French Open 2011: Rampant Nadal denies Federer again
They had met 24 times -seven of them in a Grand Slam final, but could Federer finally beat Nadal in Paris?
Before the 2011 French Open began, there were few who predicted another chapter in the great Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer rivalry.
A new duopoly had supplanted their six-year dominance of the rankings and the Slams: a rivalry between the world No1 Nadal and the top player of the year and new No2, Novak Djokovic.
When the draw pitched No3 Federer in the same half as the unbeaten Djokovic, who had beaten him in all three of their 2011 matches, there seemed little that could halt Djokovic’s progress to the final and, as a result, a guaranteed No1 ranking.
The story, though, began to deviate from the script as Federer danced his way towards his Djokovic destiny without dropping a set -the only semi-finalist to do so despite playing the most seeded players.
Ears pricked up and eyebrows lifted: It was Federer back to his best. If proof was needed, he became the first man to beat Djokovic in six months: the last man was also Federer.
A raised Swiss index finger said it all. Perhaps he recalled the last time they met at Indian Wells, and Djokovic’s words after beating Federer in the semis a and Nadal in the final.
It was a slight that was quickly picked up by the media – Djokovic pronounced Nadal to be the best ever player and afterwards defended his comment: “It’s just what I think.”
In beating Djokovic to the finals of Roland Garros, Federer postponed Djokovic’s rise to No1 but also looked capable of filling the biggest gap in his resume: not just winning the French Open but beating Nadal to do so.
It was not just Federer’s resurgent form that gave his fans optimism but the less-than-sparkling form of Nadal through the draw. Almost losing in the first round, he had then made heavy weather all the way to the quarters, admitting that he could not win the title unless he played much better.
But Nadal, the supreme athlete and toughest of competitors, had risen to the challenge by pounding out his errors on the practice courts and he swept through Robin Soderling in the quarters and Andy Murray in the semis.
That, together with a dominant record over Federer in Grand Slams -the Swiss had not beaten his nemesis in a Slam since Wimbledon 2007 -did not bode well. And the last time they met at Roland Garros, Federer suffered his worst ever defeat, taking only four games.
There were also a couple of things working in Nadal’s favour. His lack of form in Paris had been put down, in part, to four successive losses in Masters finals to Djokovic, but Federer had removed that barrier from the reckoning.
And Nadal was also aiming to equal Bjorn Borg’s record six French titles: The Swede had done it just one day after his 25th birthday; Nadal could do it just two days after his, six years to the day after he had won the first in 2005.
So the watching world and an array of former champions in Philippe Chatrier, knew the scale of the task, as did Federer: “I’ve got to play some extraordinarily special tennis. I’m aware of that.”
And he opened with just that: some extraordinary tennis -carrying on from where he had left off against Djokovic.
With an opening serve on the board, he attacked Nadal to win four break point chances. He missed two with forehand errors -a foreshadowing of what was to come -but he took the last with a ripping return of serve to force a Nadal error.
Federer looked steely -a look to send a chill and a thrill down the backbone -and it made Nadal initially look rushed and ill-at-ease as his standard attack to the Federer backhand failed to deliver.
Federer still held his advantage at 5-2, serving well and mixing patient rallies of deep, wide balls with outright winners when an opening appeared.
The eighth game, though, proved highly significant. After a delay to adjust his foot strapping, Nadal stepped up to save the set and fired a forehand long at deuce to hand a set point to Federer.
The Swiss sliced a soft backhand drop shot that missed the sideline by the merest fraction and Nadal saved the game with a backhand winner.
Out-muscled: Federer could only contain Nadal for short spells
The miss was to prove costly. Serving for the set, Federer’s first serve failed him on five of the six points. Nadal smelled his chance, upped the return tempo and forced Federer into one error after another to break back.
At 5-5, Nadal’s muscles began to twitch with anticipation and he returned two Federer serves with stunning forehand passes. What looked like an ace from Federer was called out and Nadal seized the resulting break point. With the game poised at 38 points apiece, Nadal served for the set with brutal efficiency, 7-5.
The Federer tactics were clearly to play attacking tennis and he made almost twice the winners of Nadal in the opening set -a pattern that lasted throughout the match -but the downside of such offensive play was a high unforced error count totalling twice as many as Nadal across the match.
In the second set, Federer fired 23 of them, including several in the opening two games which he lost in a blizzard of looping missiles from Nadal to his backhand wing.
Federer broke the run of seven lost games with an ace but then had to defend three more break points in the fifth game: He did so with big serving and an outrageous backhand cross-court winner. But Nadal had control of the court and the tempo -so slow that the umpire might easily have spoken out.
At 4-2 down, Federer produced a love service game and suddenly recovered his form of the opening half hour. A backhand winner in a 21-stroke rally of stunning quality brought him a break point and another backhand delivered the winner.
The advantage was short-lived. Again, Nadal seized a break to leave him serving for the set but, with the game poised at deuce, the heavens opened.
When the players returned to court 10 minutes later, the Federer forehand had found some new weight and he broke back again: they headed to a tie-break.
Nadal quickly stamped all over the deciding game with near faultless tennis. He piled on the topspin and cranked up the volume: terrifying and inevitable. The set was his, 7-3.
In the third, it was hard to be sure whether the flame-coloured Swiss shoulders had dropped just a little: few would blame him if they had. Federer’s improved backhand kept him in contention but a forehand winner from Nadal, delivered another break.
The Swiss was two sets and 2-4 down yet had won 105 of the 212 points played. A lesser player may have buckled, but not this one, his backhand again coming to the rescue with four consecutive winners to break back to love.
As three hours flashed up on the clock, Federer brought up three more break points. He lost the first with a fluffed forehand but took the next with another backhand winner to break and served out the set, 7-5 to an explosion of support.
Just for a moment, it seemed he might resist the rampant Nadal. The Spaniard went 0-40 down in his opening service game but then ran off five points in a row to hold.
Although Federer held a good service game, there was a growing certainty in the Nadal swagger.
Sure enough, in the fourth game, Federer’s resistance was cracked open by some riveting Nadal defence. A first Swiss double fault and a netted forehand gave Nadal the break: It felt like the end, and it was.
Nadal broke again in sixth and served out the match, 6-1, as the sun broke out over Roland Garros to anoint the victor.
Nadal, as he has done so often before, produced his best to beat the best: a level of tennis above any he had played since day one.
For Federer, it might be seen as a good result. He played some of his finest tennis in a couple of years, beat the best player of 2011 in the semis and won more games from Nadal than in any of their previous Roland Garros matches.
And yet he still came up short, and it looks as though he always will against an unquenchable French Open champion, Nadal.