Nadal takes Federer apart to leave his Grand Slam dream in ruins
Bewildering, crushing, humiliating. Whatever adjectives came to mind as Roger Federer lost his third successive French Open final to Rafael Nadal here yesterday they were not words you would ever have expected to use in connection with arguably the greatest player the game has seen.
In losing 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 Federer suffered the biggest defeat of his 173-match Grand Slam career and lost a set 6-0 for the first time in a major since Pat Rafter beat him here on his Grand Slam debut nine years ago. At an hour and 48 minutes it was the shortest final at Roland Garros since Bjorn Borg's victory over Vitas Gerulaitis in 1980 and in terms of the scoreline the most one-sided since Guillermo Vilas beat Brian Gottfried in 1977.
Borg and Vilas were both watching in the front row and the Swede looked almost embarrassed when he presented Federer with his runner-up trophy after the match. "I would have hoped to do better than four games but Rafael is very, very strong," Federer told the crowd.
Federer, who paid credit to Nadal for "a terrific tournament", insists he can still win the Coupe des Mousquetaires, the only jewel missing from his Grand Slam crown, but on this evidence the gap between him and the world No 2 is growing. Nadal has won nine of their 10 matches on terre battue and his domination here has been greater than ever.
In matching Borg's record of four successive titles here the 22-year-old Spaniard did not drop a set and took his record on his favourite surface to 115 wins in his last 117 matches. He is undefeated in 41 best-of-five-set matches on clay and has been taken the distance in only two of them.
Over the last two months Nadal has taken his game to a new level. We knew already about his thunderous forehand, biting topspin and wonderful athleticism, but the improvements to his serve, returns and backhand slice and a new-found aggression have added greater depth to his play.
Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, rated the semi-final victory over the Serbian Novak Djokovic as the best performance of his career but he may have to update that verdict. Nadal made just seven unforced errors (Federer made 35) and if there were fewer cries of "Vamos!" or clenched-fist celebrations, you sensed it was because he simply knew he was going to win.
"I didn't expect a match like this," Nadal said afterwards. "I played an almost perfect match and Roger made more mistakes than he usually does."
The crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier love Federer for his style and grace and there was more support for the Swiss, but when they cheered his best moments it was more the sort of applause you would expect for a plucky underdog than for a man only two short of Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam titles.
In the past Federer has taken on Nadal at his own game here by slugging it out from the baseline. This time the world's second best clay-court player tried a different approach, going for his shots even more than usual and attacking the net when he could. With Nadal playing some points from well behind the baseline, Federer clearly thought he could catch him out with stop volleys and drop shots.
The theory sounded fine, but the reality turned out to be a very different matter. The stop volleys worked briefly in the second set, but for the most part Federer was a sitting target when he ventured forward. Approaches that were marginally short or lacking in pace were punished by thunderous passing shots and even when Nadal was stretched the Spaniard responded with beautifully judged lobs.
Under pressure, Federer's game started to fall apart. His forehand, usually his most potent weapon, started to misfire, drop shots fell short, routine volleys were netted and his approaches became reckless. One attempt to chip-and-charge a second serve was punished by a contemptuous passing shot and another lunge towards the net left Federer looking like a novice as Nadal lobbed him with ease.
The omens were bad from the moment Federer dropped his serve courtesy of four errors in the opening game. Nadal had to save two break points in his own first service game, but from 2-1 up he took complete control, winning six games in a row and 25 of the next 28 points.
When that sequence ended at 0-2 in the second set the cheers of the crowd were laced with irony. Greater applause greeted Federer's only break of serve and when he held to level at 2-2 the crowd caught fire for the first time.
At 3-3, and with Nadal's level briefly dropping, the Swiss had what proved to be his last chance to get back into the match, but on break point he put a backhand into the net after successfully chasing down a drop shot. Nadal reeled off nine games in a row and when he converted his first match point, Federer hitting a forehand long, the Spaniard looked almost embarrassed as he raised his arms in celebration.
"He played an excellent match," Federer said. "He hardly made any unforced errors and when he's on the attack he's lethal. On the defence he played some unbelievable shots. I can only praise him for the level of play he's had for the last two weeks and today again under pressure. It's not like it's easy for him. He handles it very well. To come up with a performance like this under pressure shows what a great champion he is."
If glandular fever explained Federer's patchy early-season form, there were no excuses here and you wonder how this defeat will affect him at Wimbledon, which starts in a fortnight. The world No 1 will be the favourite to win his sixth successive title at the All England Club, but Nadal got desperately close to him last year in his second successive final.
Nadal hopes that the nature of his victory here will put him in good stead for the grass-court challenges ahead, while Federer said he still saw himself as the favourite to win at Wimbledon. "Rafa has progressed on clay, but we'll see in the future if he is stronger on grass," the world No 1 said, without sounding entirely convincing.
Final flourish: Nadal's domination of Federer
*It was the biggest defeat in Roger Federer's 173-match Grand Slam career.
*Federer lost a set 6-0 for the first time in a Grand Slam since playing Pat Rafter in Paris in 1999.
*Rafael Nadal has now beaten Roger Federer nine times out of 10 on clay.
*Nadal ties Bjorn Borg's four French titles in a row.
*Nadal has won 115 of his last 117 matches on clay.
*Nadal did not drop a set in the tournament.
*Most meetings in finals: 20* McEnroe (11 wins) v Lendl (8) 16 Sampras (9) v Agassi (7)
16 Becker (11) v Edberg (5)
15+ McEnroe (7) v Connors (7)
13 Nadal (9) v Federer (4)
13 Becker (7) v Lendl (6)
*one match unfinished due to rain
+ McEnroe won one match by walkover
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