King of Clay, Nadal downs Federer to seal place in history
SPORTS  |  Mon - June 6, 2011 11:13 pm  |  Article Hits:11792  |  A+ | a-
Nadal thankful to clay court
Nadal thankful to clay court
In one of the great French Open finals, Rafael Nadal called on every ounce of his talent, athleticism and courage to down Roger Federer 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 and equal Bjorn Borg's record of six Roland Garros titles.

After a match that exceeded all expectations, Nadal fell to his knees on his beloved red dirt of Philippe Chatrier Court. One can only imagine the emotions that went through the Spaniard's mind at that point. Relief, probably, at finally quelling the heroic Swiss third seed. Then surely pride, at having won such an incredible match to earn a history-making sixth French Open crown.

Rafael Nadal fully deserves to take his place alongside the great Bjorn Borg, and now, with a total of ten majors to his name, can surely look forward to more titles. Just 25, the genial Majorcan has Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam titles in his sights, and should cement his own legend as one of the great tennis players of all time, on all surfaces and not just on clay.

Federer, meanwhile, can have no regrets. Super Roger gave it absolutely everything on a surface that is least suited to his game, and pushed Nadal far harder than he did in four previous encounters at Roland Garros. There is no shame in losing to the world no.1 here, especially after treating the fans to some incredible tennis. The former world no.1 used all his experience and showed guts to find a way back into the match when he looked dead and buried more than once.

In an epic encounter that you could not take your eyes off for a minute, Nadal staged a fabulous first set comeback, held off a storming fight-back in the second, conceded the third to an astounding Swiss turnaround, before sealing victory in the fourth.

Federer to the front

Rain had been forecast, but as the players strode out onto the hallowed dirt of Philippe Chatrier Court, they were greeted by blazing sunshine. The atmosphere was electric as former champions Jim Courier and Gustavo Kuerten joined in the thundering applause. The stage was set, perfectly, for potentially one of the greatest matches in history, the fifth at the French Open between two of the greatest players ever to have graced the game.

Both champions went at it straight from the off, the only sign of anxiety coming from the crowd as they laughed nervously at a vociferous line call. Roger held easily, but then on Rafa's very first service game, Roger was handed his first pair of break points at 15-40. He would not take them, or a third, but when a fourth presented itself he took it, albeit gifted by Rafa who netted an easy forehand.

The world no.1 had been caught cold and when Federer held easily to lead 3-0, it was the neutral's ideal scenario. The underdog was ahead, with the crowd rallied to his cause. Nadal settled at last, holding for 3-1. Where he had been dropping short, the top seed began to get the measure of his man, his shot length, and the task ahead.

Federer's serve was firing though, and he held for 4-1 despite Rafa visibly warming to his work. Running round his backhand and letting loose with his trademark top-spin forehand, the Spaniard held for 4-2. Federer's strategy now was clear, his game plan simple but effective. He would apply himself on his serve and try to keep the points short. The Spaniard, in contrast, would bludgeon away, secure in the knowledge that he always has the edge in long rallies on clay, against Roger Federer, and against anyone else on this Earth.

Roger's keep-it-quick strategy worked again and he held to lead 5-2. Rafa's let-it-last approach came derailed in the next game as he faced a set point at 30-40. Dramatically, heartbreakingly for the Swiss fans, his deft drop-shot fell just - and only just - out. Handed a reprieve, Nadal held for 5-3. Still, Roger would serve for the set. Surely he would see it out?

Not so fast. Suddenly, surprisingly, the Swiss could not find a first service and when Nadal earned a break point at 30-40, Roger netted. It was 5-4.

Now right back in it, the Spaniard had the momentum. All Federer's good work had gone up in smoke and Rafa held for 5-5. Pumped up, the Majorcan hit two unbelievable passing shots on the way to break point, saved by Roger with an outrageous smashed overhead hit from his own back line that landed slap bang on the opposite baseline. What drama. And what genius on the very next point as Rafa responded with a volley from a ball hit at him from three yards. Off ran Roger to retrieve and hit an improbable forehand that Rafa dispatched triumphantly.

When Federer netted on the second break point, Nadal was ahead, 6-5. Some big serving did the job in the next game, and the set was Nadal's 7-5. Take a breather everyone.

Ominous Nadal

The signs now were ominous, especially as Rafa kicked on in the second set to break and lead 2-0 and then 3-1, 15-40 on Roger's service. Rafa's coach Uncle Toni was looking relaxed at this point, sitting back and enjoying a remake of a show he had seen many times before. The scenario was indeed a familiar one as the Majorcan's top-spin forehand began to hamper Federer 's strokeplay.

Then, just as it appeared as though the Swiss was about to be blown away, Federer fought back. Throwing game plans and caution to the wind, those two second-break points were saved, somehow, and he was back to 3-2. Service games were exchanged for 4-3 to Nadal, and then, incredibly, Roger stepped up a gear. A truly astonishing volley brought him a break point. He missed it, and one more, but on the third Nadal cracked, netting. The pair were tied at 4-4 and we had a classic on our hands.

Now Nadal responded, pressuring the Swiss' second delivery to earn three break points of his own, the third enough to hand him back his break advantage at 5-4. Keeping calm, Nadal served big to earn set point at 40-30. Win it and he would be clear, two sets to the good.

Then, out of nowhere, as he prepared to serve, the first drops of rain fell. The spectators just had time to see the Spaniard hit a net cord and watch his ball fly out before the rain came down heavy and Pascal Maria called the players off.

Rain rain go away

The rain clouds moved on as fast as they had come, and within 13 minutes the gladiators were back and straight back at it with no warm-up and the stadium half full (Kuerten knew better of course, and stayed, alone on the front row to observe the turning-point he sensed was about to come).

The players had left proceedings at 5-4, deuce. 'Two big serves and you are nearly home', Rafa must have said to himself, and the first duly served up a set point. Bravely, typically, Federer decided to attack and pushed Rafa back to earn a reprieve. Two more quick points went the Swiss's way and we were level again, at 5-5.

The break in the changing rooms had evidently done Federer the world of good, and some thumping serving saw him lead 6-5. Back rushed the fans, and back came Nadal, kick serving his way to a hold for 6-6 and force a tie-break.

First to seven points then, in a decider that would in all likelihood seal the fate, not only of the set, but of the match. Tie-breakers, history tells us, favour the brave. They also favour Federer, who so often lifts his game just enough to edge them.

Not this time. Where Federer had executed the tie-break to perfection against Djokovic, here he was found wanting in the crucial first four points, hitting uncharacteristic unforced errors. At 5-2 came the point of the match, just outrageous, as Federer, giving it so much he actually could be heard grunting, pushed Nadal into a lob. It was just high enough. Federer reached to send it back but could only watch as the Spaniard passed him. 6-2 then became 7-3, and Nadal had his vital two set break. He led 7-5, 7-6.

Stubborn Swiss

Federer knew he had to steady the ship, and did initially in the third, until at 3-2 down Rafa slammed a series of winners past him to break for a 4-2 lead. The end was surely near.

Think again, said Federer. He was not to be brushed aside and broke back immediately, to love no less,and was back in it at 4-3.

Games now went with serve to 5-5 when some incredible returns of serve from the Swiss brought him three break points. He only needed two, and was ahead, serving for the set at 6-5. The wind in his sails, Roger's first service was back and he held to 15 to take the set 7-5.

Nadal, at last

And so, unexpectedly, we moved into a fourth set, and Federer it was who raced to three break points in the opening game on Nadal's service. Had he taken one, who knows which way the match would have gone, but like the true champion he is, Nadal fought back to win five straight points and hold, crucially.

Federer leveled at 1-1, but the feeling was that a great chance had passed the Swiss by, and he was made to regret it two games later when Rafa earned three break points of his own and took the first.

The third seed had no answer now. 3-1 became 4-1, and though Federer fought back to deuce on his last service game Rafa broke again to lead 5-1. Nadal was not about to let his man get away again. Some big serving earned him three championship points and Federer hit long on the first to hand him the title.

Falling first to his knees, Nadal jumped up to embrace his old foe. The respect between the two players had been apparent throughout the match and was striking at the end as they touched heads and exchanged words - no doubt warm and appreciative.

When they have time to reflect tonight, next year, in a decade or two, Nadal and Federer will know they were privileged to have taken part in an unforgettable final, one of their best, and among the most memorable ever to grace the courts of Roland Garros. We salute them.

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