Nadal's comeback shows reality of threat to Federer

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The Independent Online

Victories over Roger Federer are to be cherished. When the world No 1 began the final of the Dubai Duty Free Open on Saturday night he was defending an unbeaten run of 16 matches in 2006, a 56-match winning sequence on hard courts, a four-year, 19-match unbeaten run in this stadium and a 29-match winning sequence in the Middle East.

No wonder Rafael Nadal sank to the ground in celebration after his 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory. The 19-year-old Spaniard lay spreadeagled on the court, and buried his face in his hands when he got up. As he sat in his chair awaiting the presentation ceremony the tears flowed.

Not only had Nadal beaten a player he considers "the best sportsman in the world", but he had also put behind him the doubts which had followed three months out with a foot injury which had forced him to miss the Australian Open.

"I was crying a little bit," Nadal said. "It was a difficult moment after what I've been through over the last three months. I cried a lot over those three months. It was an important and special moment for me."

Federer won the first set with something to spare as Nadal kept hitting the ball too short, allowing the Swiss to hit outright winners or to dominate from the net.

However, Nadal hung on in the second set and took his chance to break at 4-4 thanks to a Federer error and three successive winning passing shots. Both players broke early in the third set before Nadal broke again at 4-4 after Federer made three forehand errors.

Federer, who felt his serve had let him down, denied that he had been tempted into the net too often, but Nadal said the Swiss had admitted to him after the match that he had "played a bit too aggressively".

Nadal added: "He'd played very well, much better than me, and he won the first set very easily. In the first game of the second set he was playing much better than me. He was 1-0 up and 30-0 up on my serve, but I came back and when I won the game I thought to myself: 'I'll try to win my serve every time and if I can do that and get back to 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, I might get a chance'.

"At 4-4 he missed a shot on the first point, I played two good points and I had the chance to break him. When I won the second set the match changed."

Nadal, who insists he has "no chance" of catching the world No 1,looks increasingly like the player who can challenge his supremacy. Federer holds three of the four major crowns and after his triumph in Melbourne there was talk of the Grand Slam this year, but Nadal will surely have a say in that.

The Spaniard dominated last year's clay court season, beating Federer on the way to his first Grand Slam at the French Open, and victory here, following wins last year in Beijing, Montreal and Madrid, suggests he will also be a threat at the US Open. He might even develop a liking for the greenery of London SW19.

Nadal's game, played for the most part well behind the baseline, might not appear suited to the hard courts, but his athleticism makes it very hard for opponents to hit winners.

This was the left-hander's third win in four meetings with Federer, who came from two sets down in the Miami final 12 months ago for his only win. Federer, however, points out that he was ill when they first met two years ago and that subsequent matches have all been close.

"I think the more I play him the more I'll figure out his game," Federer said. "It's just that because he's a leftie - and such a good leftie - it makes it really hard. I guess the last time I played against a leftie was against Tony [Roche, his part-time coach] in Australia, so it doesn't make it easy to deal with his serve or his cross-court forehands, which come from the backhand side. It's just a question of getting used to that."