PARIS—For a second, a minute, maybe half an hour, it looked like Roger Federer’s day might finally have come. The Paris sky was bright where it was supposed to have been dark, the crowd was clapping rhythmically and chanting his name, and he was still serving the way he had two days ago against Novak Djokovic—that is, lights-out.
His regular Roland Garros tormentor, Rafael Nadal, was on the other side of the net, yes, but he didn’t look like himself to start. Nadal had dragged his way through the warm-up, even going so far as to hit some extra ground strokes as hard as he could just to get the juices flowing and the nerves out. But it hadn’t worked. Rafa made errors early, and when he shanked an easy forehand over the doubles sideline to start his first service game, there was concern in the Nadal camp. It seemed to me that the thought of having to beat Federer, the player he routinely calls the best ever, for a fifth time at the French Open, was a daunting one. Even his coach, Toni Nadal, who has sat through all of those wins, said that he was especially concerned today, because of the way that Federer had played against Djokovic.
He had reason to be. Federer broke Nadal’s first service game, went up 3-0, and extended that lead to 5-2. The serve was clicking, but what was most impressive was the way Federer was playing attacking tennis with the right margin for error; he was also doing a lot of things that armchair quarterbacks—such as yours truly—have been telling him to do against Nadal for years. He reversed the usual rallying dynamic; today a lot of the points flowed from his forehand to Nadal’s backhand, rather than vice-versa. He moved Rafa way off the court on his backhand side. On returns, he ran around and hit big forehands from the ad court. And he used the serve and volley judiciously and effectively. He closed out three service games at the net.
By 5-2, Federer was on the loose, whipping Nadal back and forth along the baseline with his forehand and cleaning lines with winners. He reached set point and stepped forward for a backhand. But instead of giving the ball another rip, he tried a delicate slice drop shot down the line. Nadal scrambled for it; it appeared that the set was over. But Federer’s shot had landed just wide. A few points later Nadal hit his best shot of the match to that point—a baseball swing crosscourt backhand pass for a winner.
That's when everything changed. Or, I should say, that's when everything went back to normal in the world of Roger, Rafa, and the French Open. On the first point at 3-5, Federer, seeing Nadal far back to return, tried to serve and volley again on a second serve. It wasn’t a bad play, except that Nadal hit a perfect dipping return and won the point on the next shot—not for the first time, Nadal had the answer to a Federer ploy. The bigger problem, though, was that Federer’s first serve chose that moment to desert him; suddenly, when he needed it, he couldn't buy one. At 30-30, Federer rushed a backhand, and on the next point Nadal fired a running forehand pass up the line to break. I doubt anyone was surprised when Nadal won the set two games later with another forehand crosscourt winner.
Later Federer said that he gotten a little unlucky in that set—the missed drop by an inch in particular—but Nadal had “dug deep.” But if you put that stretch, at the end of the first set, together with a similar one that ended the second set, you can see the various elements of their rivalry at the French in a nutshell, and you can see why they’ve left Nadal 5-0 in their matches here.
First, Federer misses balls he normally wouldn’t miss against other players. I don’t mean the backhands that he sprays because Nadal pushes him back with his forehand—those are due to Nadal’s unique weight of shot from that side. I mean the balls that Federer would almost never miss against anyone else, but which he rushes against Rafa.
Aside from the backhand at 5-3, 30-30, a second notable miss came in the second set tiebreaker. After making a first serve at 0-3 in the breaker, Federer snatched at a forehand that he would normally hit for a winner and netted it; the tiebreaker, and the match, were essentially over. There’s Nadal’s spin, yes, but there’s something psychological there as well—maybe bad memories in the muscles. Federer rushes himself out of his game against Rafa.
Federer said in his presser that if he plays well, he wins against Nadal. But that’s the thing, Nadal makes him play better, for longer, than anyone else. Of all their French Open matches, it was this one where Nadal showed off his defense at its fullest. At 5-2 in the tiebreaker, the two had a long exchange. Federer came in behind an excellent approach and looked sure win to the point. But Nadal managed to send his scrambling backhand slice to the exact spot where Federer would have trouble hitting an overhead winner. All Federer could do was hit it right back to Nadal, who powered a backhand crosscourt pass. That made it 6-2, four set points; Uncle Toni looked like he was ready to jump onto the court. It was Nadal’s ability not just to get to that backhand, but to place it in a spot of maximum difficulty for his opponent, that won him the point.
The final key to the Nadal-Fed Paris puzzle, and the final piece to Nadal’s dominance, is his ability to ignore nerves and negative momentum just when most other players would cave to them. Federer is famous for getting a lead and then turning it on, going into “full flight.” He seemed on the verge of doing that a few times today, especially at the end of the third set, when he began using his backhand drop shot to brilliant effect—even Nadal said later that there's no way he can play with Federer when he’s like that.
When he won the third set, it seemed that Federer had turned a corner. He went up 0-40 on Nadal’s serve. But full flight would never be reached. Nadal slowed his pace—too slow, in fact; he should have been given a time warning—and stopped rushing his shots. At 30-40, instead of sending his serve out wide, as he typically does against Federer, he went up the T for an ace. Both players acknowledged this as the turning point.
So it ended as it usually has: A four-set win for Nadal, with a final forehand sent skidding over the baseline by Federer (except for the 2006 French Open, every one of Nadal’s Slam-final wins over Federer has finished with a forehand error from the Swiss).
Afterward, Federer said that he had told a reporter back in Australia to “talk to me in six months,” about where he and Rafa were with their games. It only took them five, but the two were back where they used to be in Paris, playing a match we know by heart, with a winner we never should have doubted.