PARIS – Regardless of the setting or the surface, Rafael Nadal confounds Roger Federer the way no other
Put the two greats of the game on opposite ends of a court in a Grand Slam final — particularly at Roland Garros, on the red clay that Nadal rules — and the one-sided nature of the rivalry grows even more pronounced.
Grinding along the baseline, using every inch of his wingspan to extend points, whipping fearsome forehands this way and that, Nadal flummoxed Federer yet again Sunday in a riveting, highlight-filled match, beating him 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1 for a record-tying sixth French Open championship and 10th major title overall.
This was their first meeting in a Grand Slam final in more than two years. It also was the first major championship match contested by any two men who already completed career Grand Slams. And Nadal and Federer put on a worthy show, more than three-and-a-half hours chock-full of lengthy exchanges, brilliant defense, sublime shotmaking and some dizzying shifts of momentum.
“A big occasion,” the third-seeded Federer said. “I was aware of it.”
“It’s always pretty straightforward when we play each other ... because we know what to expect,” Federer said. “I’m not in any way frustrated with his play.”
Perhaps that’s true, but consider this: Federer is 14-1 in the Grand Slam finals he has played against any other opponent. The only time Federer won the French Open, in 2009, he avoided Nadal, who was eliminated in the fourth round that year by Robin Soderling.
On Sunday, Federer raced to a 5-2 at the outset, but blew a set point by missing a drop shot that landed barely wide.
“I definitely thought that I got maybe a touch unlucky there, and he got a touch lucky,” Federer said. “That was one of my bigger chances.”
Nadal then won seven games in a row. Later, when Nadal went up a break in the third and led 4-2, the match appeared over, until Federer charged back to force a fourth set.
But Nadal once more assumed control, winning the last five games, then dropping to his knees and leaning forward with his hands covering his eyes.
“I was able to play my best when I needed my best,” Nadal said. “For that reason, today I am here with the trophy.”
He had a set point at 5-4, 40-30, but wasted it with a forehand that clipped the net and flew long. That made it deuce, and that’s when drops began falling. As spectators pulled on hats and popped open umbrellas, Nadal and Federer waited a few seconds before walking off the court.
Federer slipped into a private trainer’s room and hopped up on a table. Nadal switched shirts and fidgeted with his racket strings in a hallway, then had a brief chat with his mentor.
After a 10-minute break, the match resumed, and Nadal immediately earned a second set point. But Federer saved that one, too, opening an eight-point run for him. And then it was Nadal’s turn to take eight points in a row, including a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker, which he eventually closed with a forehand winner.
Federer wasn’t finished, breaking Nadal at love to get within 4-3 in the third set. When Federer struck a forehand winner down the line to break again and go ahead 6-5, he earned a standing ovation and chants of “Ro-ger! Ro-ger!” from thousands of fans at Court Philippe Chatrier.
“When Roger plays like this, the opponent has nothing to do, sometimes,” Nadal said.
With the crowd roaring each time he won a point, Federer served out the set, capping it with another forehand winner.
The outcome seemed in doubt. Federer had won 117 points, Nadal 116.
“All of a sudden, at 0-0 in the fourth set, you think, ‘OK, we have a match again,’” Federer said.
Nadal served to begin the fourth set, and Federer quickly gained three break points at love-40. This, then, would be the final twist. Nadal erased two break points with groundstroke winners, and the third with an ace at 120 mph. A service winner at 114 mph followed. Then Federer shanked a backhand off his frame and into the stands.
“Very important for me, no?” Nadal would say later. “That was a big turning point of the match, in my opinion.”
That made it 1-0, and Federer held to 1-1. But that was it. Nadal didn’t lose another game as the sun finally broke through the gray clouds, bathing the court in light. An appropriate conclusion for Nadal, the kid from the island of Mallorca who loves to spend free time fishing or at the beach.