Can Nadal escape clay-court season unscathed? - NBC Sports

Can Nadal escape clay-court season unscathed?
Federer, Djokovic and del Potro have shots at ending Nadal's run
AFP/Getty Images
Heading into the 2011 tournament at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal has won five French Open men's singles titles and compiled an impressive 38-1 record there.
May 3, 2011, 5:05 pm

Question: What do Juan Carlos Ferrero, Igor Andreev and Roger Federer have in common?

Answer: All of them have beaten Rafael Nadal during the Euroclay season leading up to Roland Garros.

There you have it. And the most remarkable aspect of that trivia question is what's left unsaid-that nobody else has beaten Nadal (at least not since he was a mere stripling) on the red clay in Europe before Paris. The only real surprise on that list is Andreev-all the other players are Grand Slam champions and former No. 1-ranked players. Andreev took the measure of Rafa in the quarters of Valencia in 2005, when Nadal was ranked No. 31. But it was just days after Nadal had slashed his way to the Miami Masters final (losing to Federer in five sets) and mere weeks since he made one of the first huge statements of his career, in Acapulco.

It wasn't that Acapulco was such a big event. Rather, it was the overpowering way Nadal blasted his way to the title, taking out (in order), Alex Calatrava, Santiago Ventura, Guillermo Canas, Mariano Puerta and Albert Montanes. It was a kind of Platonic round-by-round for clay-court tennis, all either Spanish or Argentinian men with a preference for the dirt. And Nadal gave Montanes a single game in the final, which he won 6-1, 6-0.

Furthermore, after what looks like an odd, inexplicable glitch against against Andreev, Nadal became the Rafa whom we now know and love (or, in some cases, fear and loathe). He would not lose again in 2005 until his feet touched grass in Halle. Nadal won, in succession, Monte Carlo (d. Guillermo Coria), Barcelona (d. Ferrero), Rome (d. Coria) and Roland Garros (d. Puerta). By the end of that run, he was No. 3 in the world and no longer a question mark in anyone's mind.

Slideshow

Take a look at some of the biggest upsets in French Open history.

Beyond that, the most notable resistance to Nadal on clay has been mounted by Federer. He's not just the GOAT, he's also the only man who's actually posted more than one win over Nadal during the European clay-court circuit, an odd and counter-intuitive truth that says more about Nadal's prowess on clay than Federer's shortcomings in that department (which amount to one: an inability to consistently beat Nadal on dirt).

Federer prevailed over Nadal once in Hamburg and once in Madrid, where he may get another chance to add to his tally later this week. Which brings us back to the second most intriguing question of moment (after, "Can Novak Djokovic continue his winning steak on clay?"): Can anyone beat Nadal between now and the second week in June?

The answer to any question of that kind is always "Of course." There's the occasional Andreev, right? But apart from an upset that's less likely to happen than a collision between the earth and an asteroid, there are three men who pose a realistic, reasonable threat to Nadal. A win by any of them would be surprising, but by no means shocking. I'm talking about Federer, Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro. Let's take a look at each of them.

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Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

/NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_NadalFederer2_h.jpgASSOCIATED PRESSLee Jin-manIt's one of the most compelling rivalries in tennis, pitting finesse against fitness, professional calm against fist-pumping enthusiasm. Roger Federer has the edge in Grand Slam titles, rankings and acclaim, but Rafael Nadal has the edge in their head-to-head meetings. Take a look at their battles./NBCSports/Components/Slideshows-NBC_sports/Tennis/Federer vs. Nadal/110605_RafaelNadal_FrenchOpen_2011_v.jpg2011 French OpenAFP/Getty ImagesJacques DemarthonAlthough he hit just 39 winners to Roger Federer's 53, Rafael Nadal also hit just 27 unforced errors to Federer's 56 en route to capturing his sixth French Open men's singles crown with a 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1 victory./NBCSports/Components/Slideshows-NBC_sports/Tennis/Federer vs. Nadal/110605_RogerFederer_FrenchOpen_2011_h.jpg2011 French OpenGetty ImagesMatthew StockmanComing off an impressive semifinal match in which he ended Novak Djokovic's perfect 41-0 season, Roger Federer couldn't carry that momentum into the championship match against Rafael Nadal. Getting broken seven times in a four-set defeat, Federer's career record against the Spaniard dropped to 8-17./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/110509_RafaelNadal_MadridMasters_2011_v.jpg2011 Madrid MastersAFP/Getty ImagesDani PozoAfter paying tribute to legendary Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros, who had died of brain cancer earlier in the day, Rafael Nadal looked a little shaky in his first set of the Madrid Open semifinals against Roger Federer on May 7, 2011. But Nadal bounced back to win his 37th straight match on clay. The final score was 5-7, 6-1, 6-3./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/110509_RogerFederer_MadridMasters_2011_h.jpg2011 Madrid MastersAFP/Getty ImagesPierre-philippe MarcouLosing his 11th of 13 career matches on clay against Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer was broken five times while breaking the Spaniard just twice./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/110404_RafaelNadal_MiamiMasters_2011_v.jpg2011 Sony Ericsson OpenGetty ImagesAl BelloRafael Nadal needed just 79 minutes to dispatch Roger Federer by a 6-3, 6-2 score in the semifinals of the 2011 Sony Ericsson Open. Nadal won 62 of the match's 103 points./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/110404_RogerFederer_MiamiMasters_2011_h.jpg2011 Sony Ericsson OpenGetty ImagesClive BrunskillSuffering a 6-3, 6-2 pounding at the hands of Rafael Nadal in Key Biscayne, Fla. on April 1, 2011, Roger Federer's record against his rival fell to 15 losses to eight wins. Federer had just two break point chances and failed to convert on either one, while he himself was broken on four of five opportunities./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/101129_Federer_2010ATPWorldTourFinals_v.jpg2010 ATP World Tour FinalsGetty ImagesJulian FinneyWinning 92 percent of the points played on his first serve and losing just 13 points on serve the entire match, Roger Federer captured his fifth season-ending title with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Rafael Nadal at the ATP World Tour Finals on Nov. 28, 2010. Federer had won all three of his round-robin matches in straight sets to start the tournament, and then he cruised past Novak Djokovic in the semis./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/100517_Nadal_MadridOpen_2010_h.jpg2010 Madrid OpenGetty ImagesClive BrunskillAvenging his previous Madrid loss to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal improved his 2010 season record on clay to 15-0 with a 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory on May 16, 2010. The victory gave Nadal his record 18th Masters title and moved him back up to No. 2 in the rankings./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/100517_Federer_MadridOpen_2010_h.jpg2010 Madrid OpenAFP/Getty ImagesDani PozoAlthough Roger Federer advanced to the final of a clay-court event for the first time in 2010, he couldn't pick up the title, falling to rival Rafael Nadal. Federer converted three of 11 break point chances in the match and won 84 total points, but Nadal converted four of 11 breaks and won 85 total points./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/090518_RogerFederer_MadridOpen_h.jpg2009 Madrid OpenGetty ImagesClive BrunskillEarning his first ATP World Tour title since October 2008, Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, at the Madrid Open on May 17, 2009. Not only did Federer snap Nadal's 33-game winning streak on clay, but he also became just the second player to beat Nadal twice on clay./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/090518_RafaelNadal_MadridOpen_h.jpg2009 Madrid OpenAFP/Getty ImagesPedro ArmestreRafael Nadal's quest to sweep the season's clay court events was foiled by Roger Federer at the Madrid Open. The Spaniard, who had already won three straight titles on clay and five overall, looked tired after playing a semifinal match that lasted more than four hours the day before. Despite having four break point chances -- two more than he gave his opponent -- Nadal couldn't capitalize on any. /NBCSports/Interactives and Slideshows/Tennis/ss_090201_AussieOpen_MensFinal/ss_090201_AussieOpen_MensFinal/090201_NadalFederer2_h.jpgAustralian Open 2009Getty ImagesScott BarbourAt the Australian Open on Feb. 1, Roger Federer (front) and Rafael Nadal faced off for the first time in their lengthy rivalry in a Grand Slam final played on the hardcourts./NBCSports/Interactives and Slideshows/Tennis/ss_090201_AussieOpen_MensFinal/ss_090201_AussieOpen_MensFinal/090201_Nadal13_h.jpgAustralian Open 2009Getty ImagesScott BarbourRafael Nadal, who was ranked No. 1 for the first time in a major tournament, came into the finals after playing a record five-hour-and-14-minute match in the semifinals, but he still had plenty of energy left in the championship./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/090201_Federer_2009AustralianOpen_h.jpgAustralian Open 2009AFP/Getty ImagesPaul CrockDespite his usually reliable serve faltering and Rafael Nadal running him around the court, Roger Federer forced a fifth set./NBCSports/Interactives and Slideshows/Tennis/ss_090201_AussieOpen_MensFinal/ss_090201_AussieOpen_MensFinal/090201_Nadal15_h.jpgAustralian Open 2009Getty ImagesCameron SpencerRafael Nadal triumphed in a classic Australian Open final, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2. He finished with 50 winners and 41 unforced errors in a match that lasted four hours and 23 minutes. Federer had 71 winners and 64 unforced errors./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080706_RogerFedererserve_h.jpgWimbledon 2008Getty ImagesJulian FinneyRoger Federer had won five consecutive Wimbledon titles heading into the finals of the 2008 tournament, but that was where his streak would end. His 65-game winning streak on grass was also snapped./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080706_RafaeNadal2_h.jpgWimbledon 2008AFP/Getty ImagesAdrian DennisRafael Nadal won 209 points to Roger Federer's 204 and claimed a five-set victory, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080706_RogerFedererHawkEyeout_h.jpgWimbledon 2008AFP/Getty ImagesCarl De SouzaSwitzerland's Roger Federer had 25 aces, but he also hit 52 unforced errors in the 2008 Wimbledon championship match./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080706_RafaelNadaltrophy_h.jpgWimbledon 2008AFP/Getty ImagesAdrian DennisRafael Nadal earned his fifth Grand Slam victory and first outside of France, defeating Roger Federer in five riveting sets./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080608_RogerFederershot_h.jpgFrench Open 2008AFP/Getty ImagesPatrick KovarikLooking to beat Rafael Nadal for the first time ever at the French Open, the 2008 championship match didn't start the way Roger Federer would have liked, as he was broken three times in the opening set to give Rafael Nadal an early 6-1 advantage./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080608_RafaelNadalshot_h.jpgFrench Open 2008Getty ImagesMatthew StockmanPlaying an extremely high level of tennis, Rafael Nadal didn't let up after the first set of the 2008 French Open. Instead, he continued to put pressure on Roger Federer./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080608_RogerFederershock_h.jpgFrench Open 2008Getty ImagesMatthew StockmanRoger Federer was never really able to challenge Rafael Nadal in the 2008 French Open championship, losing by a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 score in less than two hours in the most lopsided defeat in his 173 Grand Slam matches. He was broken eight times./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080608_RafaelNadaltrophy_v.jpgFrench Open 2008Getty ImagesMatthew StockmanWithout losing a single set throughout the tournament, Rafael Nadal became just the second man to win four consecutive French Open titles, equalling Bjorn Borg's record. The Spaniard improved his record at Roland Garros, where he had won 83 of 90 sets, to 28-0./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080518_RogerFederer_Hamburg_h.jpgHamburg 2008APJoerg SarbachRoger Federer earned his Hamburg title in 2007 by snapping Rafael Nadal's 81-match winning streak on clay, but he couldn't defend the championship in 2008. Federer lost a big lead in the first set, won the second in a tiebreak and succumbed to Nadal in the third./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080518_RafaelNadal_Hamburg_v.jpgHamburg 2008APFabian BimmerWith the Hamburg Masters victory, Rafael Nadal added the only major clay-court title missing from his resume. At the time of this tournament, 21 of his 26 career titles had come on clay./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080430_RogerFedererMonteCarlo_2008_h.jpgMonte Carlo 2008AFP/Getty ImagesStephane DannaAfter suffering a surprising slump to start the 2008 season, Roger Federer was back to his winning ways when he reached the 2008 Monte Carlo Masters. It wasn't enough momentum to carry him past Rafael Nadal in the finals, however. Federer converted four of his five break point chances but allowed a 4-3 first-set lead and 4-0 second-set lead slip away./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080430_RafaelNadalMonteCarlo_2008_h.jpgMonte Carlo 2008AFP/Getty ImagesValery HacheRafael Nadal extended his winning streak at Monte Carlo to 22 consecutive matches, topping Roger Federer 7-5, 7-5 in the 2008 finals. Nadal improved his finals record on clay courts to 19-1 and took a 9-6 advantage in head-to-head matches against Federer./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2007Shanghai_v.jpgShanghai 2007AFP/Getty ImagesMark RalstonRafael Nadal had just one break point chance in a lopsided loss against Roger Federer in the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. The semifinal meeting lasted just 59 minutes, the shortest match the two have ever played./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007Shanghai_v.jpgShanghai 2007AFP/Getty ImagesPeter ParksBehind his 11 aces, Roger Federer cruised to victory in Shanghai. His win over Rafael Nadal earned Federer a spot in the Tennis Masters Cup finals, which he won for the fourth time in five years./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_FedNadal_2007Wimbledon_h.jpgWimbledon 2007Getty ImagesClive BrunskillFor the second straight year, both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer surged through the Wimbledon draw and earned their trips to the 2007 finals. It was the matchup for which tennis enthusiasts had been hoping./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007Wimbledon_h.jpgWimbledon 2007AFP/Getty ImagesJoe KlamarRoger Federer's serve proved to be one of his strongest weapons in the 2007 Wimbledon championship match. He had 24 aces and just three double faults./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2007Wimbledon_h.jpgWimbledon 2007Getty ImagesClive BrunskillRoger Federer and Rafael Nadal split the first four sets, as they battled on Centre Court at the All England Club. Nadal was able to repel Federer's first match point, but he couldn't prevent the four-time defending champion from winning the 2007 title on his second match point./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007Wimbledon2_h.jpgWimbledon 2007Getty ImagesClive BrunskillAfter three hours and 45 minutes of back-and-forth action, Roger Federer emerged victorious, 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2. With the win, he matched Bjorn Borg's record of five straight Wimbledon titles./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007FrenchOpen_v.jpgFrench Open 2007AFP/Getty ImagesJacques DemarthonComing into the 2007 French Open with his recent success over Rafael Nadal on clay, Roger Federer was confident in his chances. Fifty-nine unforced errors later with his normally dominant forehand failing him, he had to concede the title to Nadal./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2007FrenchOpen_v.jpgFrench Open 2007Getty ImagesClive RoseIn a battle that lasted 190 minutes, Rafael Nadal earned the 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Roger Federer./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007FrenchOpen2_v.jpgFrench Open 2007AFP/Getty ImagesFrancois GuillotRoger Federer had many chances to swing the French Open momentum in his favor, but he was only able to capitalize on one of his 17 break point chances. Needing time off to rebound after the devastating loss and citing fatigue, he subsequently withdrew from the Gerry Weber Open, an event he had won each of the previous four years./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2007FrenchOpen2_v.jpgFrench Open 2007AFP/Getty ImagesPierre VerdyWith his victory in the 2007 French Open, Rafael Nadal became just the second man since 1914 to win three consecutive French Open titles./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007Hamburg_h.jpgHamburg 2007Bongarts/Getty ImagesStuart FranklinAn excess of errors by Roger Federer gave Rafael Nadal the first set when the players faced one another in the 2007 Hamburg Masters./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2007Hamburg_v.jpgHamburg 2007Bongarts/Getty ImagesStuart FranklinRafael Nadal couldn't hold on to that advantage, though, and dropped the next two sets. The loss marked the end of his record-setting 81-game win streak on clay. "If I have to lose against anyone, then he is the man," Nadal said following the match. "I am not sad to lose to the best in the world." /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007Hamburg2_v.jpgHamburg 2007Bongarts/Getty ImagesStuart FranklinRoger Federer finally earned his first win on clay against Rafael Nadal and reduced his career deficit in their series to 4-7./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_WawrinkaFed_2007Romedoubles_v.jpgRome doubles 2007Getty ImagesClive BrunskillAlthough their rivalry was built on singles matches, that didn't stop the hype when Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya were scheduled to face Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka in a first-round doubles match at the Rome Masters in 2007. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_MoyaNadal_2007Romedoubles_v.jpgRome doubles 2007Getty ImagesClive BrunskillOn the clay court, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya emerged victorious, topping Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka 6-4, 7-6. It was the second time the two rivals battled in doubles, and Nadal's win improved his record to 2-0 in those matchups./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_NadalFed_2007BattleofSurfaces_h.jpgBattle of the Surfaces 2007AFP/Getty ImagesJaime ReinaRoger Federer has a 70-11 career record on grass, including a stretch of 54 straight victories and counting, and boasts four Wimbledon titles. Rafael Nadal has 18 titles on clay, including three French Open titles. It was only fitting, therefore, that the two faced off on a split court for a unique exhibition dubbed the "Battle of the Surfaces" in 2007. The half-grass, half-clay court took 19 days to prepare and cost $1.63 million to create./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_FedNadal_2007BattleofSurfaces_v.jpgBattle of the Surfaces 2007Getty ImagesClive BrunskillIn a match completely unlike any other, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal produced an entertaining battle and spectacle, with the players switched shoes before switching sides throughout the match. Nadal won the first set, but Federer won the second to force a decisive final set./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2007BattleofSurfaces_v.jpgBattle of the Surfaces 2007AFP/Getty ImagesJaime ReinaThe King of Clay topped the Grass Giant, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (12-10) in the Battle of the Surfaces in 2007. Roger Federer won an equal number of points on both surfaces, while Rafael Nadal won seven less on grass and 12 more on clay. Around 6,800 fans packed the Palma Arena in Palma de Mallorca to watch the battle./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2007MonteCarlo_h.jpgMonte Carlo 2007Getty ImagesMichael SteeleIn the finals of the 2007 Monte Carlo Masters, Rafael Nadal won his sixth straight on clay against Roger Federer, thoroughly outplaying the world No. 1. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2007MonteCarlo_h.jpgMonte Carlo 2007AFP/Getty ImagesValery HacheIn a 4-6, 4-6 loss against Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, Roger Federer served more doubles faults (four) than aces (three). He had three break point chances and failed to capitalize on any of them. It was Federer's worst loss against Nadal since their very first meeting in 2004./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_NadalFed_2006SouthKoreaexhibition_h.jpgSouth Korea exhibition 2006Getty ImagesChung Sung-junLess than a week after topping Rafael Nadal in Shanghai, Roger Federer met his rival on the tennis court once again. This time, however, it was for an exhibition in South Korea. Federer came out on top again, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in a match that was characterized both by genuine competition and theatric touches. The two stars also took some time to teach a few lucky South Korean children./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006Shanghai_v.jpgShanghai 2006AFP/Getty ImagesFrederic J. BrownIn the semifinals of the 2006 Tennis Masters Cup, Rafael Nadal only managed to get two break point chances against Roger Federer. He converted just one./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006Shanghai_v.jpgShanghai 2006Getty ImagesMatthew StockmanWith a 6-4, 7-5 win on the hard courts in Shanghai, Roger Federer earned his first back-to-back wins over Rafael Nadal. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_FedNadal_2006NYCStreetSlam_h.jpgNYC Street Slam 2006Getty ImagesBrad BarketThey didn't meet at the 2006 U.S. Open, but Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal did still play in New York that year. They faced off on a makeshift court between Lexington Avenue and 54th Street prior to the tournament, hitting a few shots and showing off before the amassed crowd. They kept one volley going 50 times without letting the ball hit the ground./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006Wimbledon_h.jpgWimbledon 2006AFP/Getty ImagesCarl De SouzaWhen the two players met next, the 2006 Wimbledon title was on the line. Rafael Nadal was no match for Roger Federer in the first set, getting blanked 6-0. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006Wimbledon2_v.jpgWimbledon 2006Getty ImagesDaniel BerehulakIn a match in which he rocketed 13 aces to just one double fault, Roger Federer pulled out the four-set win in 178 minutes./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006Wimbledon3_v.jpgWimbledon 2006Getty ImagesClive BrunskillThe 2006 Wimbledon final marked the second straight time Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met in a Grand Slam championship match; they would accomplish that feat again the next year./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006Wimbledon_h.jpgWimbledon 2006Getty ImagesClive BrunskillThe win was Roger Federer's fourth straight at Wimbledon and provided even more proof that he deserved the title of the king of the grass courts./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_2006FrenchOpen_h.jpgFrench Open 2006Getty ImagesClive BrunskillA packed crowd was on hand to watch Rafael Nadal's and Roger Federer's seventh career battle, which unfolded in the 2006 French Open. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006FrenchOpen_v.jpgFrench Open 2006AFP/Getty ImagesChristophe SimonRoger Federer rocketed out to claim the first set, 6-1, but he then lost the second set by the same score. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006FrenchOpen_h.jpgFrench Open 2006AFP/Getty ImagesChristophe SimonRafael Nadal's athleticism allowed him to run down almost everything Roger Federer threw his way. Nadal won 68 percent of the points on his serve and 37 percent of the return points. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006FrenchOpen2_v.jpgFrench Open 2006AFP/Getty ImagesJack GuezRafael Nadal earned his fifth straight victory over Roger Federer and claimed his second French Open title./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006Rome_v.jpgRome 2006AFP/Getty ImagesAlberto PizzoliRoger Federer's woes against Rafael Nadal on clay continued just one month later. He won 179 points to Nadal's 174 and had 10 aces, but he also was broken once more when the two met in Rome. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006Rome_h.jpgRome 2006Getty ImagesClive BrunskillRafael Nadal edged Roger Federer to take the Rome Masters Series title in the closest and longest match the two have ever played. The match lasted five hours and six minutes and featured three tiebreaks before Nadal claimed the victory, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5). /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006MonteCarlo_h.jpgMonte Carlo 2006AFP/Getty ImagesValery HacheTwo hundred and ninety five points were played in an almost four-hour marathon match in the finals of the Monte Carlo Masters Series in 2006. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006MonteCarlo_h.jpgMonte Carlo 2006AFP/Getty ImagesPascal GuyotIn the end, Roger Federer's first win on clay against Rafael Nadal was just out of his reach. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006MonteCarlo2_v.jpgMonte Carlo 2006Getty ImagesIan WaltonRafael Nadal broke Roger Federer seven times in his 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (5) win in Monte Carlo./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2006Dubai_v.jpgDubai 2006AFP/Getty ImagesKamal MoghrabiThe stats told a different tale from the final score when Roger Federer took on Rafael Nadal in Dubai in 2006. Federer won seven more points than did Nadal, but Nadal pulled out the win. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2006Dubai_v.jpgDubai 2006AFP/Getty ImagesRabih MoghrabiAfter dropping the first set 2-6, Rafael Nadal rocketed back to claim the next two sets 6-4, 6-4. The win was the last Rafael Nadal would take against Roger Federer on the hard courts./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2005FrenchOpen_v.jpgFrench Open 2005Getty ImagesClive MasonRafael Nadal got a nice present for his 19th birthday in 2005. He edged out Roger Federer in the semifinals of the French Open./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2005FrenchOpen_v.jpgFrench Open 2005AFP/Getty ImagesChristophe SimonRoger Federer broke Rafael Nadal six times in their 167-minute battle, but he was broken nine times in return. /NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2005FrenchOpen2_v.jpgFrench Open 2005AFP/Getty ImagesThomas CoexHis win over Roger Federer earned Rafael Nadal a spot in the French Open finals. Nadal became the seventh player in history to win a Grand Slam in his first appearance at the event./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_FedererNadal_2005FrenchOpenpreview_h.jpgFrench Open 2005Getty ImagesClive MasonThey were rivals on the court, but Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal took some time off the court to play nice prior to the start of the 2005 French Open./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2005NASDAQ100_h.jpgATP Masters Series Miami 2005Getty ImagesClive BrunskillAt the same tournament the following year, it looked like the battle would go Rafael Nadal's way once again. Nadal claimed the first two sets, 6-2, 7-6 (4), hustling around the court./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2005NASDAQ100_h.jpgATP Masters Series Miami 2005Getty ImagesClive BrunskillBut it was Roger Federer who came back to win the next three sets, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-1, in a marathon match that spanned three hours and 43 minutes. With the win in the ATP Masters Series Miami event, he evened their burgeoning rivalry at one game apiece./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2005NASDAQ1002_v.jpgATP Masters Series Miami 2005Getty ImagesClive BrunskillA discouraged Rafael Nadal played well but not well enough on a surface that favored Roger Federer's style of play./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080415_NadalFederer2004split_h.jpgMiami AMS 2004Although Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer played just once in 2004, it marked the first time the two soon-to-be rivals faced off./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Federer_2004NASDAQ100_h.jpgMiami AMS 2004Getty ImagesEzra ShawIn 2004, the first time Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played each other, Federer's star was burning bright. He had topped such notables as Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick and racked up two Grand Slam titles. Nadal, on the other hand, had yet to make it past the third round in any tournament./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_Nadal_2004NASDAQ100_h.jpgMiami AMS 2004Getty ImagesAl BelloStill, it was Rafael Nadal who claimed the Nasdaq 100 win, 6-3, 6-3, in the Miami AMS. Nadal broke Federer three times while never facing a break point chance on his serve./NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_NadalFederer_v.jpgAFP/Getty ImagesJaime ReinaThroughout their rivalry, the top two players in the world have developed a considerable amount of respect for each other's abilities and talents. More tennis coverageMore sports coverageMore slideshowsembss1falseall51

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Federer vs. Nadal

Relive the head-to-head battles between the two best players in men's tennis.

/NBCSports/Sections/Personal/Fiss, Stirling/Images/Federer Nadal/080411_FedererNadal_2005FrenchOpenpreview_h.jpg1100071800#000000http://msnbcmedia.msn.comClive MasonGetty Images EuropeGetty Images2005 Getty ImagesPARIS - JUNE 02: Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain stand side by side as they pose for photos prior to their semi-final match tomorrow during the eleventh day of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 2, 2005 in Paris, France. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Roger Federer;Rafael NadalFrench Open - Day ElevenEOS1D-011220 53001808SGSE53001808CM020_French_Open_DParisFrance632532672000000000153001808Pfalsefalse

/NBCSports/Components/Slideshows-NBC_sports/Tennis/Federer vs. Nadal/101129_RafaelNadalRogerFederer_1000x563.jpg1100056300#000000http://msnbcmedia.msn.comJulian FinneyGetty Images EuropeGetty Images2010 Getty ImagesLONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Rafeal Nadal of Spain (L) and Roger Federer of Switzerland look on before a group photo during the ATP World Tour Tennis Finals Media Day at the County Hall Marriott Hotel on November 19, 2010 in London, England. The end of season tennis event takes place between Nov 21st - 28th at the O2 arena in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafeal Nadal;Roger FedererATP World Tour Finals - Media DayTennisSTEN62533864LondonEnglandUnited Kingdom6342572160000000001105082135Pfalsefalse

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Roger Federer (trails in the head-to-head, 8-15)
Remember him? One-handed backhand, excellent mobility, good hair. It's been a while since Federer generated headlines, and don't think he's unaware of it. Although he isn't the bitter, vengeful type, Federer is nicely positioned to act as the spoiler who halts the latest Nadal clay-court streak (34 and counting). Furthermore, Federer needs to fire just that loud a shot to regain the ground he's lost to Novak Djokovic, who's replaced Federer at No. 2-and as the most likely candidate to unhorse Nadal. Don't think Federer doesn't have this W in him.

Having those two spring Masters Series wins over Nadal on clay helps. One of those victories occurred in Madrid, where Federer likes the conditions, provided there's sufficient sunshine to dry and speed up the courts. But Federer also took the measure of Nadal in perpetually damp, cloudy Hamburg, so appealing to mother nature isn't his only option.

Although Nadal has repeatedly shown that he's capable of focusing and marshaling his enthusiasm for extended periods, everyone is subject to the unexpected lapse-the kind of day when the ball just won't fall right and/or the legs don't want to move, no matter how harsh the orders from the brain. But Federer doesn't need Nadal to have a horrible day; he just needs to have a great one himself, and hope that Nadal gives him an opening here or there.

Nadal and Federer (seeded No. 3) are on the same side of the draw in Madrid, and the next highest seed in Federer's quarter is Robin Soderling (No. 5), who's struggled lately. The biggest stumbling block on Federer's path to the semifinals appears to be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who specializes in disappointing expectations but has the talent and disposition to come up big now and then. Remember, there's no pressure on Federer whatsoever-he's shifted that burden to Djokovic's shoulders, which ought to enable him to feel swifter and lighter-of-step than he has in years.

There's no occasion so big that Federer hasn't experienced and mastered it. If he catches an emotional wave, which he's bound to do at least a few more times in his career, watch out.

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Memorable moments in French Open history

Memorable moments in French Open history

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Take a look at a timeline of the biggest matches and moments through the years at the French Open.

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Memorable moments at Roland Garros

Take a look back at some of the biggest matches in French Open history.

/NBCSports/Components/Slideshows-NBC_sports/Tennis/French Open/French Open timeline/Images/100513_JenniferCapriati_2001FrenchOpen_640x480.jpg164048000#000000http://msnbcmedia.msn.com

Clive Brunskill

Getty Images Europe

Getty Images

9 Jun 2001: Jennifer Capriati of the USA celebrates with the trophy after winning the womens final match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium during the French Open Tennis at Roland Garros, Paris, France. Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill/ALLSPORT

French Open Tennis

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trueH6falsetrue1Novak Djokovic (trails, 9-16)
It's all about Djokovic these days, and with good reason. He's undefeated in 2011, and in the best shape of his life (thanks partly to the work of his nutritionist, who weaned him off the pasta and pizza). Djokovic can do just about anything but beat Nadal on clay-at least that's what the record says in bold-faced black-and-white as of right now.

Djokovic has gotten the occasional set off Nadal on clay, but even on those occasions Nadal appeared to win pulling away. The notable exception was the semifinal in Madrid in 2009. That match was a real corker; Nadal emerged with the win, 7-6 (9) in the third. But there have been scant few other occasions when Djokovic has been able to maintain the pace set by Nadal on clay. In three meetings at Roland Garros, where it most counts, Djokovic is 0-8 in sets (he retired after going down two sets the first time he and Nadal crossed swords, which was in the French Open).

Djokovic's problems with Nadal on clay (and at Grand Slams in general) seem to have less to do with style, strategy or tactics than conditioning and mental and emotional stamina. But the evidence of the first quarter of 2011 suggests that he may have redressed those shortcomings, which is why building on his hard-court success in the coming weeks is so critical to Djokovic's long-term hopes and ambitions. Should David Ferrer (seeded No. 6 in Madrid) and Djokovic meet in the quarters, we'll get a pretty good idea of just how much fitter and stronger Djokovic is this year.

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Celebrity tennis fans

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Celebrity tennis fans

Take a look at some well-known fans in the world of tennis.

/NBCSports/Components/Slideshows-NBC_sports/Tennis/Celebrity tennis fans/Images/11/110906_BlakeLively_USOpen_2011_640x480.jpg164048000#000000http://msnbcmedia.msn.comNick LahamGetty Images North AmericaGetty Images2011 Getty ImagesNEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Actress Blake Lively watches as Serena Williams of the United States plays against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia during Day Eight of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)2011 US Open - Day 8TennisEACE GSE TEN122330794JH078_2011_US_OpenNew YorkNYUnited States6345077760000000001122330794Pfalsefalse

/NBCSports/Components/Slideshows-NBC_sports/Tennis/Celebrity tennis fans/Images/11/110906_BlakeLively_USOpen_2011_1000x563.jpg1100056300#000000http://msnbcmedia.msn.comNick LahamGetty Images North AmericaGetty Images2011 Getty ImagesNEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: Actress Blake Lively watches as Serena Williams of the United States plays against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia during Day Eight of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)2011 US Open - Day 8TennisEACE GSE TEN122330794JH078_2011_US_OpenNew YorkNYUnited States6345077760000000001122330794Pfalsefalse

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Juan Martin del Potro (trails, 3-5)
Del Potro scares Nadal; the No. 1 has said as much in the past, if not in so many words. Delpo's size (6'6") enables him to take many of those vicious topspin blasts by Nadal right in his own wheelhouse. And nobody, but nobody, can drive even the most resourceful retriever or counter-puncher back off the baseline better than del Potro. He's also adept at setting up the forehand blast to which there simply is no reply.

Nadal and Delpo have met on clay only once, in the first round at Roland Garros in 2007 (del Potro was 18 at the time). After that, del Potro gained ground on Nadal pretty quickly. By the fall of 2009, he was working on a four-match winning streak (he won his third-straight hard-court clash with Nadal in the U.S. Open semis of 2009, giving up just two games per set in a blowout), but his wrist injury and subsequent layoff through almost all of 2010 set him back. Nadal prevailed in their only meeting since Delpo's return, winning a semifinal battle at Indian Wells a almost two months ago.

Del Potro has come a long way since that loss; on Sunday in Estoril, he advanced his comeback with the second title he's bagged since he was forced off the tour. Delpo was 25-6 on the year going into Madrid, while Nadal was 29-4, which shows just how quickly the tall Argentinian is closing the gap and racing ahead of the rankings, where he sits in the not-very-impressive-or telling-No. 32 position.

Nadal could conceivably face all three men this week in Madrid, starting with an un-satisfyingly early third-round date with del Potro. For an iconic clay-court player like Nadal, it may be all in a day's work, but anybody who thinks it will be easy might want to think again.

For more news, go to Tennis.com



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