Nadal's clay mastery leaves Federer behind

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have played some thrilling tennis in their 15 meetings but the best that could be said of their final in the Monte Carlo Masters here yesterday was that the quality was variable. A match of occasional peaks and frequent troughs, particularly on the part of Federer, ended with Nadal maintaining his stranglehold on the clay-court game with a 7-5, 7-5 victory.

The 21-year-old Spaniard became the first player for 94 years to win the traditional opening to the European outdoor season four years in succession, but the psychological blows he struck were of greater significance. The French Open, the only Grand Slam title that has eluded Federer, is only four weeks away and the world No 1 must already be thinking that this clay-court campaign is looking all too similar to the previous three.

Federer has lost to Nadal on his last three visits to Roland Garros and his two most recent defeats, both in the final, followed beatings by the Spaniard in the final here. In their eight meetings on clay Federer has won only once, when his victory in Hamburg 11 months ago over a tired Nadal ended the world No 2's record 81-match unbeaten run on the surface. Federer has won five of their last eight meetings but trails 9-6 overall.

There are times at the Monte Carlo Country Club, particularly when the sun beats down, the glorious Mediterranean backdrop is decorated by a succession of passing yachts and the world's two best players step on the court, when it is hard to imagine a more perfect sporting occasion. The enthusiastic capacity crowd, who seemed to be marginally more behind Federer, clearly enjoyed every moment, but in truth this was a match in which errors dictated the outcome.

While Nadal, winning his first title for nine months, struck the ball consistently, he was happy to thrive on Federer's mistakes. The Swiss made 44 unforced errors, was broken six times and lost more points (39) than he won (36) on his own serve.

In their previous meetings on clay Federer has generally tried to beat Nadal from the back of the court. Here he charged to the net at almost every opportunity, but his approach shots were rarely good enough. Lacking penetration, they invited Nadal to bombard him with missiles from the back of the court.

The pattern for an error-strewn first set was established with the first two points as Nadal put limp forehands into the net. The Spaniard dropped his opening serve to 15, only for Federer to follow suit in the next game. When Federer broke for a second time to lead 4-3, Nadal again levelled immediately.

At 5-6 Federer played a ragged game. An indecisive approach at 0-15 was punished by a backhand down the line and at 15-40 Federer made the same mistake as the tamest of forehands invited Nadal to pass him.

The shift in fortunes was even more extreme in the second set. Federer, at last finding a consistency of touch, won eight points in a row on his way to a 4-0 lead but Nadal bettered that with 11 points in succession in a run of five winning games. Federer stopped the rot to level at 5-5, but more mistakes handed Nadal victory two games later. The last three points – a poor forehand and two misplaced backhands – summed up his day.

Federer, without sounding entirely convincing, took consolation from the fact that his fortunes have taken something of an upturn after glandular fever dragged him down in the first part of the year.

"I'm coming back strong," he said. "I'm happy with the way things are now, whereas I still had a bit of doubt a few weeks ago. It's been a very positive week, coming back from the brink in my first match and then beating great players on my way to the final. I'm pushing Rafa and I have the feeling I can beat him if I play the right way. I didn't have that feeling when I lost to him here last year."

He added: "Maybe my attacking game didn't work as well as it has in the past, but that can happen. I'm still awfully close. He's improving, but so am I."

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