by Pete Bodo
MIAMI, Fla.—The chant began as a few isolated cries of support when Rafael Nadal had Roger Federer pinned, 6-3, 3-0, with Federer having just recovered from another in a seemingly endless series of crises to reach the haven of deuce. Those cries of "Roger!" all began to meld, like the tributaries of a river, and in nothing flat the chant rumbled through the stadium at Crandon Park: Rah-ger! Rah-ger! Rah-ger!
It grew louder and louder, a spontaneous outpouring of support—a plea for Federer to find the game that had helped lift previous matches between these two superbly gifted and game rivals to Olympian heights, each man burning his name into the memory of the spectators, into the record books.
The chant was a tribute, for certain, but you couldn't help sense a touch of something else buried in it. A touch of pity. The feeling was there like a cancer, that sympathy crowds feel for a champion who has lost this way, that desire to overreach their role in the spectacle and help the fighter rekindle a flame that seems to have gone out, or been blown out. The real content of that chant so easily mistaken for adulation was much-needed encouragement.
Federer understood the subtext in the chant and it lifted him. The next point was a see-saw, extended rally featuring a little bit of everything, and it ended with a glorious passing shot by Federer. Once again they chanted: Rah-ger! Rah-ger! Rah-ger! It grew to such a crescendo that Nadal stepped back from the baseline, where he was stationed to receive, to allow the noise to subside.
The chant must have played on Federer's nerves, though, because he shanked a backhand badly on the very next shot. And even though he would go on to win that game, he understood the nature of that chant and talked about it later: "It's definitely a very nice feeling to get the support from the crowd, you know, especially against Rafa." He hesitated, and speaking to himself as much as anyone else, added, "Yeah, I think definitely had something to do with the score...I'm not sure I wanted it or not, because it meant I was down in the score."
Federer would win just one more game after that one, and while Twitter was aflame with tweets suggesting what Federer might do differently on the one-handed backhand side, and the ESPN and other commentators were homing in on the way Nadal took away the wide serve with his return stance, the truth is that this match wasn't lost because of the way Nadal's high-bouncing forehand troubles Federer's backhand, or because of Rafa's returning position. It was determined—almost pre-determined, it seemed—by how easily and quickly Federer grew discouraged.
By the time we were three games into the match, you could see what was to come. Federer's body language was a striking expression of what we might broadly call reluctance. He seemed to have no appetite for the task at hand. Nadal's lime-green shirt and bright yellow head and wrist bands certainly lent him a cheery, optimistic air, but he also looked far more comfortable than Federer. He went about his business purposefully and comfortably, absorbed in the job.
By contrast, Federer looked like he wanted to be somewhere else. At times he seemed peevish, at others he smoldered with a defiance that probably provided the impetus for some of the stone-cold winners he hit when he wasn't busy rushing into errors, or pulling the trigger too early on his groundstrokes.
Did Nadal sense that Federer was discouraged from a pretty early point in the match, I wondered? His reply was as long as some clay-court rallies, which can be put down partly to his sensitivity and the empathy he feels for his friend.
"It wasn't easy for him tonight, because he had the break in both sets very early, so that's tough. Because I was playing very good from the baseline, without mistakes with my forehand, playing aggressive, so wasn't an easy situation when you are back all the time in the score.
"So, yeah, in the second set I felt he started to—he wanted to play more aggressive, play shorter points, and probably he didn't have the perfect feeling to do this tonight. Sometimes it works really good because he has fantastic forehand, fantastic volley, and his movements when he plays inside the court a lot of times are unstoppable. (But) tonight he had few mistakes. I played long, so wasn't easy for him to go inside.
"In general, that's always happen, no, when one play very good and the other one don't play perfect. It's always the same. Sometimes, you know, when both players play at higher level, always matches are very emotional and very nice, no?
"But that's happen very few times, because both players must feel perfect to play both at very highest level, no? Because if one is playing really well, the other one, it's tough to play at highest level. The same happen again (tonight)."
Federer himself provided an honest reprisal of how—and how quickly—it all slipped away.
"I think it's always a bit of an adjustment obviously for me coming out and playing Rafa—any lefty, I guess, but him in particular. That's what kind of made it hard tonight. I tried to warm with a lefty, Bob Bryan, and tried to get as acclimatized as I could against him. It's just hard.
In the first couple games you get break down, and then I felt like conditions weren't really favoring me as well. I knew it was slow (the conditions), but it just makes it so hard it hit through him on a surface like this. Then maybe you try to overhit a bit, and then obviously I start taking wrong decisions on big points. From then on, you're down a set and a break, and it's not easy to come back. I thought he played well. He played tough and he played good when he had to, and I didn't do that tonight."
This isn't the end of the world by any means for Federer. I had a feeling this morning that this match might be a stinker, for no reason other than that it sometimes turns out that way, especially when there's an enormous air of expectation. Didn't Pete Sampras hammer Andre Agassi 6-2, 6-1 at the ATP World Tour Championships in 1996? And didn't Agassi beat Pete Sampras in the same event three years later, 6-2, 6-2? The legend of their rivalry is littered with such scores. These things happen; the most significant thing about them is how much or little they affect either man.
Nadal goes into the final with plenty of confidence, and it will pay to keep in mind what Federer said about the sheer novelty of Nadal, a few paragraphs up. Djokovic will have to deal with the radical game of Nadal, one for which it's almost impossible to prepare in practice, on Sunday.
Nadal lost to Djokovic just a couple of weeks ago in the Indian Wells final, but he didnt feel like he played particularly well in the desert. He's thrilled with the way he's been playing here. He said, "(Making) the final even without playing my best in Indian Wells was very important for my confidence, and I started this week playing much better, no? Since the first round I was playing I think very, very good. I didn't have a good draw; last week I think I had a better draw than this week. This week I had a tough draw. In general, I think I played a very good week. Now remains one match."
That match will be against a man who has yet to lose in 2011. It's a tough assignment for the world No. 1, but he couldn't have asked for better preparation.