Immutable law No. 1: No matter what else has happened in tennis, one thing has not changed. The Nadal forehand to Federer backhand is, all things being equal, a battle that Federer cannot win with any consistency.
It isn't just the evidence that was presented to our eyes again today; it's also the evidence presented indirectly by Djokovic during his brilliant streak, and those two wins over Nadal (and, let's not forget, he was 3-0 against Federer before Friday).
Federer's backhand can't consistently hurt Nadal; not on clay. Federer had almost twice as many unforced errors as Nadal (56 to 27), and the majority of them poured off the backhand face of his racket. At times I had to ask myself if Federer was wondering, What would Novak do?
Immutable law No. 2: It's difficult to sustain the degree of excellence required to beat Nadal when you're playing him at Roland Garros. This brings us right back to the play-by-play details. While many nice things were said about this match, and will continue to be said, the harsh realities aren't quite as kind. Once Federer surrendered that 5-2 first set lead, he never really led until he managed to pull out the third set. His tennis was admittedly brilliant, but who's going to come back to beat Nadal on clay from two sets down?
June 5, 2011: Check out some of the key points from Rafael Nadal's sixth French Open title win, a four-set victory over Roger Federer.
Granted, the second set had many tense moments. After falling behind by love-40 and gifting Nadal with a break in the very first game, Federer soon hit the first of the two stretches of outstanding tennis he would produce. It looked as if he blasted his way back into the match because he'd more or less succumbed to frustration and decided, What the hail, I may as well let it rip. It's presumptuous to read someone's mind that way, but perhaps it wasn't mere coincidence that one moment Federer was shrugging and shaking his head, speaking horrible body language, and the next he was firing winners left and right. No matter, Nadal weathered the storm and was much better prepared to compete in the tiebreaker. He won it going away, 7-3.
He added, "Today I think he did well. He was a little bit unlucky at the first set, and after that, he came back fantastically well in the second. In the third I had 4-2, but seriously, I think he played very, very good from that moment to the beginning of the fourth. So when Roger plays like this, the opponent has nothing to do sometimes. I just waited my moment, tried to be there all the time, tried to put him in not easy situations all the time."
We know that's sour grapes, but we also know it can't be that easy for a player of Federer's caliber to go out to accept what has by now been established as the inevitable, one-sided beating at Roland Garros. What's the man to do, quit playing the tournament entirely as long as Nadal is active?
And somehow, this match was reflective of the champion's entire experience in Paris; it was marked by soaring highs and gutteral lows. It was alternately brilliant and stinky, ragged at the edges and holey in the middle. But it was still a very satisfying win for Nadal, and he equalled the record of the only other man in the conversation about the greatest clay-court player in tennis history, Borg. He was conspuciously absent today, much like he was that day at Roland Garros in 1982 when unseeded Mats Wilander became, after Borg, the second Swede in the Open era to win a major title.
A few times today, Roger Federer looked like he might have been the one who would ultimately say those words. He caught lightning in a bottle at Roland Garros this year, but at the end taking down Nadal was just too much to ask. It always has been at Roland Garros, there's no point trying to tap dance around it, not even if you're Federer. One point before the anti-climactic end of this match, the sun finally broke through, the court began to glow, and you could almost think anything was still possible.
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