Nadal remains the king of clay
By Mark Hodgkinson in Paris
After a Roland Garros final that was more baffling than it was enthralling, Roger Federer's attempt to create some history and become only the third man to hold all four grand slam titles at the same time ended in failure yesterday, with Rafael Nadal retaining his status as the undisputed king of clay.
Winning feeling: Rafael Nadal
On a searing hot afternoon in south-west Paris, the contest never quite justified all the hype. Federer, arguably the greatest ever, was playing the biggest match of his life. And yet the world No 1, normally characterised as the Swiss who doesn't miss, and who had started so promisingly, was soon flunking and skewing a high number of strokes. So, instead of completing his quartet, he lost 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6, his first defeat in his eight grand slam finals.
It was an odd match and one that was more than a little unsatisfying, and not just for Federer.
There was to be no history for Federer on the Philippe Chatrier Court, just some extremely violent hitting from the second-ranked Nadal. The sense was that Federer, in his first Roland Garros final, would almost certainly have managed to do the 'Roger Slam' against anyone else. However, as he was not close to his best he was ultimately unable to fend off the funk and the felt-scorching forehands of Nadal, now unbeaten in a record 60 straight red-dirt matches. "He is a fighter and a grinder and he deserved to win," Federer said.
After smoking a forehand swing volley for a winner on his first match point, Nadal threw himself on to his back, the red dust smearing and splattering his white three-quarter length pirate pants and his blue muscle-vest.
And so more glory for Nadal, the 20-year-old tennis freak talent. Nadal's on-court persona and life can often seem very cartoon-like - 'Rafa's Clay-court Adventures'. But the pity for the young man was that when he pulled himself up from the crushed brick there was not quite the same applause and acclaim that he received last season. A year ago Nadal had been the crowd favourite, as he won Roland Garros on his first appearance, but this time most of the tennis world had been demanding an assault on the record books by Federer.
No matter. The celebrations continued for Nadal after winning his second slam, as he scrambled into the VIP box and up and across the stands to hug all his family. The Majorcan was then in tears. "This is a fantastic victory and an incredible moment in my career as a tennis player," he said. "Federer is the best player in history. No other player has ever had such quality.''
Only two players have completed the full set of grand slams, the American Don Budge performing the feat before the Second World War and then the Australian Rod Laver achieving it twice in the Sixties, and Federer had been obsessed with his chance to join them having won last year's Wimbledon and US Open titles and this year's Australian Open.
And Federer's defeat also stopped him from becoming only the sixth man to win all four slams and killed off his chances of doing the true grand slam with a calendar sweep this season.
Nadal is now 6-1 in the head-to-head with Federer and has won their last five meetings, including all four matches on clay. What sort of rivalry is this, some critics may suggest, when Federer cannot even win a match against the second-ranked player? Certainly, no other opponent presents such a challenge for Federer. But playing Nadal, and playing Nadal on clay, can do odd things to Federer.
What made the occasion particularly strange was that the two never played well together. Nadal had been his usual self beforehand, with kangaroo leaps in the corridor as he waited to run out into the stadium, but his early tennis was horribly nervous. Jennifer Anniston, providing some Hollywood A-list glamour from the third row of the VIP box, was only moved to clap her hand against her Chinese fan for Federer's early tennis. Nothing that Nadal did in the first set was deemed worthy of any Anniston applause.
Suddenly, the Roger Slam looked like it was on. But then, almost as quickly, the chances of the Roger Slam disappeared. While Nadal rid himself of his nerves, Federer became gradually worse and occasionally was even guilty of playing some sloppy tennis.
Having broken twice in the first four games of the match, Federer did not strike again until the 10h game of the fourth set, over two hours later, when Nadal was serving for the title at 5-4. Nadal, though, quickly countered, and won the tie-break for the loss of only four points.
Nadal, the king of clay, would not shift from his Roland Garros throne.