PARIS—Roger Federer says he got the final he wanted, and a lot of tennis fans did, too. The ancien regime is back, even if it was only out of power for one major. What we haven't seen in a while is Federer facing off in a Grand Slam final against his “true rival," as he called him yesterday, Rafael Nadal. Believe it or not, the last time Rog and Rafa took the big stage together was at the 2009 Australian Open. We know how that one ended. In tears. Will we get that kind of drama on Sunday? And if so, who will be doing the crying? Here are five questions from Tennis.com editor Ed McGrogan back in New York, and my answers from the press room at Roland Garros.
All the pressure was off Federer in the semis. Is that the case in the final?
I think he still comes in with more to gain than to lose. Yesterday, throwing a little cold water on the moment, a reporter brought up his last French final against Nadal here, in 2008, when he won four games. Federer didn’t flinch. He says everyone knows he hasn’t had success against Rafa here, but that the other matches were competitive. He can’t really do worse than the ’08 final, so in that sense there’s not a ton of pressure.
But there’s more than there was against Djokovic. This is a Slam final, first of all, and every player from Pete Sampras on down will tell you there’s a special tension to that, to the extra pageantry, to knowing that the world is watching and that a victory suddenly means so much more than just winning a match. It’s also Federer’s first major final since the 2010 Australian Open, 17 months ago. He’ll be excited to be back, and probably feel that this is where he belongs, but he also won’t want to squander this opportunity. And it’s a major opportunity. If Federer beats Nadal at the French, it may go down as the biggest win of his career, the final proof of his immortality, etc. It might even be one to walk away on, but Federer, as he showed yesterday, isn’t going anywhere.
Based on their current form, do you expect Nadal to employ his traditional game plan against Federer (relentless targeting of the backhand)?
Why not? Federer’s backhand held up very well yesterday. He defended brilliantly and also came over it with power and consistency. But that’s still different from facing Nadal’s forehand. In his last two matches, and especially against Robin Soderling in the quarters, Nadal’s shots off that side were divebombing into the court and kicking high. Soderling, who’s taller than Federer, had to reach up to hit his backhand.
It should also be said that Nadal doesn’t just attack Federer’s backhand out of a lack of imagination or pure expediency. Doing one thing for a long period is a good way to create the possibility for the element of surprise when you really need a point. Nadal, as we know, has a knack for firing a serve in the opposite direction when the other guy isn’t expecting it. He hasn’t needed to do that a whole lot against Federer at the French, but if this one is closer, which I think it will be, you’ll likely see more changes of pace from Rafa.
How much of a factor will the crowd be?
I was here for the 2006 and '07 Federer-Nadal finals, and while the crowd was certainly pro-Federer, it wasn’t to anywhere near the degree that it was yesterday. Even when Federer won the first set of their 2006 final 6-1, the audience didn’t erupt the way they did on Friday, or back him so vocally in the tight moments. The Parisian audience’s support and identification with Federer have grown since, in part because of his emotional run here in 2009.
They made a difference yesterday, no question, and I think they’ll help Federer on Sunday as well. But Nadal is a master of blocking out external circumstances. Support for him over the years here has been mostly grudging, a couple of times even hostile, and he’s still won the tournament five times. Nadal basically ignores it and acts as if this is his favorite place in the world to play. It’s worked so far, but if Federer wins a close set, the way he did against Djokovic yesterday, there will be a groundswell behind him that Nadal likely hasn’t felt before.
Who has more to gain from winning?
Federer can win his 17th major, prove to any doubters or asterisk-ascribers that his 2009 French title was not a one-time event brought about by the lords of tennis fate and a man named Robin Soderling, and make himself a Slam-winning force at the top of the sport once again. Nadal can tie Bjorn Borg with his sixth Roland Garros, take a step closer to Federer in the Slam count by winning his 10th, and re-establish himself as the world’s No. 1 and master of clay. There's a lot going on for both guys.
But it’s Federer who has more to gain. While he has won the French, a fact that will help him be more relaxed tomorrow than he might have been in the past, the one thing he has never done is beat Nadal there. Rafa spoiled his Grand Slam quests in Paris in 2006 and 2007, and handed him his most embarrassing loss the following year. At the same time, Nadal broke through and beat Federer on his own turf, in the ’08 Wimbledon final. As big as the 2009 French was for Federer, this would be bigger. As Federer said yesterday, "It always seems to me that Rafa needs to be in the French Open final to make it special, and I got the match I guess I was hoping for. After beating Novak, it's in a way a gift that I get the chance, and I'm looking forward to it."
What do you think will happen?
I like Federer's attitude as expressed in those words I just quoted—it sounds like he'll savor the moment without getting overwhelmed by it. I think the sets will be close. I think Federer will win one of them in a tiebreaker, bring the crowd to full mob boil, and seem on the verge of taking control of the match.
The result, however it goes, will likely depend on him. Federer's serve will obviously be a big part of it—he beat Nadal in the ’07 Wimbledon final on the strength of that shot, just as he did Djokovic yesterday. His backhand will need to be sharper, even, than it was yesterday to take Rafa’s best forehands. In London last year he used that shot to counterpunch crosscourt; in Madrid last month he had success going up the line with it. He’ll also need to capitalize on the break points he gets. He has a history of squandering them here against Nadal, and he squandered a few more against Djokovic yesterday. Federer has only beaten Nadal twice on clay, but he did take a set from him in Madrid this year, and was one second serve away from evening up the third. Plus, Federer has been playing better tennis in Paris so far than he was in Spain.
But Nadal has a few things going for him that make me think he’ll prevail. He’s still the guy who can simply play his game and win; Federer has to think more, adapt more. And while Nadal has been getting broken more often in this tournament, at the end of his semi against Andy Murray, when he had to serve it out, he played his best game of the match. Where he had been conservative early, he wasted no time, at crunch time, in opening up the court and going for more.
On Sunday he'll face more than Andy Murray. He’ll face Federer and the French, which is a daunting combination. But he hasn’t lost to them yet. Nadal in four.
See my Racquet Reaction post on Saturday's historic women's final. I'll also have the Racquet Reaction on the men's final (Pete Bodo will be posting on both finals), and I'll do a tournament Report Card when all is said and done Sunday night—if all is said and done Sunday night. There's rain in the forecast. Are we looking at another '08 Wimbledon final, transferred to Paris? There would be worse things to see.