Published April 25, 2006
How severely has Rafael Nadal psychologically damaged Roger Federer with his victory in the final Sunday at Monte Carlo?
"I can't say nothing about that," Nadal told reporters after taking down the No. 1 player in the world for the fourth time in five meetings. Federer, however, could say something about it, though he sounded suspiciously like Mr. Spin as he tried to philosophize about all these losses.
"They don't break down my will or hope or anything because what I care about is looking at the ... well, trying not to lose against him in Grand Slams, and then be ahead of him 2,000 points in the rankings. That's what I care about, and not really losing tonight."
If you buy into Federer's stuttering explanation, Monte Carlo means very little. I'm not buying, and I doubt many others are. Tennis being an individual sport, you can't diffuse these losses onto an entire team. It's all on Federer's head, and he'll have two weeks off now before he and Nadal converge on Rome on the clay court road to the French Open -- again as the top two seeds and able to meet only in a final.
This is not just a clay-court complex Nadal is visiting upon Federer's psyche. He has twice beaten him on hardcourts, and once this year, at Dubai. And he was close to making this a 5-0 edge, leading Federer two sets to love in the 2005 Nasdaq final before losing.
Nadal's most important advantage is that he's left-handed, which gives him a decided edge with his extremely heavy topspin forehand crosscourts to Federer's backhand.
In the Monte Carlo final, Federer had 78 unforced errors -- 40 off backhand ground strokes. "He leaves me no choice. He obviously plays a lot of shots that tease you to come in. It's obvious I'm going to make the unforced errors, because I'm the guy who's pressing and not him," Federer said.
Overall, Federer has an excellent record against lefties, and Nadal and No. 20 Jarkko Nieminen are the only left-handers in the top 20. But Nadal is the one player who is not only blocking his path to complete domination of the game but to the French Open title as well -- the only major Federer hasn't won.
There was nothing wrong with Federer's play up to the final at Monte Carlo. He had his usual early-tournament burp, losing a set in his opening match to Novak Djokovic before grooving well enough to easily defeat David Ferrer, the Spaniard who is among the top-five clay courters out there right now.
But Nadal is a different animal. He isn't intimidated, and he doesn't lose his composure when things aren't going well. He was down a set to Federer at Dubai and won. He was down 3-0 in the final-set tiebreak Sunday and came back to win.
He has quickness, speed, power and emotional strength -- all that and he still hasn't come close to maximizing his serving potential. This Masters Series title gave Nadal 42 clay court wins in a row -- four behind Bjorn Borg's personal best and 11 behind the record held by Guillermo Vilas.
He could be well on his way to 60 by the time he arrives in Paris, where he may have extended his mastery of Federer to 5-1 by the time the tournament begins.
"I think matches against Rafael are going to help me in beating other players," Federer concluded. "The more I play him, the more also I'll figure out his game, and the easier it's going to get for me. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I really believe it."
How many matches does he need? This was the fifth, and two of them have gone four sets and one of them five. There is that and tapes of every match at his disposal. If he hasn't figured out how to play Nadal by now, this is also just spin -- one of the first signs of a player who feels the psychological heat.
Charles Bricker's tennis column appears Tuesdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org