by Steve Flink
Only three weeks ago in this space, I wrote that if I had to pick a French Open champion at that moment, I would have gone with the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He had just upended Rafael Nadal 6-2, 7-6 (1) in the final of Monte Carlo, achieving his third victory in his last six clay court duels with the Spaniard. Djokovic seemed poised to celebrate an outstanding clay court season after he ruled in the first of the 2013 Masters 1000 events on clay. But he took 12 days off from the courts to nurse an ailing ankle in the period leading up to Madrid, and was ushered out of that event in the second round by the gifted Grigor Dimitrov. This past week in Rome, Djokovic reached the quarterfinals and built a commanding 6-2, 5-2 lead over Tomas Berdych, as pure a ball striker as there is in tennis. But Djokovic did not close out that contest. Berdych recovered magnificently, ending an eleven match losing streak against the Serbian, prevailing 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 with an unrelenting display of power and accuracy on serve and off the ground. Down went Djokovic under a barrage of big shots from his adversary.
Nadal, meanwhile, has travelled along a very different path these past few weeks than Djokovic. He took the loss to Djokovic in Monte Carlo with clear-mindedness, maturity and restraint. He had, after all, captured that prestigious tournament no fewer than eight years in a row. Losing to such an illustrious rival in the final this time around was no disgrace, and he seemed to genuinely view the setback as no cause for alarm. So the industrious, enterprising and unshakable Nadal went back to the drawing board and has been unbeatable ever since. He took the crown in Barcelona with a final round win over countryman Nicolas Almagro, had a week off, went to Madrid and prevailed there over Stan Wawrinka in the final, and then secured a third title in a row with back to back, straight set triumphs over Berdych and Roger Federer. By the end of Rome, Nadal was playing his best tennis since 2010.
The Spaniard’s comeback has been nothing less than stupendous. He has played eight tournaments since his seven month absence from the game. In that span, Nadal has secured six titles—including three Masters 1000 crowns and a pair of ATP World Tour 500 events—and his two losses were both final round contests. No one has any business recording results of that caliber after being gone from the game for so long with a knee injury, but then again there isn’t anyone in the entire world of sports with more inner ferocity, unwavering focus and determination than Rafael Nadal. I believe now that he will win his eighth title at Roland Garros. As for the women, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Serena Williams holding the trophy at the end of the fortnight. Serena has won 24 consecutive matches, including three events in a row on clay. She has not won the French Open since way back in 2002. Even more surprisingly, Williams has not been back in the final since claiming her lone singles title at Roland Garros. It will be her time again. She will control her own destiny. The only player that can beat Serena these days on any surface is Serena.
Nadal’s final round victory over Federer was historical. This was the 30th meeting between two of the game’s all-time great players, and Nadal extended his lead over the Swiss to 20-10 with a 6-1, 6-3 triumph that was even more one-sided than the score indicates. Nadal wore the expression of a man refusing to let anyone or anything get in his way. His intensity was more apparent than ever, his will to win practically tangible, his game as finely tuned as it has been for a long while. Nadal put in 74% of his first serves, winning 71% of those points. More significantly, he was eight for eleven (73%) on second serve points. Conversely, Federer made good on only 57% of his first serves and won just 57% (17 of 30 points). His second serve success rate was alarmingly low. Federer won only 7 of 23 points when he missed the first serve (30%) and was broken in five of eight service games. In plain and simple terms, Nadal was exemplary and the way he was playing, no one in the world was going to deny him victory.
He was very close to the peak of his powers. I am not sure I have ever seen him pass better off the backhand side, or dictate more thoroughly from the backcourt. But, conversely, Federer was largely dismal. As is almost always the case, Nadal broke down the Swiss stylist’s backhand with a barrage of forehands sent over with the Spaniard’s inimitable brand of topspin, but Federer also pressed more than usual off the forehand and served abysmally. The match was in many was a microcosm of the entire clay court rivalry between these two superstars.
Federer came out of the blocks with a flourish. In the opening game of the contest, he missed only one of five first serves. He opened with an ace down the T, moved to 30-0 with a nicely packaged serve-and-volley combination, and punched a forehand first volley crisply into the clear. After Nadal took control of the next point and concluded it with a trademark inside-out forehand winner, Federer was unswerving. He cracked a terrific inside-out forehand that Nadal could not answer, and then served-and-volleyed again, opening up the court with the wide serve in the deuce court, putting away a forehand first volley with ease and elegance. The Swiss had held at 15 for 1-0. He seemed calm and resolute.
But those feelings did not last. With Nadal serving at 30-30 in the second game, he missed his first serve. Federer made a deep return that Nadal managed to get back reasonably deep. Federer missed a forehand. Then Nadal aced Federer down the T, holding at 30, moving to 1-1. Thereafter, it all began unraveling rapidly for Federer, who wanted to attack but was frequently stymied by the quick feet, agile mind and supreme accuracy of Nadal. In the third game, Federer made five of six first serves but Nadal’s returns were sharp and strategically sound. The Spaniard reached 0-30 before Federer made a forehand drop volley winner off the net-cord. Federer got to 30-30, but then tried to draw Nadal in with a short backhand slice. Nadal was ready for that shot, driving a forehand with good pace crosscourt, forcing the Swiss into a sliced backhand error. At 30-40, Federer made a costly unforced mistake off the forehand. Nadal had the break for 2-1. He would never look back.
Nadal held at love for 3-1 as Federer made three unprovoked mistakes in that game. Nadal had his bearings, and clearly Federer did not. On the first point of the fifth game, Federer sent another first serve wide to the Nadal backhand, but the Spaniard anticipated that delivery beautifully, unleashing a crosscourt return winner from well behind the baseline. Federer missed an inside-out forehand off a backhand slice from Nadal. It was 0-30. Nadal missed a forehand down the line, but then Federer pulled a forehand inside-in wide. At 15-40, Nadal was masterful, fencing with Federer until he found just the right opening for a forehand crosscourt winner. It was 4-1 for Nadal. He now had the insurance break.
In the sixth game, Nadal held at love, missing only one of four first serves as Federer produced two errant backhand returns and made an additional backhand unforced error. After dropping the opening game of the match, Nadal had taken five games in a row, discouraging Federer thoroughly in the process. At 1-5, however, Federer tried to make amends. He served an ace for 15-15, and attacked his way to 30-30 with an excellent wide first serve to the forehand. But now he was telegraphing the serve-and-volley tactic, and there was an air of desperation to it all. At 30-30, Federer narrowly missed an inside-out forehand. He served-and-volleyed again at 30-40 but overanxiously punched a forehand first volley wide off a down the middle return from Nadal. The Spaniard had secured a sixth game in a row to seal the set, taking 24 of 31 points in the process.
Serving with new balls to start the second set, Nadal was caught off guard by a pair of superbly crafted topspin backhand crosscourt shots from the Swiss to make it 0-30. He rallied to 30-30 but Federer earned his first break point of the battle when Nadal made a rare, glaring unforced error off the forehand. An early break here might have allowed Federer to restore some confidence and start playing a bolder and more productive brand of tennis. But it was not to be. Nadal sent a sliced serve exceptionally wide with extra bite in the ad court, and Federer’s stretch, sliced backhand return went wide crosscourt. Federer saved one game point when he ran around his backhand for a dazzling forehand inside-in return winner, but at deuce Nadal pulled off a stunning backhand passing shot. Federer had played a decent, low volley down the line, but Nadal seemed to hold the ball on his racket for an eternity before rolling his backhand softly up the line for a scintillating winner. Federer missed a backhand return on the next point, and Nadal had held for 1-0.
Federer was understandably dismayed, unmistakably disconsolate, clearly at bay. He missed four out of five first serves in the second game and Nadal pounced. With Federer serving at 15-40, he approached off a sliced backhand down the line, but Nadal responded with a terrific crosscourt backhand passing shot winner. Federer had been broken for the fourth time in a row. Nadal was soaring. It was 2-0 for the Spaniard, and he held swiftly at love in the third game with calm authority. Make that nine games in a row for Nadal.
Federer was determined to make a stand, but Nadal was not giving away much at all. Serving at 0-3, 30-30, Federer released a vintage forehand down the line winner, clipping the line with little margin for error. But he missed an inside-out forehand wide and it was deuce. Federer had another game point but Nadal wiped that away with a neatly executed backhand drop shot down the line that elicited an error from his 31-year-old rival. But then Federer held on with panache. At long last, he had garnered another game, but Nadal was imperturbable. He raced to 40-0 in the fifth game before Federer took the next two points. At 40-30, Federer approached forcefully but Nadal produced another sparkling backhand passing shot down the line that was unmanageable for Federer, who netted a low backhand drop volley.
Nadal had moved to 4-1. Federer served an ace out wide in the ad court for 40-15 in the sixth game, but Nadal battled back gamely, winning three points in a row. Federer saved one break point with a forehand volley winner, but Nadal earned another, and the Spaniard made it count. Federer came in once more on the Nadal backhand, and the Spaniard had to thread the eye of a needle as he drove the ball down the line. That shot was letter perfect, clipping the line, giving the Spaniard a 5-1 lead. He served for the match in the seventh game, but Federer found a brief burst of inspiration. On his way to 0-40, Federer hit a pair of winners off the backhand. Nadal then made an uncharacteristic unforced error. Federer had broken at love. Serving at 2-5, he drifted to 15-30, but released a gem of a backhand overhead, sending that difficult shot acutely crosscourt for a winner. Federer followed with a gorgeous backhand drop shot down the line that died on the clay and gave Nadal no chance to reply. At 40-30, Federer’s improvised sliced forehand approach forced Nadal into an errant passing shot.
Now Nadal served for the match a second time at 5-3, and he put the clamps down entirely. After missing his first serve on the first point, he sent a forehand deep to the Federer backhand and drew the error. At 15-0, his first serve to the backhand was too much for the Swiss to handle. Federer miss-hit a backhand down the line to make it 40-0 for Nadal, and then a body serve from Nadal forced Federer into another mistake. Nadal held at love to complete the 6-1, 6-3 victory, capturing his 15th consecutive match in the process. He raised his career record against Federer on clay to 13-2.
Nadal had set the stage for his majestic performance against Federer when he struck down the big hitting Berdych 6-2, 6-4 in the semifinals, toppling his rival for the 13th consecutive time. It was in the first set that Nadal found the gold in his game. He broke in the opening game, added another break to reach 4-1, and was utterly dominant on serve, winning 16 of 17 points. Nadal was covering the court with alacrity, striking the ball impeccably, moving the big man around at will. Yet Berdych competed well. He had a break point for 2-0 in the second set, missing a backhand down the line under duress. They went to 4-4, and Nadal made his move, breaking Berdych at love, then holding at 30 to close out the account. That was just the boost he needed heading into the final, because the Spaniard had been tested severely in the previous two rounds.
In the quarterfinals, he took on compatriot David Ferrer for the second week in a row. The week before in Madrid, Ferrer had come within two points of a straight set triumph over Nadal in a battle of fluctuating fortunes. Nadal had rallied from 1-4 in the first set back to 4-4, only to lose the set 6-4. In the second set, Ferrer had built a 4-2 lead before Nadal retaliated to capture three games in a row. But he did not serve out the set. Two games later, Nadal stood at 5-6, 15-30 and faced serious trouble. Nadal made a half volley off the backhand that sat up. Ferrer scampered in for a forehand passing shot, expecting Nadal to race to the open court on Rafa’s forehand side. But Nadal stayed home, and Ferrer’s passing shot went right at him. Nadal made a remarkable backhand half-volley, semi-lob, and eventually won that point with an overhead winner. He rallied ferociously to win 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-0 on the Spanish clay.
In Rome, exactly one week later, Nadal was given another comprehensive examination by the dogged Ferrer. It took Nadal nearly an hour to win a 6-4 first set, but Ferrer bolted to a 4-0 lead in the second set. Nadal made it all the way back to 4-5 and was serving in the tenth game, but Ferrer broke him with some spectacular scrambling, chasing down a pair of Nadal overheads and countering with a forehand passing shot winner to make it one set all. Serving at 0-1 in the final set, Nadal was down 15-40, but a deep serve to the backhand that Ferrer could not handle saved the first break point, and then Nadal pulled Ferrer wide in the ad court to set up a forehand down the line. He followed that shot in and made a forehand volley winner off a forehand pass up the line. Nadal held on for 1-1 and then took five of the next six games to close out a hard fought and critical 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 triumph.
Against Gulbis, Nadal has always had a tough time. Although he has a 6-0 record over the Latvian, Gulbis has taken sets off the Spaniard in five of those clashes. Their most recent encounter at Indian Wells on the hard courts was a bruising showdown that Nadal secured 7-5 in the third set. Last week in Rome, Gulbis was blazing on all cylinders at the outset. He was pounding the ball with extraordinary velocity off both sides, serving big and accurately, keeping Nadal constantly off balance. The slow clay court looked incredibly fast the way Gulbis was walloping the ball. Gulbis aced Nadal twice in the opening game of the match, broke the Spaniard quickly, and blasted his way convincingly into a startling 5-0 lead. In that span, Gulbis swept 20 of 28 points. He even had a set point to win that set 6-0, but Nadal held on before Gulbis served three aces in holding for the set in the seventh game.
Gradually, Nadal found his range and began imposing himself more purposefully. He broke Gulbis for a 5-3 second set lead but failed to hold in the ninth game. Then Gulbis held on from 0-40, triple set point down in the tenth game, and drew level at 5-5. A lesser man than Nadal would have been badly shaken after missing out on those chances, but the Spaniard played one of his best games of the match to hold at love for 6-5 and then broke Gulbis for the set, sealing it on his fifth set point. It was one set all.
When Nadal broke for a 4-2 lead in the third set, he seemed ready to pull away permanently. Not so fast. Gulbis cracked two devastatingly potent backhand winners and broke at 15 for 3-4, then held at love for 4-4. With Nadal serving at 4-4, the score was locked at 30-30. Nadal was six points away from bowing out of the tournament. He responded fittingly, drilling an inside-out forehand to force a running forehand error from Gulbis. The Latvian made it back to deuce, but Nadal sent a cagey first serve into the body on the backhand, and Gulbis could not get it back in play. Nadal held on for 5-4 and soon travelled to 15-40, double match point in the tenth game of that exhilarating final set.
Once more, Gulbis was surprisingly resilient. He swung an un-returnable first serve wide to Nadal’s backhand to save one match point, then served-and-volleyed on the second, putting away a first volley with authority. But Nadal quickly earned a third match point, and this time prevailed as Gulbis missed an inside-out forehand wide. Nadal survived that harrowing skirmish 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, but Gulbis reminded us again that there is no way he should not be a top 15 player, and he probably belongs in the top ten. One of these days, he will marry his temperament to his talent and start doing himself justice.
Federer, meanwhile, had breezed into the quarterfinals with a fine performance against Gilles Simon, a player who beat him twice back in the fall of 2008. But this time around, Federer picked Simon apart mercilessly, employing the drop shot whenever possible, using the sliced backhand to disrupt his opponent’s rhythm, controlling the agenda completely. Federer romped 6-1, 6-2. But in the last eight, Federer confronted the dangerous Jerzy Janowicz. The 6’8” Janowicz had played his best tennis since reaching the final indoors in Paris last autumn, toppling the Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet back to back on the Italian clay.
Janowicz did not seem intimidated by Federer. He served prodigiously until he stood at 4-5. Facing a break point for the first time, he elicited a short return from the Swiss off a big serve, but the 22-year-old tried a foolish drop shot that Federer easily anticipated, and it cost the Polish competitor the set. Janowicz had a set point on serve at 5-4 in the second set but wasted it with another poor drop shot. This one he sent into the net. Federer won the match 6-4, 7-6 (2). He then took on the moody but sporadically brilliant Benoit Paire. Paire broke Federer for a 4-3 first set lead but the Swiss broke right back. They went to a tie-break, and Paire served at 5-4 with a chance to close it out. Panic set in. His shot selection was atrocious. Federer recovered to win the set, and won the match 7-6 (5), 6-4.
And so Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and all of the other leading candidates will set their sights on Roland Garros, looking to win the game’s showcase clay court event. By virtue of his seventh triumphant run in Rome, Nadal will be seeded at least No. 4 or perhaps No. 3 if Andy Murray pulls out of the tournament to mend his ailing back. Apparently the authorities at Roland Garros want no part of changing the seeding order and making allowances for Nadal.
Here is a man who has won Roland Garros seven of the last eight years. Since his comeback, he has been beaten only twice in eight tournament appearances, while capturing five titles this year on the clay. He fully deserves to be seeded first, and I can’t imagine any of the other leading players complaining about such a move. If they seeded Nadal at the top, this would not be some kind of special favor to a great champion; he has earned it. In my view, it would be the right thing to do for the sake of the tournament. Djokovic is the world No. 1 and was the runner-up to Nadal a year ago at Roland Garros. He beat him in Monte Carlo this season, and that was no mean feat. I believe he should be seeded second behind Nadal, and they should not meet before the final, but that apparently is not the way it is going to be.
Although I now make Nadal the clear favorite, Djokovic in great form would have a serious chance of taking the title. He has been pointing for Roland Garros all year long. After his loss in Rome, he called Roland Garros “the most important” tournament of the year for him. He wants to complete a career Grand Slam this year and join all of the other immortal figures who have realized that feat. Only Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer, and Nadal have won all four majors across their careers. Djokovic would be worthy of joining that company, especially if he stopped Nadal for the crown in Paris.
But the bottom line is they should not be forced to play each other before the final. That would be bad for the tournament and not good for the game. We will see how the draw plays out. Perhaps these two great players will end up on opposite halves of the draw. In any case, the fact remains that Nadal is primed for the occasion. He is returning to his home away from home, and is ready to confront anyone. The feeling grows that he will rule once more at the premier clay court tournament of them all.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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