For the third straight year we get the dream blockbuster final, the Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal match for clay supremacy, for history and much more. Federer has lost to Nadal the last three years, and if it weren’t for the Spaniard who knows how many French Opens the Swiss would have racked up. Instead, Federer is still stuck at zero titles at Roland Garros, and the way I see it he will remain at zero when the sun sets in Paris Sunday evening.
There’s been a lot of chatter of how this is Roger’s best chance at beating Nadal and finally squeezing out a French Open victory. I don’t buy that. Roger’s best chance(s) were in 2005 and 2006, when Rafa was still evolving into the hardened clay beast that he has now become. Facts are facts, Rafa’s getting better! Jose Higueras may be a great clay mind, but I’m not sure he gets Roger over the hump.
There’s also been talk of how Roger’s playing better clay tennis now than ever. If you want to make that case, fine, I won’t argue against it, but Roger has had about the easiest draw any French finalist has probably ever had (looking at ranking of opponent). And he did surrender sets to Albert Montanes, Fernando Gonzalez and nearly dropped two to Gael Monfils. So while he is playing well, I’m not completely convinced he’s playing the best he’s ever played at this stage.
Meanwhile, Rafa’s absolutely humiliated three decent claycourters in Jarkko Nieminen, Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro. And he then pounded Novak Djokovic for two-and-a-half sets before easing up on the Serb.
Then there’s the talk that Roger’s getting closer to beating Rafa. Sure, that may be true at Monte Carlo or at Hamburg, but close at those events doesn’t count at Roland Garros, where it’s best-of-five. Just ask Djokovic who went toe-to-toe with Rafa at Hamburg for three hours only to get squashed in their Roland Garros rematch on Friday.
And then of course there’s the argument that Rafa has to lose sometime. Well, does he? Do you really think now is the time? Sounds more like desperation, but stranger things have happened in sports. Just look at Big Brown, the horse who had the Triple Crown all but locked up fizzle in his bid for history today. Look at the Memphis Tigers and the New York Giants, both huge underdogs pulled shocking upsets to win titles this year. The lists goes on and on, so Federer should take heart.
Still, all this adds up to bad news for Roger in my mind, but let’s try and break the match down further.
Forehand: Advantage Nadal
Arguably the single greatest shot in clay court history is the Nadal forehand. If it isn’t the greatest shot already, it will be when all is said and done. Roger has a great forehand, too, and one that’s more versatile and better suited to faster surfaces, but on clay Nadal’s lefty hook is the knockout punch, which he can deliver even in heavy conditions from just about anywhere on the court.
Backhand: Advantage Nadal
Rafa’s backhand doesn’t have the fear factor of his forehand, but in my mind it’s the more consistent shot of the two. The guy rarely misses off that wing and when he does he starts snarling like an angry bull. Rafa’s also been using the slice more, which gives him a little more variety and change of pace. Plus, his pass from the backhand side is nearly money. For Fed, the backhand is the trouble No. 1 trouble spot, especially when responding to the Rafa forehand, which we’ve seen time and time again, and just a hunch, we’ll see even more of it tomorrow: Roger pinned deep in the ad corner fending off heavy topspin forehands. If Roger can keep that backhand response deep, maybe flatten it out or hit that drop shot every now and then, I think that will pay off for the Swiss. But if it breaks down early it could be curtains quick.
Serve: Advantage Federer
Rafa’s serve is definitely improving. He seems to be getting more pop on the first and on the big points he’s really coming up bigger with it. That said, Fed still has the better serve, especially when it comes to the second serve, which is Rafa’s big vulnerability on the clay. To win Roger will need to have a great serving day. For Rafa, it’s not as vital.
Return of serve: Duece
Both players do a great job of getting balls back, and that’s the key on clay. No need to overhit and go James Blake, instead concentrate on getting it back into play, preferably nice and deep. Federer does a good job of that and so does Rafa. Roger probably has a little more versatility and power, but Rafa’s more consistent. Tough to choose, so I’ll call it even, though I think Roger should really try to exploit the Rafa second serve more, but my guess is won’t go after it tomorrow.
Net Play: Advantage Federer
Roger’s arguably the best volleyer in the game right now, so easy edge to him here. Rafa’s no joke at the net, but he’s not at Roger’s level. Although against Rafa, Roger will really need pick his spots wisely when coming in. Unlike grass, on a slow clay court the margin for error is that much slimmer when approaching against someone of Nadal’s caliber who can pass from virtually anywhere thanks to his speed and power. I do think Roger will come in more than he did in his first two meetings with Rafa but it really has to be on his terms. And the point-blank misses we saw vs. Monfils need to go!
Speed: Advantage Nadal
I give a slight edge here to Rafa, only because it’s on clay at Roland Garros which has the biggest court on the circuit, giving Rafa miles of running run to chase down just about anything you throw at him. In a dead 50-yard race it’s tough to pick who would win between the two, but on clay Rafa’s the better slider and the better retriever. He knows how to use the clay to make himself faster.
Headgame: Advantage Nadal
Mentally, there’s no one tougher in the game right now. On a head-to-head match-up, Nadal is an undefeated 3-0 vs. Federer at Roland Garros. I’m sure Roger wishes he could forget those losses but they are in there, in his head. And those blown leads in both Monte Carlo and Hamburg don’t help the situation any. Rafa knows that even if he’s down to Roger, even 5-1, 40-30, he still isn’t out. And he’s got the proof. Roger may think he’s confident. He may spin the numbers into supporting his cause, but with Nadal there’s no spin needed. He knows he’s the best. That simple.
X Factor: Advantage Federer
The X Factor tomorrow could be the new Federer drop shot. The best way to prevent the Rafa forehand to the Roger backhand drill is to not let it happen by getting Rafa off that baseline and bringing him to net, where he’s less dangerous. Roger’s been working on the drop all clay season, and we’ve saw him use it effectively against Monfils and against other opponents, though oddly absent when he played Rafa. Was he saving it? I don’t know, but in my mind to beat Rafa I think he’ll have break that out and disrupt Rafa’s rhythm.
A lot is made of the damp, cool conditions that we’ve seen at Roland Garros this year. And while the wetter conditions may take away from Rafa’s explosive spin, it think it hurts Federer as well in that the Swiss may not be able to hit through to court as much as he likes against a guy like Nadal. Plus windy and wet doesn’t suit Federer at all against Nadal whose loopy shots have a much higher margin for error.
Intangibles: Advantage Nadal
Can you say 27-0 at Roland Garros? How about 40-0 in best-of-five set clay matches? And do I need to mention Rafa’s faced one set point this event, having won 39 of his last 40 sets at the French Open? Given that, how likely is it that he actually loses three on one day to any one person, especially in a final with Bjorn Borg watching close by?
Endgame: Nadal in straight sets
Believe it or not I do give Roger a chance tomorrow, albeit a very slim one. Roger needs to serve well, use the drop shot and absolutely cut down on the errors/shanks he had against Monfils and during other bad patches. He needs to come out strong, mix it up to avoid a baseline slugfest. If he can jump out ahead and plant some doubt in Rafa’s mind early maybe he can ride it out to a quick win.
Above all, Roger needs to play a near perfect match to give himself a chance. And that’s the difference when playing Rafa. On clay, even your best may not be good enough for Rafa, and Roger knows it. We know Rafa’s going to bring it 100%. He hasn’t trained the countless hours and destroyed all comers thus far only to lose at this stage, his stage. I can’t see it, and Roger really hasn’t shown me anything these two weeks to make me believe otherwise. Court Philippe Chatrier doesn’t belong to Roland Garros or to the French anymore. It now belongs to Rafa. It’s his house. And he’s going to do everything in his power to protect it. And protect it I think he will.
Edit: I should also add a big congrats to Ana Ivanovic who beat Dinara Safina 4 and 3 for her first Slam crown. Third time is indeed a charm for the Serb who was turned away the French last year and by Sharapova this year in Australia. She becomes the new No. 1 with a bang!
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