Rarely does a battle between tennis superstars in their primes turn into a mismatch the likes of Rafael Nadal’s 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 demolition of archrival Roger Federer in the French Open final. Though many cognoscenti were primed to anoint the sensational Swiss shot-maker as the unofficial “greatest ever” if he had won Roland Garros and achieved a career Grand Slam, his quest for the elusive title now appears quixotic.
The premier rivalry of the decade has always proved oddly imbalanced with each champion ruling different fiefdoms. No. 2 Nadal leads 11-6 overall with a huge 9-1 edge on clay, while No. 1 Federer is ahead 5-2 on other surfaces. With 12 major titles, highlighted by five straight Wimbledon crowns, King Roger reigns on grass, hard courts, and indoor carpet. But Nadal is even more invincible on clay: winning 115 of his last 117 matches and going undefeated in four French Opens for a perfect 28-0 career record.
Indeed, before their lopsided final, an admiring Federer called Rafa’s performances in Paris “sublime.” What then is a suitable adjective for the 22-year-old Spaniard and a final where he pummeled 46 winners, committed only seven unforced errors, won many more points (92 to 52), and surrendered just four games? Nadal accurately rated it “almost perfect.”
I predict this “almost perfect” accolade will appear often with future stories about Nadal, both at the French Open and in clay victories elsewhere against Federer. Here are five reasons why.
“He’s the best defensive player in the world, and he plays every point like it’s a match point,” praised No. 3 Novak Djokovic after Nadal outplayed him 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 in the semifinals at Roland Garros. Built like a 100-meter sprinter with a muscular 6’1″, 188-pound physique, Nadal has terrific acceleration, speed, agility and a fierce determination to run down faraway shots that seem impossible to reach and return. The only flaw in his otherwise impregnable defense is positioning himself too far (as much as 10 feet) behind the baseline. However, in the Roland Garros semis and final, he stood much closer to the baseline, which helped him break Federer’s serve an astounding eight of 11 times. Conversely, in the last three French finals, tenacious Nadal allowed Federer to convert only five of 31 break point chances.
“He’s much better on defense, much better on offense,” noted Federer after the final. Much of the improvement comes from Nadal’s versatile backhand, which is hit flat and with topspin and slice. Its depth, power and accuracy (especially on passing shots) make it yet another reliable weapon in Nadal’s arsenal. Despite a Western forehand grip that hampered the volley of Bjorn Borg and Jim Courier, Nadal has the correct Continental grip and volleying technique, plus quick reflexes and good anticipation at net. But his explosive forehand that features vicious topspin is the key to his offense. The only relatively weak link is his serve, which averaged only 178 kmh against Djokovic and 173 kmh against Federer. Considering that he belted one serve 212 kmh against Djokovic, Nadal, who is hampered by an open and narrow stance and insufficient weight transfer, certainly has the eight and strength to serve more powerfully.
In many individual sports, such as tennis and boxing, styles and strategies often make the difference between winning and losing. Before the final, seven-time Grand Slam winner Mats Wilander told The Telegraph (UK): “If Federer starts playing aggressively and does it every time there’s nothing in Nadal’s game that can hurt him.” Au contraire. The biggest reason Nadal dominates Federer on clay is the Spaniard’s powerful, wickedly spinning and high-bouncing crosscourt forehand that forces errors and weak returns from Federer’s vulnerable one-handed backhand. Nadal’s swerving lefty serve to the Federer backhand also puts him immediately on the defensive in the ad court, where the crucial ad-in and ad-out points are contested. Whether it’s dipping passing shots or angles that pull Federer out of position or deep groundstrokes that pin Federer behind the baseline, the matador from Mallorca has a high-percentage riposte. As Federer conceded, “It’s so hard to attack him.”
Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and longtime coach, preaches, “Stay hungry, stay humble.” And Nadal practices that family credo. “My motivation is to improve because my goal is to stay in the top position for the next few years,” says Nadal. He invariably praises The Mighty Fed as a great player and says and does nothing to antagonize him. Witness how Nadal skipped his usual post-final victory celebration of falling down and rolling on the clay and merely raised his hands and smiled. Nadal’s single-minded focus is also reflected in his extraordinary concentration and stamina, two assets of Borg whose record six French titles Nadal is chasing and will likely match or snatch. Indeed, on Rafa’s formidable consistency, Borg said, “He never plays any bad matches on clay, and all the players know it. That’s why he’s going to win this tournament many more times.”
During the Open Era, champions at Roland Garros rarely have been 27 or older, and Federer turns 27 on August 8. It may be premature to write a tennis obituary for a colossus who has gained an incredible 11 Grand Slam finals in the last 12 Slam events — failing only at the 2008 Australian when he was enervated by mononucleosis. But Federer’s speed and stamina will likely diminish just enough to hurt him in close, grueling matches. In contrast, just-turned-22 Nadal is in his prime and just-turned-21 Djokovic, the cocky and talented 2008 Australian champion and a semifinalist in five straight majors, is entering his prime. While Pete Sampras captured three of his record 14 Grand Slams titles after 27, he could win them with a booming serve and sharp volley. Federer is essentially an attacking baseliner who rushes net when possible. But that requires longer, tougher points. And winning them will inevitably prove tougher than ever.
During the French fortnight, Wilander asserted, “What I understand because my career is over and what Federer doesn’t understand because his isn’t, is that the day he beats Nadal on clay is the day he will never lose to Rafael Nadal again.” That scenario wasn’t plausible then, and it’s impossible now. As John McEnroe remarked, “Federer now seems farther away than ever from winning this.” Mary Carillo posed and answered the real question: “What’s to stop Nadal from carrying all this confidence into Wimbledon in a couple weeks?” And can Federer, who barely staved off rampaging Nadal in the 2007 Big W final, stop him and Djokovic there?
Paul Fein writes for TennisOne, check out more of his work at TennisOne.com.
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