Rome: Nadal d. Federer
In my preview of the Rome men’s final yesterday, I made a wish that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer would pick up where they left off here in 2006, when they staged a classic five-set final at the Foro. That wish came true for one of them, anyway.
Nadal has long dominated Federer on clay; their career head-to-head is now 13-2 on the surface. But rarely have their matches been as one-sided as this one—Nadal was as good today as Federer was bad. Rafa, hitting with power and confidence from both sides throughout, went to Federer’s backhand to open up his forehand, then went to his forehand to open up his backhand. The ball never seemed to be in Federer’s strike zone; if he wasn’t struggling to get on top of its high-bouncing topspin, he was lunging to catch up to its bending sidespin. Nadal typically beats Federer by pounding his backhand relentlessly, but once he grabbed the lead today he felt free to mix up his locations and use the whole court. And that included his serve. Nadal varied his targets and hit his spots, putting the ball on Federer’s forehand hip on one point, and then bending it sharply wide on the next. He used the latter serve to save the only break point of consequence, at 0-0 in the second set, that he faced all afternoon.
As Federer said after the 6-1, 6-3 rout, it wasn’t his day. That started to become painfully obvious in the third game, when he couldn’t get all the way around Nadal’s hooking spins to hit his forehand. Federer ended up flipping two of them long and was broken. The floodgates opened from there, as Federer shanked his way through the rest of the first set. If there’s a stat line that tells the story of this match, it’s the unforced errors: Federer made 32, Nadal made eight. Federer also never found the first serve he needed to pressure Rafa; he made just 57 percent of them on the day. As the match progressed, Federer tried to move forward, but he wound up lunging hopelessly at the net as well—he won just nine of 19 points up there. In the first game of the second set, Federer went up 0-30 on Rafa’s serve, but he dumped a makable backhand volley into the net and Rafa ended up holding. There would be no turning points in this match. Fedal XXX was over in 69 minutes, and won't linger long in the game's historical memory.
Nadal improved through the week, and as he did in Madrid, he saved his best tennis for the final. This is Rafa’s seventh title in Rome, and he has won six of the eight tournaments he’s entered since returning to the tour in February. He’s No. 1 in the Race to London, and has, at long last, wrestled the No. 4 seed at Roland Garros away from David Ferrer. But Rafa is hardly the fourth-favorite to win the title there. With Novak Djokovic struggling the last two weeks, Andy Murray contemplating his back, and Federer clearly still a step (or two, or three) behind him on clay, Nadal will go to Paris as the man to beat once again.