It might have been taken as an omen, the way that predicted deluge held off, leaving Court Philippe Chatrier bathed in rich sunlight as the French Open men's final got underway this afternoon, with the brass buttons glistening on jackets of the marching band members, and the court lit up and gone the color of buckskin.
And for a few brief and shining moments there, it appeared that it might happen-really happen. Even the most lugubrious and pessimistic of Roger Federer fans had reason to think that this time it might be different between their high-flying idol, severely kitted-out to look like a human Swiss flag, and the man who has tormented him on this same court so often in the past, Rafael Nadal.
Sure, Nadal owns Federer on clay, and had prevailed all four times they played in this storied old stadium, the grandest cathedral in the kingdom of European tennis. Three of those Roland Garros meetings between Federer and Nadal were finals that helped cement Nadal's status as a historic rival to the greatest of all clay-court players, Bjorn Borg.
But above all, this hope was staked on the basis of that performance Federer put in on that clammy and damp evening two days ago. He knocked Djokovic back on his can where the Serb sat blinking, his 43-match winning streak lying in shards all about him. That was the Federer of yore, the quiet, even-tempered if sometimes tetchy and consumately deadly man whose forehand had the sting of an asp and whose serve had the kick of a mule. Even those who thought he had never gone could not suppress the thought: Maybe he's back!
Yet in the early part of the match it seemed possible if not exactly likely that Federer was about to finish what he started on Friday, about to paint the rest of his masterpiece. He led, 3-0 and 5-2, and Rafa appeared to be on the run.
Hmmmm. That's one way to look at it.
But another way would be to dwell upon the way Nadal charged back to take that set, and immediately broke Federer in the second. The shift of moment was startling, and it pointed toward a few immutable laws that many of us forgot as we tried to grasp those golden moments and find reason to hope in all the hubub about Djokovic, the resurgence of Federer, and the plight of the allegedly emotionally bruised Nadal.
Immutable law No. 1: No matter what else has happened in tennis, one thing has not changed. The Nadal forehand to Federer backhand is, all things being equal, a battle that Federer cannot win with any consistency.
It isn't just the evidence that was presented to our eyes again today; it's also the evidence presented indirectly by Djokovic during his brilliant streak, and those two wins over Nadal (and, let's not forget, he was 3-0 against Federer before Friday).
Federer's backhand can't consistently hurt Nadal; not on clay. Federer had almost twice as many unforced errors as Nadal (56 to 27), and the majority of them poured off the backhand face of his racket. At times I had to ask myself if Federer was wondering, What would Novak do?
Highlights: Nadal beats Federer in French final Check out some of the key points from Rafael Nadal's sixth French Open title win, a four-set victory over Roger Federer.
Highlights: Nadal beats Federer in French final
Check out some of the key points from Rafael Nadal's sixth French Open title win, a four-set victory over Roger Federer.
Granted, the second set had many tense moments. After falling behind by love-40 and gifting Nadal with a break in the very first game, Federer soon hit the first of the two stretches of outstanding tennis he would produce. It looked as if he blasted his way back into the match because he'd more or less succumbed to frustration and decided, What the hail, I may as well let it rip. It's presumptuous to read someone's mind that way, but perhaps it wasn't mere coincidence that one moment Federer was shrugging and shaking his head, speaking horrible body language, and the next he was firing winners left and right. No matter, Nadal weathered the storm and was much better prepared to compete in the tiebreaker. He won it going away, 7-3.
He added, "Today I think he did well. He was a little bit unlucky at the first set, and after that, he came back fantastically well in the second. In the third I had 4-2, but seriously, I think he played very, very good from that moment to the beginning of the fourth. So when Roger plays like this, the opponent has nothing to do sometimes. I just waited my moment, tried to be there all the time, tried to put him in not easy situations all the time."
We know that's sour grapes, but we also know it can't be that easy for a player of Federer's caliber to go out to accept what has by now been established as the inevitable, one-sided beating at Roland Garros. What's the man to do, quit playing the tournament entirely as long as Nadal is active?
And somehow, this match was reflective of the champion's entire experience in Paris; it was marked by soaring highs and gutteral lows. It was alternately brilliant and stinky, ragged at the edges and holey in the middle. But it was still a very satisfying win for Nadal, and he equalled the record of the only other man in the conversation about the greatest clay-court player in tennis history, Borg. He was conspuciously absent today, much like he was that day at Roland Garros in 1982 when unseeded Mats Wilander became, after Borg, the second Swede in the Open era to win a major title.
A few times today, Roger Federer looked like he might have been the one who would ultimately say those words. He caught lightning in a bottle at Roland Garros this year, but at the end taking down Nadal was just too much to ask. It always has been at Roland Garros, there's no point trying to tap dance around it, not even if you're Federer. One point before the anti-climactic end of this match, the sun finally broke through, the court began to glow, and you could almost think anything was still possible.
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