Endgame on Clay

by: Peter Bodo | June 08, 2008

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And so it was written. He would come, he would surely come. The one called Rafa, a raw and pleasant raven-haired youth, born, bred and schooled in the art of battle by the squat wizard Toni on a leafy repose surrounded by the sea. He would surely come, leaving behind the sunny climes and sea-washed sands of his home, unable to afford a sleeved shirt, this humble, behind-picking lad, wearing just his piratas and carrying a Babolat and a bandana containing a few morsels for his long and perilous journey.

Come he would, smiling, a student of the question ("No?") and disciple of the raised eyebrow, progressing ever northward through the rain and chill and impending sense of doom shrouding the kingdom of Roland Garros, where he would fulfill what has been written. There, the one called Rafa would do battle with Lord Fed, elegant and well-coiffed master of the glacial peaks and dark-forested inclines of Svizzero, steely-eyed ruler and protector of the maiden princess Mirka d'Bulgari.

Yet he would come, Rafa, bringing hope to legions held in ransom for long years, a humble youth yet well-prepared for the struggle, slugging and picking and topspinning to fulfill what has been written.  And so it came to pass.

And so it came to pass, and I had thought for the past few days that it would come to this, because the theme of the past three years has been that of Roger Federer, gamely fighting to capture the only Grand Slam to elude him - the only Grand Slam, incidentally, standing in the way of his coronation as the greatest tennis player of all time.  For four years now, The Mighty Fed has tried to stay in the hunt, tried to find a formula for beating Nadal or, barring that, hoping to have a great day when Nadal was having a merely good one. Be honest about this - over the past two years, couldn't you hear Federer's fingernails screeching, chalk on blackboard, as he tried to hang on?

Oh, heck, I might as well cut-and-paste the comment I posted four or five hours in the match in the CC thread:

Howdy, everyone. To quote that peerless tennis expert, the late Joe Strummer of the Clash, I have a feeling that today is "Armagideon time" (that's working class Brit, or at least Strummerease, for "Armaggedon time." I think one way or the other the result is going to be seismic: a Federer win, or, more likely - a Nadal 2-1-2  blowout. I just think the tension and drama of three years worth of thrusting and parrying is going to blow up on us. Enjoy the final!

Somehow, I think many of you didn't.  And I can only offer condolences; suck it up and get ready for Wimbledon, because that's exactly what your action hero will have to do. I know there wasn't all that much to enjoy, but to me the worst thing about the blowout we witnessed is that it dims the lustre of Federer's annual achievements here. But that will only be momentary. The Federer-Nadal Roland Garros finals, and the level of excellence they represent , in the getting-there if not the thereness, will be part of Roland Garros lore and legend for ages.

Besides, TMF lost today to a clay-court player of historically unsurpassed abilities. Before this tournament, I gave Bjorn Borg a slight edge over Nadal as the supreme claydog of the Open era. I'm exchanging that order now, because while Borg might have been marginally quicker, the devastating power and increasing accuracy of Nadal, combined with his quickness, seem to represent a clay-court endgame.Which lead to the successive questions I asked Federer in his presser:

Q. Roger, you're by miles the second best clay court on earth.  At the end of this long clay court season and this incessant talk about Rafa, are you a little bit relieved the clay court season is over?

A: No. I mean, the tough part about the clay is, let's say the first three or four weeks, you know.  Not that enjoyable, you know, because everybody is just talking about Paris, everything is just, you know, this big hype.  I mean, it's nice to be part of it.  It means you're playing well.  It is a little bit much at times.

But when sort of the French Open comes around everything sort of calms down.  You focus on your section.  You know, you're only sort of doing press every second day which sort of helps, as well.
Now I'm much more relaxed than maybe, you know, one month back where I don't think it's that enjoyable for us players sometimes.

Q.  Beyond that, your peers look at you as an extraordinary player.  Do you look at Rafa as an extraordinary player on clay?

A: Sure.  I mean, it's not first time I'm saying that.  I'm giving him plenty of compliments.  Yeah, I don't know what to tell you.

I don't want to make too much of this, and this was undeniably a rough moment to pose this question to TMF. On the other hand, I was quite proud of my diplomatic phrasing, and what the hail - why not tell me something like: I feel a bit unlucky to be playing against perhaps the greatest clay-court player of all time? Or, I didn't think this dude could get much better, but guess what - he has! Actually, Federer literally provided the second of those answers in the French portion of the presser, admitting that Nadal simply doesn't hit any short balls anymore, and that it's harder than ever to attack his forehand. Aw, Rog. I feel the pain buried in your curtness.

But let's contrast a heartbroken loser's responses with those of a joyful winner. During Nadal's presser, a little later, Doug Robson of USA Today asked him this succession of questions:

Q.  First, your reaction upon winning was not very emotional.  Can you explain why?  And two, do you believe that a big victory like this, to beat an opponent so badly, can be a psychological blow to that opponent?

A: "First thing, I won 6 0 the third set, no?  And without mistake. I didn't prepare when I celebrate something, when I go to the ground. When I win, I didn't think about this before, so that's the feeling in that moment. Today it was tough for Roger, I think, and I have to be respectful with one very good guy.  I have very good relationship with him, no?  Anyway, doesn't matter.  But I think I feel I have to be more respectful, no?

And later, I don't think so, no.  Roger is too good for that be very important loss for him.  For sure it is  for nobody is easy to lose final of Grand Slam. For me, lost the final at Wimbledon was very tough, too.  I think for everybody it's tough when you arrive final of a Grand Slam and you lose, especially if you are one of the favorites for to win the tournament, no?"

The differences between these responses are telling, and to me the big takeaway is that TMF is under stress. It may be because of his uncharacteristic struggles earlier this year, it may be because the countdown has started on his attempt to shatter Pete Sampras's Grand Slam singles title record. Whatever the case, he's in a delicate situation that will demand reserves of patience, confidence, and unflinching honesty, first of all, with himself.

I'm not sure we need to go into the gory details of the match (like, TMF faced at least one break point in every game he served but one.  Or that this was the worst French Open final-round shellacking since Vilas gave Brian Gottfried just three games in 1977).  But I did jot some notes during the match, and want to amplify them here:

1 - Nadal's serve and backhand are underrated shots. On serve, he finds Federer's backhand as doggedly as a Pomeranian nosing into its owner's pocket for a biscuit. As Mats Wilander (I know, I know: can't you at least leave him out of it?) observed afterwards: "Nadal hit like ninety-five, ninety-seven per cent of his serves to Roger's backhand, but Roger did nothing to step around it. I mean, come on? Take that extra step to the side, let him have a few aces down the middle. . .He does it, why not you?" This is directly related to:

2 - Against Nadal's heavy serve, Federer's backhand simply isn't up to snuff. In the long, second game that set the tone for the match (Nadal broke in the first game, and fought off two break points in the next), Nadal's decisive ad and break points were won via backhand service return errors. Watching Federer's backhand reminded me of the down-side of his essentially "light" (some would say angelic) style - a quality that expresses itself as a great asset on hard and grass courts, less of one on clay. Nadal pushes him around and beats him up on clay, there's no other way to put it, which leads us to:

Fed 3 - The difference between Federer and Nadal, in broad strokes, is the difference between a performer and a fighter. Don't protest too volubly or quickly; remember how easily some of you throw around the term, "Federer in full flight." The expression underscores what I mean by suggesting a recital of some kind, and the word "flight" has associations other than avian. Federer likes to fly high and fly free; but when someone successfully invades his air space, crowds him, does a different set of aerial maneuvers alongside  him, he can get frustrated.That process was on display today; full flight is difficult  when turbulence comes into play. Performing a complicated dance move is hard when someone's grabbing at  your ankles and won't let go. Which opens up discussion on:

4 - How much Nadal has improved - on clay. He addressed this in his presser, saying:

"Well, I think I played almost perfect match.  Roger had mistakes more than usually, and I play more inside the court, having more times the control of the point. . . closer to the baseline. I think I'm playing more inside the court, so not typical two meters behind court, putting the balls with topspin.  For sure I am playing with topspin, no?  But improving different things, no? Having so much slice, changing more directions.  And with the backhand, sometimes putting more flat shots, no?"

So as glum and out of sorts as Federer appeared in this match, let's not forget the trigger for his mood. If you said, 12 months ago, that there was a lot of room for improvement in Nadal's clay court game, I'd have rolled my eyes. Today, that improvement was obvious and decisive. Skeptical? Federer had exactly one Grand Slam title when he was Nadal's age.

Rafa_2 And finally, consider this exchange with Matt Cronin:

Q.  You're very respectful, modest, humble type of person.  But don't you feel if you play your best on clay courts, and you've said you've played near perfect the whole tournament , you're the best player on clay court in the world.  Hands down.

  A:  Doesn't matter if I'm humble or modest, the numbers say I am the best player in the world on clay for the last years.  That is true.  I am humble, but the numbers are the numbers, and the rest, just be respected with the opponents, no?  And I know, and I say it honestly when I go on court.  I feel every match I can lose a match, no?  I didn't. I speak seriously when I say that, no?  It's not a humble position, no?"

Oh yes it is. So it is written.

PS - That's it for me from Paris; I'm off traveling tomorrow, but Rosangel will be going to Queens, and I Ed McGrogan has already teed up a Lundi Net Post. I'm fried, but it was a good tournament. Hope you enjoyed the coverage and if you have any questions to raise next week, maybe we'll do a Roland Garros chat party or something. Thanks for reading, everyone!

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