In the Zone with Rafael Nadal
2008 French Open Final: Nadal vs Federer
It was another Grand Slam final to relish. It brought together, once more, the two greatest tennis players in the world. It would yet again give one or the other the chance to write their names in lights. It would provide the usual compelling spectacle of contrasting characters, styles, and shot-making. Well, that was the script.
If anything, the anticipation for this particular Roland Garros matchup was even greater than for the previous three, because 2008 had seen a slight shift in the balance of power between arch rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Federer had held the No. 1 ranking for almost four and half years, and had pinned Nadal into the No. 2 slot for nearly three of them.
Federer had taken all three of the other GS crowns, Nadal just the French.
Yet a bout of glandular fever had made a few tiny holes in Federer’s invincibility cloak right at the start of 2008. His hold on the Australian title had already slipped, and he had failed to win a major title on his way to Paris.
Nevertheless, Federer had the best record on clay aside from the dominant Nadal, and had pushed him to four sets in the 2007 and 2006 finals and the 2005 semi-final. And he badly wanted the only Slam he had failed to win. So although Nadal was still the favourite, there was every reason to expect a tight contest.
What happened sent shock waves not only through the packed Parisian stadium but through commentary boxes and television sets world-wide. Nadal brought such an overwhelming game to court that day that he made Federer look like a novice.
To be fair, the signs were already there in the results that Nadal had inflicted on his run to the final. Not only had he failed to concede a single set, he had prevented most of his opponents from winning more than a handful of games.
The No. 26 seeded Jarkko Nieminen won just five. No. 22 ranked Fernando Verdasco and then No. 19 Nicolas Almagro took just three apiece. Novak Djokovic retained some pride in his straight sets defeat with a relatively healthy dozen games.
So Nadal had, to all intents and purposes, been "in the zone" from the moment he stepped onto the Roland Garros grit at the start of the tournament. But his striding swagger as he entered Philippe Chatrier on finals day showed undiluted confidence, purpose and certainty.
He clearly had no doubts about the outcome of this match, and his body language for the remainder of the afternoon did not deviate from that mind-set. He was zoned into victory.
Federer’s progress to the final had been more labored, dropping sets to Albert Montanes, Fernando Gonzalez and Gael Monfils. But this did not prepare him or the tennis-watching world for the 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 punishment Nadal was about to hand him.
As the match got under way, the excited buzz that accompanies every match-up between these polar opposites became a whispering buzz of surprise when Nadal broke serve in the opening game. This was surely a blip, caused by casual errors from the Federer side.
Tactically, Federer had determined to attack the net, but very nearly lost his second service game in the attempt because Nadal was already swinging freely on both wings with some devastating passing shots. Only a couple of aces from Federer saved the game.
As Federer upped the pace, Nadal responds with more power of his own, and neutralised the normally fleet reactions of Federer. At 5-1, the Spaniard released a battalion of ferocious ground strokes to bring up three set points. Federer sent a volley long, and conceded the first set in just 32 minutes.
Nadal began the second set with a love game. He then broke Federer straight away. It was possible to believe that Nadal could read his opponent’s mind, so adept were his interceptions of the Federer approaches and ground shots. In the eight games played to this point, Nadal had already hit 19 outright winners and just three unforced errors.
A brief period of brilliant shot-making allowed Federer to break back, and then hold his own as far as 3-3. But he had to continue playing at the highest level just to say on equal terms, with the inevitable result that he had constantly to force his shots.
If he stayed back, he was comprehensively dominated by baseline invincibility. If he tried to chip and charge off a return, Nadal passed him with a backhand.
Nadal simply continued to raise the ante. He broke Federer with an extraordinary backhand half-volley pass and that, it turned out, was curtains. Nadal sealed the second set despite the apparent toehold Federer had gained half way through it.
Against any other players, or against Nadal on another day, there was the outside chance of Federer holding on just long enough for his opponent’s standard to slip a fraction. On this particular day, Nadal’s standard was as good as it could be, and stayed that way: a groove that ran dead straight to the finishing line.
Federer tried everything to penetrate Nadal’s focus, but from the very first game of the third set, the die was cast. It was like watching a charging bull chase down a swordless matador. Nadal showed no weakness and Federer had no defence.
A stand-out example: in the fourth game, Federer has Nadal all over the place and momentarily on the defensive, but even off balance and under pressure, Nadal managed to deliver a killer backhand lob. Nothing would deny him.
Nadal swept through nine consecutive games to a whitewash final set and a fourth consecutive title.
The result looked brutal because it was uncompromising, unrelenting and unaffected by conscious evaluation. Nadal gave no quarter and had no loss of focus (which can be the bête noire of many a one-sided match). So unbalanced was the competition that it might have been a No. 100 player on the other side of the net. It was, in fact, the No. 1.
And Federer himself reminded everyone just what an extraordinary match Nadal had played: “He was really on fire today. It's the strongest Rafa that I've ever seen…To come up with a performance like this shows what a great champion he is.”
Even the normally self-deprecating Nadal seemed shocked by the quality of his own game: “When I was playing, I didn't believe the match…I played almost perfect.”
The title extended his winning run of matches at Roland Garros to 28, and a remarkable 83 out of 90 sets. Most worrying for Nadal’s opponents, this was his best performance yet: he was getting better.
No wonder Nadal was confident to the point of switching off “reasonable doubt” and switching into “the zone”.
No wonder he arrived at Wimbledon just weeks later ready to win that too.
Check out the previous article in this series on Marat Safin by Rajat Jain.
You might also like to read Rob York's introductory article to this series.
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