To borrow a phrase written about another historical event that took place in Paris, Friday’s match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at Roland Garros was a trip back to the best of times for one player, and the worst of times for the other.
The Spaniard and the Swiss hadn’t met in Court Philippe Chatrier since 2011, but Nadal’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over Federer had all of the hallmarks of their five previous matches in that arena.
Nadal, as he always has, bent his serve wide, kicked his forehand high and kept his error count low. The longer the rally went on, the more likely Rafa was to win it.
Federer, as he always has, made valiant but inconsistent attempts to change the dynamic and cut the points short, either by bringing Nadal forward or charging the net himself. He forced the issue and grabbed the upper hand in rallies, only to see Nadal do what he has traditionally done against him here: come up a piece of counter-punching brilliance to steal the point away.
Tactically, Nadal was the more certain of the two. Whether it was with his serve or his passing shots, he seemed to be one thought and shot ahead of his opponent. Determined not to give Federer openings to attack, Rafa made 81 percent of his first serves; while the vast majority of them went to Federer’s backhand side, he also caught the Swiss leaning the wrong way in the deuce court numerous times.
As for Federer, he tried to serve and volley, he tried to drop shot, he tried to go hard into Nadal’s forehand and move forward, but too often he ended up where he didn’t want to be, at the baseline, hitting backhands from shoulder height. Federer won just 48 percent of his net points, and 39 percent of his second-serve points. As good as Federer’s forehand approaches were—many of them would have won him the point against anyone else—Nadal’s hooking passing shots were still better.
What was different about the 39th meeting between these two were the conditions. The wind swirled through the stadium, blew the clay across the court and into the players’ eyes, and made the balls dive and curve uncontrollably. Normally, that leads to an unsightly match, but for two sets at least, Nadal and Federer made tornado tennis fun as they hacked and chopped and lunged at the ball, and ran each other into the corners. If the wind affected one player more than the other, it was probably Federer, who struggled with his serve and his volleys; he said he was happy just to avoid looking “ridiculous” out there. if anyone’s game is sturdy enough for a hurricane, it’s Rafa’s.
“When he’s in the rally, he plays with great spin on the forehand, great control on the backhand side,” Federer said. “So it’s really hard to find holes, especially in the wind, if you’re trying to hit through the ball, which is really difficult.”
Yet it isn’t just Nadal’s game that’s built for bad weather; his stoical mentality helps, too.
“The conditions out there today have been so hard, so difficult to manage,” Nadal said. “Was the day to be just focus, accept all the adversities, and just be focused on positive all the time. That’s what I tried to do.”
“Being honest, with that conditions out there, played the way we played have been a great level of tennis because the conditions have been so tough.”
For many fans, this result will seem academic, a foregone conclusion; we already knew Rafa was the King of Clay. What I had forgotten, though, from their earlier meetings in Paris was how hard Federer pushes Nadal on dirt, and how many dazzling, even desperate shots Rafa has to hit to beat him.
On Friday, Nadal won important points with blazing, full-blooded crosscourt backhand winners; with a passing shot off a Federer overhead that nestled into the corner; with a short-hop pass that landed on the sideline; with a perfect re-drop and volley winner to go up 5-4 in the second set; and with a surprising ace down the T at a key moment. While Federer’s improved one-handed backhand has been celebrated in recent years, Nadal showed today how far he’s come with his two-hander. As Federer said, there aren’t any holes left in Rafa’s game.
There was one other element to this match that felt like déjà vu: The crowd. As they always have when these two play, the French fans roared hopefully after every winning Federer point, and offered tepid applause for Nadal. When the match was over, they stood and cheered as Federer walked off and waved good-bye, perhaps for the last time; if this was the 37-year-old’s last run at Roland Garros, he made it a worthy and memorable one.
When Nadal reached match point, the fans’ collective voice swelled as they chanted “Ro-ger! Ro-ger! Ro-ger!” one more time. Then Nadal swung a slice serve into Federer’s backhand, and Federer hit the return long. Some things never change.