There’s a cinematic theme to Sunday’s Rome final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. It’s their 30th career meeting, which, if we’re naming it Super Bowl style, would make this the XXX edition of their rivalry—however it turns out, I doubt it will be as scandalous as that sounds. It’s also the long-delayed sequel to the epic five-set final they staged here in 2006, which was the second-best of their 29 meetings, and the second-best match played by anyone in the last 10 years. (See the highlights at the bottom of this post.)
Can Rafa and Fed top the Rumble in Rome all of these years later? That’s doubtful. They’ll only play two-out-of-three tomorrow; ironically, that’s a direct result of the ’06 match, which forced both players to pull out of the tournament that followed in Hamburg, and led the ATP to downsize all Masters finals starting the next year.
But I’m thinking this could be a worthy follow-up, whatever its length. Nadal, as he was then, still rules the clay universe, but Federer has yet to drop a set in Rome this week. And while he did lose to Rafa here seven years ago, Federer had two match points.
The last time these two played, in Indian Wells in March, Nadal and Federer described their rivalry the same way: “classic.” Here are four things to consider as we watch its next chapter unfold.
Nadal will be playing in his eighth straight final, which is a career record for him; he has reached the final of every tournament since returning to the tour in February—not bad as far as comebacks go. As for Federer, he seems to have recovered from his own two-month layoff nicely.
Federer hasn’t lost a set, but he also hasn’t played anyone in the Top 10. Rafa has dropped one each to Ernests Gulbis and No. 4 David Ferrer, but he knocked off No. 6 Tomas Berdych in straights, and has looked better with each match. Federer has gone in the other direction. He played his best earlier in the week, but he wasn’t razor sharp against Benoit Paire in the semis on Saturday. Federer struggled with his forehand for stretches and didn’t serve as well as he did against Jerzy Janowicz the previous evening. He’ll obviously need to have a big serving day against Nadal, and avoid any extended forehand shank sessions.
The past, as we know, favors Nadal. He’s 19-10 overall against Federer, and 12-2 on clay. He also won their last meeting, on hard courts, in Indian Wells 6-3, 6-4, though Federer was clearly hindered by a bad back that day. Is there anything, from an historical perspective between these two, that might give Federer hope? As I wrote above, he did have match points when they played on this court in ’06, and he does have those two wins on clay.
The standard template between these two is that Nadal uses his forehand to wear down Federer's backhand and take away his belief. It doesn't help that Federer has traditionally not played his best, most confident tennis against Rafa, especially on clay. Part of that is mental; he misses shots that he doesn't miss against other players. But it hasn't always worked that way. In the Madrid final in ’09, Federer escaped the usual losing dynamic and won with a mix of targeted aggression and well-timed drop shots, and he broke free long enough to roll to a 6-0 third set win over Rafa in Hamburg in ’07. Federer knows that an intelligent, varied offensive attack two sets can be rewarded against Nadal on clay, and that he only has to sustain for it two sets tomorrow.
On the other hand, the last two times these two played on dirt, in Madrid and Paris in 2011, Federer won the first set but couldn't sustain his winning level for another. Rafa, who has weathered his share of early storms from Federer in the past, won both matches.
Coming into this tournament, I would have given the check to Rafa here. As the week began, many were looking ahead to a semifinal between Nadal and Novak Djokovic. This would have been the last time that the 2012 Roland Garros finalists, and presumed 2013 favorites, would have faced each other before Paris. Getting an edge of Novak, and locking up the No. 4 seed for the French, were big opportunities for Rafa this week. The latter still is—with a win on Sunday, he’ll be safely back in the Top 4, and he’ll go to France as the favorite again.
When he arrived in Rome, Federer’s primary motivation might have been to get in some much-needed matches before Paris—he had played all of two since March. But now he has a chance to do something rare for him: Win a title for the first time. That it would come at the hands of the man who denied him here in 2006 would make it all the more sweetly satisfying.
Beyond that, with Andy Murray’s attendance in Paris in question, and Novak Djokovic suffering surprise losses in Madrid and Rome, Federer has to think that his chances for a second French title have improved dramatically in the last few days. A strong showing here would make him a serious contender again.
This won’t have the tension of a Grand Slam final, but it should have more edge, and be more competitive, than their never-in-doubt quarterfinal in Indian Wells. Style is paramount in Rome, and the Romans have always love Federer’s; they’ll be rooting hard for him to finally win their tournament, the same way they did in 2002 when a 32-year-old Andre Agassi won his first title there. But I don’t expect Parisian-style viciousness, either. It should be one of the best atmospheres of the year, and a tennis celebration above all.
Before Federer and Nadal play these days, we’re always told that we should enjoy it, that we won’t see too many more matches between them. Federer is over 30, Nadal’s knees are deteriorating, the sky is falling, and tennis will soon be dying. But this is already the second time they’ve faced each other in last two months, and in their current form there’s no reason they won’t do it a few more times in 2013 alone. When it comes to Nadal and Federer, we’re always talking about the coming decline. But it’s a decline that never seems to come for either of them. Now they’re back in the final in Rome, seven years after their first one.
My memory of that 2006 match was that it seemed to go on forever, and that that was a good thing. It got better and more dramatic as it went. Since I guess I have to pick a winner this time, I’ll take Rafa in three.
That said, my hope is that in Sunday’s match, they pick up where they left off in ’06, giving us more of the tennis that only they can give.