After two rather sluggish semifinals, the right guys have emerged to the Sunday Rome Masters final: It’s Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal, episode 30! More on the rivalry in a bit, but first a quick recap of today’s play.
Nadal did what he normally does to Tomas Berdych, and that is get the big fellow moving. It got tighter in the second but Nadal was really without duress in a 6-2, 6-4 victory. After two 3-setters against Ernests Gulbis and David Ferrer, it must have been nice for Nadal to get a quick win over a dangerous bird like Berdych. And he’s in his eighth final in eight events this year. Simply amazing.
“Eight finals in a row is wonderful,” said Nadal. “Four to five months ago it was impossible to think about this. I hope to play very well. Any result will be fantastic.”
In the second semi, Federer overcame a break to the bad in the first set to put away the quirky Frenchman Benoit Paire 7-6, 6-4. Roger wasn’t anywhere near his sharpest on the day, but he did just enough for a win that puts him into his first ATP final of the season. But he’ll have to play much better to stay with Nadal tomorrow if he’s going to walk away with the trophy.
Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal
It’s not their first meeting of the year. The two greats locked up in a one-sided affair at Indian Wells won easily by Nadal. Roger was really struggling with his back in that one, and thus far this week, despite an extra shirt to keep him (the back?) warm, he’s showed no hints of any ailments. Then again, neither has Nadal who’s knees are always a concern.
So with both guys healthy and in good spirits, at least it should be a better match than their last meeting – not saying much!
Nadal of course leads big in this rivalry 19-10. And most importantly in this situation is he’s 12-2 against Roger on the clay. Surprisingly, though, Federer still plays him tough on this surface. The last time they played on dirt was at the 2011 French Open, and Federer played three very good sets before losing in four.
That same year Roger got a set from Rafa in Madrid. And before that they split two previous clay meetings also in Madrid in 2010 and 2009.
So I think it will be close yet again.
And Roger has been offering up his best tennis since the Australian Open this week. Aided by a friendly draw, Federer blasted through Potito Starache then Gilles Simon before facing some resistance from future Top 5-er Jerzy Janowicz. Though today was by far his worst performance on the week – many errors, plenty of shanks. And cause for some concern.
That said, maybe because of the slowness, the clay gives Federer that extra time to plot and prod his opponents. So as he gets older perhaps he’ll have his best results on the dirt? It’s softer on the body, allows him to get to more balls and strategy, nerves and fitness play a greater role than on hardcourts, I think.
As for Nadal, we know what surface he prefers, and his loves Rome. Nadal is 40-2 in his career winning six titles at the Foro Italico. Since returning to tennis in February the guy has reached the finals of all eight tournaments he’s played, winning five. Would anyone have dreamed such a run? No way. Not even when he was at his peak.
But despite the lofty results Nadal is not at his best right now. We all know it. He got pushed around by Gulbis the other day and Ferrer, at 31, seems to be on the brink of that elusive clay win – David should have won last week! So I do detect some vulnerability in Rafa’s game. It’s not as lethal and airtight as it was 2-3 years ago when he was virtually unplayable on the surface. Rafa’s winning again, but not in the same dominating fashion. The backhand isn’t quite as sound and his court positioning seems awry.
Therefore, I think Roger has a shot here, albeit a slim one. While he can’t muster the Gulbis power, he can and likely will be on the offensive right from the start. He has to be. And if he’s connecting and forcing Rafa deeper in the court I think he can win.
As usual, Roger will have to serve good and keep the error count low. Nadal will be whipping that forehand again, but it’s his backhand that has been a burden of late. If that wing continues to falter and Roger’s attacking it then picking off the replies at the net, then look out.
“It almost doesn’t matter what the surface or what the conditions are. I’ve got to play aggressive tennis and take it to Rafa,” assessed Federer. “I know he doesn’t give me much on clay. He’s got incredible spin.
“He is the best mover on clay of all-time, if not Top 2 with Bjorn Borg, so it’s hard to play against him. But I’ve done it before and can put him under pressure,” Federer added. “I hope this time I have a better chance than at Indian Wells, where things were a bit difficult for me. He’s had an incredible comeback, so I’m really happy for him. But someone has got to stop him, so I hope it’s me.”
So to me the match comes down to Rafa using his forehand to Roger’s backhand and vice-versa. And Roger being ultra aggressive like he was when they played a classic in Rome back in 2006.
And what’s a little worrisome is Rafa just played his worst match of the tournament, Nadal maybe his best.
Still, Roger’s a champion and playing against Rafa he’ll bring his best stuff. Unfortunately at 31 his best just won’t be enough against the King of Clay on his surface of choice. Let’s enjoy think rivalry while we still can.
The pick: Nadal in two
Tennis Channel has live coverage of the men’s Rome final starting at 10am ET. The women’s clash between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka is at 7:30am ET.
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