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Nadal's sixth French title best yet
The forecast thunderstorms were blown off course, but it takes more than a gust of wind, more than one of the greatest players of all time, more than the pressure of not having won much on clay this season to prevent Rafael Nadal from reigning supreme at Roland Garros.
After a great battle that lasted 3 hours and 39 minutes Sunday, he retained his French Open crown with a 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1 victory over Roger Federer.
Nadal tied Bjorn Borg with a record six French titles in the Open era and won his 10th Grand Slam overall. It was no more than he deserved after he had weathered an opening onslaught from the stylish Swiss, who picked up where had left off after ending Novak Djokovic's win streak by breaking Nadal's opening service game and reaching set point at 5-3.
Then it came down to inches. One inch, most likely.
That was the margin by which Federer's wonderful drop shot missed the sideline close to the net on that set point. Nadal was racing toward it, but the chances of him being able to do anything with a ball dying in the dust were slim. One inch closer and it would have given Federer the first set.
Jim Courier, who won twice here in the 1990s and who was called upon to present the Coupe des Mousquetaires to Nadal, echoed many people's thoughts when he told me, "First set to Roger? Then it would have been a different match."
A crucial point often can change a match, but this game-changer was particularly significant because Nadal, bruised from his two clay-court thumpings at the hands of Djokovic in Madrid and Rome, was subdued and anxious before the match. His coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, was more than that.
"I was scared," Toni Nadal admitted in the player's area afterward. "I was scared because of the way Rafa had been playing and because Roger had played so well to beat Novak. This was very different from three years ago, when we had been very confident before the match."
Nadal had slaughtered Federer on that occasion 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. It was never going to be like that this time after a reinvigorated Federer went at him from the first point. But, once Federer had missed that set point, the Spanish southpaw came back like the champion he is by breaking back in the very next game and again in the 10th game, when he won the first point by scrambling for two shots from Roger that hit the line and then winning with a forehand pass out of nowhere.
Federer played a bad service game at the start of the second set, but the battle was joined by the middle of that set when three successive service breaks put things back on an even keel. Not, however, before the rain that had been promised did appear briefly and sent the players into the locker room.
Paul Annacone seized the chance to talk to Federer while Toni counseled his nephew. Federer had just saved a set point before the stoppage, and he had to save another immediately on the resumption before clinching the second break back when Nadal shanked a forehand.
Federer then got off to a bad start in the tiebreaker by netting a weak forehand, and he never recovered, losing it 7-3.
"I took some chances and didn't make the right decisions in the tiebreak," he admitted.
When Federer dropped serve at love to go 4-2 down in the third, even Boris Becker, commenting on the BBC from London, lost his faith in Federer's ability to come back. And the German had been touting Federer to win before the match. But Roger wasn't done.
A rasping service return winner won him the first point in the next game, and a superb drop shot finished it. He was back on serve. Inspired by the huge wall of noise rolling down from the stands, Federer broke again in the 11th game with a superbly constructed point — backhand crosscourt on the line to draw his man wide and a perfect forehand placement.
If the original set point Federer had missed so narrowly had been crucial early on, another turning point was reached in the opening game of the fourth when yet another drop shot and a great backhand that Nadal netted put the defending champion 0-40 down. Despite the evident improvement in his game, Rafa was still not fully confident; to have gone a break down in the fourth would have been a major psychological blow.
"It would have been a new match again with the momentum on my side," Federer said. "I would have been very strong in the fifth."
Nadal, who had admitted that Federer "had been a little unlucky" on that first-set drop shot, was equally honest about how dangerous it would have been for him to drop serve at the start of the fourth.
"It was very important for me to win that game," he said. He won it with a backhand on the line and a rare ace. A typical act of defiance.
It was, as always between these two, a matter of the great defender against a player who is prepared to go for it. And the pattern continued once Nadal had settled into well-worn rhythms. His defensive gets continued to draw gasps from a pro-Federer crowd and, oh, how they groaned when the Swiss went for one of those flashy backhands and erred.
Did Federer see it in such stark terms — the defender against the all-out attacker?
"Well, I wasn't just going for broke," he said. "I was trying to make the plays and move him around, make him tired. Mixing it up. I think he's happy to be Rafa and I'm happy to be Roger. That's why we like to play each other, maybe."
Federer was able to smile afterward because he knew he had had a great tournament and was back in the mix, having reached a Slam final for the first time in 18 months.
"Now it is a huge priority for me to win Wimbledon," Federer said. "Rafa is a great champion, on clay especially, and I am very happy with my tournament here."
For Nadal, still looking more serious than we have known him to be, it was more than happiness. He told the crowd, "This is one of my most beautiful dreams."
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