Everything is in place for the classic bull fight.
We’re at the final showdown of the Madrid Masters.
It will be a fight to the death, a duel of heart and courage, attack and counter-attack.
Picadores have had their sport with the bull—chief among them Novak Djokovic—so today’s matador has had his chance to weigh up any weakness in his foe. But he knows to his cost that this particular bull has steel flowing through his body rather than blood. He will not be brought down easily.
Federer enters the arena with shoulders back, head high, chest lifted—the classic bearing of the matador.
Nadal struts with rolling shoulders, glowering forehead and bristling muscle. He needs only to paw the ground to complete the bullish imagery.
Federer bears the cool colours of a deep blue-green sea, fitted to his tapering form in a perfect echo of the matador’s uniform.
Nadal ripples in gold and white, massive of muscle in leg and shoulder.
Federer’s espada is the small, tightly-strung racket he has treasured throughout his career.
Nadal’s horns are sharpened by the ever-present coach and uncle Toni.
So, with crowd at fever pitch, the red and yellow of Spain swirling around the colosseum of La Caja Magica, the dance of death, the beautiful faena, begins.
They measure each other under the brilliant sun, and immediately the left-handed forehand of Nadal makes its mark. Federer is pushed to break point on his opening serve but regains his dominance with perfect serve and volley tactics.
Nadal attacks the left wing of his matador, drawing blood time and again, and holds his serve with relative ease.
Federer continues to be pushed to the limits on his serve and holds only with remarkable creativity of shot, and by attacking the lines with courage verging on lunacy.
As the first set approaches its climax, the tension is palpable. Federer has had to fight to hold his serve. And with Nadal serving first, Federer is the more vulnerable to losing the set should he be broken. At 3-4, he serves a double fault, then plays a perfect game of serve, volley and accurate placement to draw level.
And his aggressive stance continues into Nadal’s service game as Federer goes for winners, and the forehand comes good. His first break-point is won, and he serves for the set at 5-4.
Federer misses his first serve on three of the four points, but wins the game with superb tactical placement—and one ace. It’s been a set of balletic grace, driven by a mind of deadly intent.
Into the second phase of the dance. The wind begins to whip up some dust, and Nadal opens with a clean service game.
Federer replies with a game of acute precision and poise, placing the ball into corners, onto lines, and behind the charging opponent. But Nadal counter-attacks with a serve game to love.
Federer has to maintain a clinical calmness to pierce this bull’s defences with the sharpest of shots. At 2-2, with the clock ticking to precisely one hour, he uses the cleanest of backhand drives down the line, a stunning drop shot, and a forehand drive that hits the baseline to break.
He has just two opportunities to break Nadal’s serve in the match, and he takes both.
At the change of ends, Federer sits in a featureless trance, and the hypnotised crowd becomes hushed—almost awestruck. Another Federer service game of aggressive precision takes the set to 4-2.
How long can Federer maintain this emotionless demeanor, and focus on the moment? The crowd roars support, and Nadal gallops headlong into another serve win.
How long will Nadal resist his usual charge? He makes that charge as Federer serves at 4-3. Hearts shoot into mouths as Federer loses the first two points, but this bull will not break him.
And so Federer steps up to serve for one of his most significant titles. The fire burns in Nadal’s eyes as he wins break points yet again, but Federer’s mesmeric footwork and ground strokes force errors from his adversary.
Nadal exudes passion and intent, but the fatal wound was probably inflicted almost 24 hours ago by Djokovic, and he simply does not have the bloodlust to gore Federer.
When the moment comes, it is appropriate that the coup de grace is an ace, metaphorically delivered in one swift cut.
Federer is as calm and dignified at the moment of victory as he was in that opening match against Robin Soderling. That has, after all, been the key to breaking Nadal, at long, long last, on his favorite surface.
Here was a Federer of conviction, quiet focus, and clinical intelligence. He appeared, for the first time in many encounters with his nemesis, to have worked out the complex patterns of shot-making that would bring Nadal to a standstill.
From serve to drop-shot, forehand drive to skimming backhand, everything dovetailed into a perfect tango—Federer taking the lead, Nadal forced to follow.
The French Open looms large on this matador’s horizon. It will throw up the ultimate challenge, and tempt with the ultimate prize.
Will Federer’s new belief, consistency, and execution be enough to eclipse the memory of last year’s bloodletting? If it produces the sword-play of today’s bullfight, we must all hope so.