Inside Tennis July 2006
By Matthew Cronin
Rafael Nadal is about as modest as a young champion as you can find.
Who else would stop top ranked Roger Federer 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4) to successfully defend his French Open title and then go on to call his foe “the best and most complete player ever” in his championship speech?
Only Nadal, a Majorcan of modest means who was brought up to be a polite man of generous spirit. But what the 20-year-old Spaniard said is not true this year because there’s only one man who has been worthy of being called dominant in 2006 and that’s the smiling Spaniard himself.
“It’s true that if Federer loses no matches whatsoever, I will not be No. 1,” Nadal said. “ I have to improve. But with the points that I’m winning, if Federer hadn’t been there, I would have been No. 1. But we are at a time when the No. 1 is the most consistent player in tennis history, so you have to take this into account. Secondly, I believe that he’s been at the top of the game for two years. He’s playing his best tennis. He will not be able to play that way all his life. It’s true for me also, but I’m a bit younger. I can prepare myself well, and maybe when he comes down a little, then I might be able to have the sufficient level to become No. 1. “
That day may be coming sooner than anyone thought.
It was an incredibly significant victory for Nadal, not just because he defended a Slam title for the first time and won his record 60th straight victory on clay, but also because he proved that Federer does not have enough confidence to contend with him in long rallies.
“It’s the first time in his eight Grand Slams that he really faced adversity,” former French champ Mats Wilander told Inside Tennis. “The key is that Nadal wants it and Roger doesn’t. The other guys usually don’t give Roger the opposition that Nadal did. Nadal said, ‘I can do this for two weeks.’ Roger is relying on shotmaking while Nadal is depending on his aggressive mentality. Roger is saying, ‘Get away from me, I just want to hit a winner.’”
Nadal has beaten Federer all four times they have played in ‘06 and every occasion was a final - in Dubai, Monte Carlo, Rome and now Roland Garros. He has faced down a man who was once unbeatable in finals, a guy who holds the record of most consecutive finals won at 24.
But that streak ended last November in a loss to David Nalbandian in the Tennis Masters Series Shanghai and while Federer has been very good since then, he hasn’t been able to find a way to negate Nadal, whose rock solid defense and brilliant bursts of offense are too much for him.
Nadal is not only in Federer’s head now, he is playing over the Swiss’s head on big points and seems to know that if he brings his “A” game on court on any surface except for grass, that he will eventually wear Federer down. “What is important is that my attitude was always positive,” said Nadal, who has won 14 finals in a row. “I had a winner’s attitude. What is positive is maybe that I was not playing at my best level, but I still maintained an excellent attitude.”
That’s what happened on Sunday on Paris, when Federer came out pumped up and flew all over the court, banging winners, serving big, approaching the net and telling Nadal that he had the right stuff to hit through him.
Rafa was nervous and slow of foot and had no depth on his shots.
But he knew he still had time to wake up and once he did early on in the second set, he was the far better player. His hooking lefty forehand ate Federer’s one-handed backhand alive, his backhand was steady and deep, his passing shots were accurate and close to the lines; and his first serve bounced high and wasn’t attackable.
He was stronger and faster under the hot sun and even when he grew nervous while trying to serve the match out at 5-4 in the final set, he calmed himself down and knew going into the tiebreaker that if he kept playing heavy, he’d cause Federer to crack.
And the long-haired, bucking Spanish bull was right again.
The crowd was pleading for Federer to pull off a miracle, but he couldn’t push himself far enough into the court. He committed three errors to go down 2-5 and even though he played two strong service points to claw back to 4-5, Nadal calmly stepped up to the baseline and stared him down. The lefty banged another swerving service winner and on match point, took a full swing on a forehand volley and found a sharp angle.
“I was surprised that at 2-1 in the tie breaker, that Federer was not more aggressive,” Wilander said. “‘I’m playing sh----, but I’m here for the same reason as you are and I’m ahead right now.’ Show me a little fist pump or something! Federer is not closer to winning, he’s only closer to prolonging the pain.”
Federer looked confused and depressed, while the boyish Nadal rolled around the clay, celebrating his 60th straight win on dirt.
“He’s the best clay courter now and maybe the best of all time,” Federer said. “He’s a fighter and a grinder and it makes it hard to beat him. He moves very well. I had chance to win it I couldn’t use my chances and it was a pity.”
For all the talk of men’s tennis’ best rivalry since Sampras-Agassi, this one is becoming decidedly one-sided with the Spaniard holding a 6-1 edge. Certainly, their matches have been close, but in the tiebreak at Roland Garros, it was obvious to everyone in attendance who the more self-assured player was.
“I can’t do more than try,” said Federer, who complained about the slowness of the court on a hot, sunny day in Paris. “ Both of us have this unique opportunity that we haven’t seen in such a long time in tennis. [Life] goes on, right? I got the grass court season coming up, and looking forward to that one.”
Federer said that he wasn’t emotionally devastated by the defeat and can move on to Wimbledon, where he is attempting to four-peat. But after taking four losses to Nadal in the last five months, he’s not the same mental rock that he was after going back-to-back at Indian Wells and Miami.
The Swiss seems to be a little in denial.
“I’ve had worse than this,” Federer said. “I am at a different stage in my career now than I used to be where every loss was another world. That’s not the case anymore because I tried so hard and I know I left everything out there, and maybe I missed a few opportunities. Maybe [I’ll] hear that for years, but that’s my problem. It was a good tournament after all for me, first time in the finals. You got to also see the positive and that’s what I usually always do, even though maybe, at the end of my career I missed the moment to win the French Open today. But it didn’t happen, so I got to create this opportunity once again.”
At the very young tennis age of 20, Nadal is only going to get better. His serve is good but not great, he could improve his volleys tremendously and become more aggressive with his returns.
Just imagine if and when that happens.
It’s doubtful that Nadal will be much of a factor at Wimbledon, not because he is primarily a baseliner, but because he needs to flatten out his forehand more before he can make an impact on grass.
But when the season rolls on to the US hard courts this summer, that’s when the world will see whether Federer can amp up his game enough to maintain his No. 1 rankings and whether Nadal’s heavenly, clay-tinted spring form will transfer onto cement.
But looking at the two when they came off court on a hot Sunday in Paris, it sure appeared like the ebullient Nadal was the king of the world, red dirt on his back or not.
As Nadal added later, Roger may reign over much of the world, “just not here.”
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