thing the whole time. So it’s always me who’s going to dictate play and decide how the outcome is going to be. If I play well, I will most likely win in the score and beat him. If I’m not playing so well, that’s when he wins.”

I was astonished by that comment. Federer can’t really believe the match is entirely in his hands when he plays Nadal, particularly on clay. If he thinks it is simply up to him to play well and then he will determine who wins or loses, why is he 0-5 against Nadal at Roland Garros? If he is so convinced that he dictates play and Nadal is simply a defensive ball machine, why has he lost 17 of the 25 times he has taken on the Spaniard? How did he lose Wimbledon and Australian Open finals to the Spaniard if Nadal was not imposing himself much at all? Nadal is not the same player Federer described. To be sure, he is extraordinary on defense, and he will not beat himself. In the four sets against Federer, he made only 27 unforced errors while Federer had 56. But Nadal’s inimitable baseline aggression is undeniable, and he can dictate more than his share of points with his devastatingly effective forehand. Federer seemed to deliberately try to diminish Nadal in the eyes of the media with his superficial analysis, but to me it also came off as unsporting. Nadal has demonstrated repeatedly over the years a willingness to add elements to his game. Why Federer felt the need to make Nadal sound like a pusher is beyond me.

In any event, the most exhilarating match of the tournament was undoubtedly Federer’s gritty encounter with Djokovic. The Serbian was unbeaten in 2011, and he had performed admirably as he cast aside Juan Martin Del Potro in four sets and the rejuvenated Richard Gasquet in straight sets. Much to his misfortune, Djokovic met Gasquet on the middle Sunday and did not play again until his appointment with Federer on Friday. Having four days off at a Grand Slam event is not what he needed, but the Italian Fabio Fognini had to default to Djokovic in the quarterfinals with an injury, and that surely took the Serbian out of his routine and threw him off stride.

At the outset against Federer, Djokovic was clearly missing more than usual, and he kept losing his footing inexplicably. The self assurance and unwavering consistency of his baseline game that had been so apparent all year were not up to snuff. But after Federer broke him early, Djokovic picked up his returning and found his range to lead 4-2. Federer rallied to 4-4, but in the tenth game the Swiss served at 4-5, 15-40, double set point down. He missed his first serve but sent his second serve in with surprising depth, and then hit a forehand crosscourt behind Djokovic that was too good. At 30-40, Federer served down the middle and Djokovic missed a forehand return he ought to have made.

Federer held on. Both men held to set up a tie-break. In that sequence, Federer led 4-2 but Djokovic swept three points in a row to go ahead 5-4. Yet Djokovic gave away the next three points with unforced errors, and Federer had battled tenaciously to seal a set that seemed to be going the other way. Djokovic was largely subdued and disgruntled in the second set, and Federer played like a man who had just been let out of jail. But Djokovic rallied gamely, bolting to 3-0 in the third set, holding serve throughout that chapter, closing the gap to two sets to one.

The fourth set was the best of the match. They were on serve until 4-4. Darkness was beginning to overwhelm the day. In a riveting five deuce game, Djokovic broke for 5-4 as Federer totally miss-hit a forehand. If Djokovic could have held for the set, he would have improbably rallied to two sets all and the fifth set would have been completed the following day. But his caution in the tenth game on his serve was damaging to the Serbian’s cause. He went behind 0-40, and then started going for broke, acing Federer down the T for 15-40, driving a forehand winner crosscourt for 30-40. But Federer stopped him cold on his third break point with a spectacular and well measured forehand inside-in winner. It was 5-5.

In the eleventh game, Djokovic had two break points, but Federer erased them cleanly. He released a gutsy, deep second serve that caught Djokovic off guard, and the Serbian netted the return. On the second break point, Federer aced Djokovic down the T to make it 6-5. Djokovic held in a tense game after one deuce for 6-6, and both players knew the ensuing tie-break would be the last tennis played that day as the dark sky left the players preciously little light. Federer connected for a forehand drop shot winner on the opening point of the tie-break, and then released a dazzling forehand winner for 2-0.

Djokovic recovered to 2-2, then 3-3. But the Serbian displayed his frailty on the seventh point with an abysmal error off the forehand. Now serving at 4-3, Federer aced Djokovic down the T, then produced another excellent serve that was unstoppable. Federer was up 6-3, triple match point. Djokovic managed to close the gap to 6-5, but Federer concluded the match fittingly with an ace down the T. His serve had carried him to his biggest win of the year—7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5)—and one of his finest victories in a long while. He released 18 aces, including seven in the last set. He saved nine of thirteen break points, losing his serve only four times in the match, which was no mean feat against the sport’s greatest return of serve artist. Most impressive of all, Federer unsettled Djokovic with his astounding defense off the forehand. Time and again when drawn wide on that side, Federer refused to go for winners that weren’t in the cards. Instead, he brought himself back into points until he could go on the attack, or he coaxed errors from Djokovic. What a revelation that was!

Indisputably, Federer was revitalized, as inspired as he has been all season, a champion propelled by a French crowd boosting him every step of the way. It was a terrific tennis match, featuring startling rallies, supreme athleticism, and unshakable pride on both sides of the net. But while Federer was the Federer of old, Djokovic was not really the Djokovic who had won 41 matches in a row across 2011 and 43 straight contests altogether since November of 2010. He did not play well in either tie-break, did not close out the first set when he had the two set points, did not serve out the fourth set at 5-4. He was not nearly as composed and unruffled as he has been all through the year.

The fact remains that Djokovic will surely regain his equilibrium at Wimbledon, and begin anew to try to reestablish his authority. But I have a feeling Andy Murray will be peaking at that time as well. Murray took an awful lot away from his best clay court campaign ever, reaching the semifinals of Monte Carlo before losing a first class encounter with Nadal, and moving within two points of a victory over Djokovic in the semifinals of Rome. At Roland Garros, he hurt his ankle badly in the third round while playing Germany’s Michael Berrer, but somehow bluffed his way through that match. In the round of 16 he rallied from 2-5 down in the fifth set to beat Viktor Troicki, fighting back with quiet ferocity when Troicki served at 5-3, 30-0 in that final set. He then accounted for Juan Ignacio Chela to set up his semifinal meeting with Nadal.

These two men put on a remarkable display on an impossibly windy day. The wind was frequently changing directions. The conditions were treacherous for both players. Nadal emerged victorious 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, but it was a much tougher skirmish than that. Murray competed unflinchingly to the end. From 1-5 down in the opening set he made Nadal work hard to finish off the set. He twice broke back in the second set before Nadal ran out the second set from 4-5. The third set was also tightly contested. Murray could be proud to play at that level for so long against the greatest clay court player the game has yet seen.

In the end, of course, Nadal came through to tie Bjorn Borg’s men’s record of six singles titles on the red clay of Roland Garros. It had been a rough fortnight in many ways for the Spaniard, beginning with a five set struggle against John Isner. In that opening round match, Nadal was up a set and serving at 4-3 when he played a loose game and lost his serve. He lost that set in a tie-break, dropped the third in another tie-break, but finally got the job done in five sets. Although Nadal did not drop another set until he faced Federer, he was seldom at peak form. Only in his straight set triumph over Robin Soderling—the only player ever to beat the Spaniard at the French Open—did Nadal look like the essential Nadal.

In capturing his fourth and fifth titles at Roland Garros in 2008 and 2010, Nadal never lost a set, and always looked in utter control of his own destiny; he peaked at the right time, and was unstoppable. This time around, he was clearly humbled by the four losses he suffered in 2011 finals against Djokovic, including a pair of straight set setbacks in Madrid and Rome on the clay. As he said after the final, “I think I came here with a little less confidence than other times because I saw [Djokovic] playing fantastic. Even if I was happy about my match in Rome, was hard to lose another time. Losing four finals in a row is not easy….Normally I have a good record in finals. This year I had only the chance to win two. Even if I had good chances in Indian Wells and Miami, I didn’t [win]. So that was hard for me mentally probably. For that reason, I started the tournament a little bit less confident than other times.”

Those insecurities are now gone. Nadal surely benefitted from playing Federer rather than Djokovic in the final, but what mattered most to him was to win the tournament, to clear his mind, shake off the doubts, and raise his morale. Nadal has done just that, and he is going to be an even more intimidating champion for the rest of the year after restoring his pride so admirably in Paris. That is a good thing not only for Rafael Nadal, but for the game of tennis.

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