Rafa and Roger: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

(published June 6, 2011)

It’s not really a rivalry any more, in the sense of two equals battling for individual supremacy over the world and over each other.

Since the beginning of 2008, Rafa Nadal has won nine of his eleven matches with Roger Federer — 6-1 on clay, 2-1 on hard courts, 1-0 on grass.  Nadal holds a career mark of 17-8 over Federer, 9-3 in best-of-five-set matches.

If Federer beats Nadal again, on any surface, it will be a surprise and an upset.

But Sunday’s French Open final provided hints that these classy antagonists may not be done providing tennis’s best dramatics on its biggest stages.

We’re more than two years removed from the day when Federer wept during the trophy ceremony at the Australian Open.  His tears reflected the realization that even playing his best under favorable conditions, he could no longer beat Nadal unless Rafa falters.

It was a devastating thought for a champion with Federer’s history, which includes streaks of five straight titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open as well as ten consecutive Grand Slam finals.

Federer seemed to be on the verge of an inevitable decline.  Nadal appeared ready to assert his dominance on all surfaces, just as Federer had.

But Nadal was soon hampered by tendinitis in both knees, losing to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French and pulling out of Wimbledon.  And rather than fading from view, Federer reached four consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning three of them, losing only to Juan Martin Del Potro at the U.S. Open.

Last year, Nadal returned to full health and roared through Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and Flushing Meadows, defeating Soderling, Tomas Berdych, and Novak Djokovic in the three finals.  Federer lost in the quarters in the French and Wimbledon, and in the semis at the U.S. Open, where he and Nadal have never met.

There was a mild, lingering cloud over the last two French Opens, as this pair of players each won one without having to play the other.  So it was a most satisfying surprise when Federer ended Djokovic’s unbeaten run through 2011 to reach the final, where Nadal was waiting.

In seven years of play at Roland Garros, Nadal has lost exactly once, the Soderling match in ’09.  The question before us was not so much who would win, but whether this was the end of the line for these two as the measure of each other.

The happy answer is no.

Their fifth meeting in the French Open finals was the closest and hardest fought.  Federer came out strong, taking advantage of some tentative play from Nadal. He broke Nadal in the second game and pressed the advantage to 5-2.  At set point on Nadal’s serve at 3-5, Federer tried a backhand drop shot that went a hair wide; given a reprieve, Nadal reeled off four straight games to close the set.

In the second, Federer fought back from 2-4 to force a tiebreaker, which Nadal won handily.  Then Federer took the third set, the first set he’d won from Nadal at the French since 2007.

But that was it for Roger; too much energy expended, too much hard work just to get to 2-1 down.  Nadal breezed through the final set, 6-1, for his sixth French Open title and tenth Grand Slam overall.

Nadal’s victory on his favorite surface put Djokovic on notice that he does not intend to relinquish the #1 ranking quietly.  Federer’s strong showing put us all on notice that there’s still electricity to be found when these two face each other, especially with the grass-court season about to begin.  Nadal will rightly be the favorite, but a Federer grace-note of a victory no longer seems out of the question.



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