Nadal confirms mastery on clay

He has conquered the planet but earth will have to wait for another year. Roger Federer's hopes of joining the greats by adding a Grand Slam title on terre battue to those he holds on fast courts and grass were ground into the red dust here in Paris yesterday by a foe who is becoming all too familiar.

Rafael Nadal, the raging bull of clay-court tennis, retained his French Open crown by beating Federer 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 in three hours and two minutes of sun-baked drama.

The world No 1, attempting to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles, made a scorching start, only to be worn down by Nadal's indomitable spirit and unrivalled ability to make his opponent play the extra shot. It was the first time Federer has lost the final of a Grand Slam event, having won on all his previous seven appearances.

In Nadal, Federer has come up against a rival who, on this surface at least, has truly got his number. Since losing to the Spaniard in last year's semi-finals here, Federer has been beaten by him in four successive finals, including three on clay.

Each match has ultimately followed a similar pattern, with Federer going on the attack, constantly looking to force the pace, and Nadal defending with dogged resolution. The Spaniard forever retrieves balls on which others might have given up, forcing his opponents into mistakes or finally hitting winners of his own. At least Federer is in good company, for this was the Spaniard's 60th successive win on clay.

Federer thought he had been getting closer to the world No 2 when he had two match points in Rome last month, but this was the easiest of the Spaniard's clay-court victories over him this year. "I wasn't as consistent as I was in Rome or even in Monaco," Federer said. "He managed to break me quite easily and I should have returned better on his serve."

The Swiss did not hide his disappointment at failing to complete his set of Grand Slam crowns but said he was pleased to have made the final. "It's obviously my goal to win this event and I got a step closer than last year. Every year that goes by gives me more maturity on this surface."

Nadal became the first player in the Open era to win Roland Garros titles at his first two attempts, an extraordinary achievement for a 20-year-old, yet it was Federer whom the public took to their hearts.

The world No 1 has an elegance and apparently effortless panache that the French love in their sporting heroes and whenever he got into trouble cries of "Roger! Roger!" rang all around Philippe Chatrier Court.

In blazing sunshine ­ at changeovers the players draped towels packed with ice around their necks ­ Federer in particular seemed keen to avoid long points. He targeted the Spaniard's backhand, which produced a stream of errors in an uncharacteristically loose first set.

Federer had chances to make early breaks in both the second and third sets, but each time Nadal recovered from 0-40 down. On the second occasion Federer promptly dropped his own serve by missing three regulation forehands and a simple smash. "I was nervous in the first set and I think he felt nervous later on," Nadal said.

The Spaniard quickly regained his composure, however, and even started attacking ­ in one service game he started playing serve-and-volley ­ as Federer, making frequent backhand errors, suddenly looked vulnerable. Nadal broke in the first game of the fourth set and when he dropped only four points in his next four service games to lead 5-3 the end seemed very close.

There was to be one final twist. Two mishit Federer backhands took Nadal within two points of victory at 30-15, but a lucky net cord brought parity before the Swiss won a point of breathtaking brilliance. Having out-Nadaled his opponent by chasing down shots on both flanks, Federer won the point after the most delicate of drop shots and an equally exquisite stop volley.

When Federer won the next point to level at 5-5 the crowd rose to new heights of frenzy, but it was only delaying the inevitable. Federer broke first in the tie-break but then lost two points in a row on his serve with a poor attempt at a drop shot and a loose forehand. Nadal served out for victory, secured with a smart drive volley.

The Spaniard lay on his back in the clay he so adores, shaking with emotion at his achievement, before climbing into the stands to celebrate with family and friends. At the presentation ceremony he stressed his admiration for his opponent ­ "Roger Federer is the most incredible player I know" ­ but in this court at least there is only one king. Considering he has only just passed 20, it will be remarkable if a string of further records do not fall to him in future years.

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