The Madrid Tennis Masters must have quite a deal with the Tennis Gods because for the second straight year the tournament will play host to the sport’s greatest rivalry in their Sunday final: Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Nadal, an overwhelming favorite against countryman Nicolas Almagro, was in trouble after dropping the first set and faced with a string of break points early in the second. Nadal, however, raised his level as the pressure grew and ultimately took care of powerful Almagro 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
“I made a lot of mistakes in the first set and Almagro was playing really well,” Nadal said. “Because he was attacking me a lot I tried to play safer in the first set, that was a mistake.”
The win seals the No. 2 ranking and the No. 2 seed at the French Open for Rafa. And a win tomorrow would give the Spaniard a clean sweep of the three biggest ATP clay stops this season and put him one ahead of Andre Agassi’s 17 for most career Tennis Masters Titles.
For Federer, what an astounding difference a week makes. Last Saturday the tennis world was abuzz with further rumors of the King’s death following his shock straight-set loss to Albert Montanes in Estoril.
But just as he did a year ago, after a shoddy post-Australian Open, Federer has again (somehow) found his form this week in Madrid. As if he “flipped the switch” and said enough is enough, he’s unleashed his “A” game in Madrid notching impressive wins over Stan Wawrinka, Ernests Gulbis and today he ended the hopes of an all-Spanish final by turning away one of the best dirtballers on the planet, David Ferrer, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3.
“I’m finding my form again really nicely here in Madrid so it’s one of those finals you never know,” said Federer. “It’s quick conditions; I was able to come up with the right plays at the right time last year.”
Federer started out playing some blistering tennis. He served impeccable well, kept the error count low and really had his way with Ferrer early on. But Roger cooled off in the second set before again turning his game back on to clinch the third. Ferrer hung tough, but having never beaten this Swiss in nine prior attempts had to weigh on his mind late in the match.
As for tomorrow, Federer and Nadal have met 20 times in their historic rivalry with Nadal holding an almost insurmountable lead 13-7 overall and 9-2 on clay.
“After playing him last year, you figure maybe the French, Wimbledon or down the stretch in America we would face off again but it just never ended up happening, even though his ranking briefly slipped and we could have been in the semis section,” said Federer. “Either it was me or him; we just didn’t show up in that final. It’s not always easy; it shows how incredible the past few years have been. I think it’s exciting for tennis and for us obviously.”
Said Nadal, “Playing a final against Federer, against one of the best in the history of the game is always great; it always has an extra motivation. Matches against him are always very, very difficult but they are always a challenge. My job is done reaching the final; it was a dream come true being able to play well and win.”
Neither player, I think, is playing at their highest level. Federer’s certainly playing his best tennis of this clay season and he’s certainly on an upswing while Rafa may have looked stronger in Monte Carlo than he has in Madrid, however the faster conditions may be to blame.
For Federer to have a chance tomorrow he’ll have to play like he did today. Serve well, cut down on errors and hope Nadal’s grants him a few gifts. Federer’s backhand will again bear much of the Nadal offensive, so it will have to be sturdy and on song, or he might as well go home now.
Federer’s been effectively using a lot of the dropshots lately and I’ll expect to see more of that strategy against Nadal. I also think he should try to be more aggressive on Nadal’s second serve. It’s a rare weak spot for Nadal and one that can be exploited.
Above all though, even in defeat, Federer has proven this week to fans, critics and fellow players that when he wants to, he can still turn it on. And my guess is he’ll be back in good form in Paris.
For Nadal, if he plays the game we know he can play he’ll win. It’s that simple. He just needs to serve a high percentage of first serves, return well, hit his spots and dictate with the forehand and he should come through regardless of Roger’s level. The title is on his racquet.
In the bigger French Open picture, however, this match probably doesn’t mean much to Rafa given the disparity in conditions and the best-of-3 format from Paris to Madrid. But having missed Barcelona last month and lost in this same final last year, there is no way Nadal wants to let his Spanish faithful down again.
The pick is Nadal in two tight sets. 7-5, 6-4.
Let’s hope the Magic Box lives up to its name. So far it hasn’t disappointed.
In the women’s final Venus Williams faces Aravane Rezai. And in the doubles final, the Bryan twins, Bob and Mike, bid to win a record-tying 61st career team title (Woodbridge/Woodforde) against Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic.
MANOLO SANTANA start 1.30 pm
 D Nestor (CAN) / N Zimonjic (SRB) vs  B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) – ATP – DOUBLES FINAL
Not Before 15:30
A Rezai (FRA) vs  V Williams (USA) – WTA – SINGLES FINAL
Not Before 18:30
 R Federer (SUI) vs  R Nadal (ESP) – ATP – SINGLES FINAL
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