For the fourth year in a row, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will square off in the finals of the last Masters Series event before Roland Garros.
Though it will not grab the attention of the rest of the sporting world and doesn’t command the respect that the game’s major events do, tennis fans should note that this may well be the most significant match of the year.
In fact, the result in Sunday’s final is likely to shape the course of the rest of the tennis season.
Hamburg – In 2005 and 2006, Rafael Nadal swept to victories in both the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters events before winning the RG, establishing his record winning streak on the dirt.
However, because of five-set finales in Rome in both years (against Federer in ’06 and Guillermo Coria in ’05) and the fact that Hamburg started literally the day after Rome, he was unable to play in the last clay court masters event.
In 2007, having won in both MC and Rome, he faced Federer in Hamburg’s final. The Rome final had been reduced to best-of-three from a best-of-five match in order to avoid the problems Nadal had faced in the prior years, but he still arrived having played weeks of non-stop tennis.
What’s more, Hamburg was not like other clay court events. It’s not that it was faster (by most accounts it was even slower than Paris or Monte Carlo) but the court’s makeup robbed the ball of much of its bounce.
The first hint of Nadal’s struggles came in the semis that year, when the Spaniard very nearly had his streak snapped by Lleyton Hewitt, who pushed Nadal to three sets.
He could only extend the streak one more round, though, as Federer shook off the loss of the first set and proceeded the punish the Spaniard 2-6, 6-2, 6-0.
The Swiss, who had been struggling much of the clay court season, suddenly announced that he was a threat at the RG.
Once they arrived in Paris, however, conditions were more to the Spaniard’s liking, and he crushed Hewitt in the fourth round in straight sets and beat Federer in four in the final.
Still, Hamburg revitalized Federer’s results, and the event was an indicator of the year to come, as only the Swiss had the endurance to last until the end of the season.
In 2008 the results were similar, as Federer used the favorable German clay to turn his struggling year around and reach the final against Nadal.
The Spaniard appeared more vulnerable than usual, having lost early in Rome due to foot blisters, but that early defeat had given him something he’d lacked the previous year: rest.
Nadal proceeded to dispatch both of his two main rivals (Novak Djokovic and Federer) both in three sets on his least favorite clay courts.
When the scene shifted to Paris, Nadal was unstoppable, as he won without dropping a set and picked up the momentum that carried him to his first Wimbledon win and the No. 1 ranking, which he finished the year with for the first time.
Madrid: The decision to switch venues in 2009 from Hamburg to Madrid changed the court conditions to a degree, but probably not as much as the man from Majorca would have liked.
Though the event was now in his home country, Nadal proclaimed his distaste for the venue before the event began, complaining primarily of the altitude.
The height can take a toll on a player’s conditioning, but the ball also sailed through the court much quicker than in Rome or Madrid, again shifting the advantage to players who hit flatter, serve harder, or use more slice than Nadal.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the Spaniard’s well-renowned heart he would not have made the final, as Djokovic outplayed him for most of their four-hour semifinal.
Djokovic could not keep the Spaniard on the canvas, though, and fell to a 3-6, 7-6,7-6 defeat that has left him a shell of the player he once was ever since.
What would eventually become even more noticeable, though, was the effect the match would have on Nadal.
That he lost the final to Federer in straights was understandable. But two weeks later, the brutal results of the weekend in Madrid would contribute to Nadal’s first-ever defeat at the RG, then a long period in which he could play no tennis at all, and finally an 11-month drought without a title.
For Federer, Madrid was the jump-start he needed. After winning there, he took advantage of Nadal’s early loss to win in Paris, the only major he hadn’t won in his awe-inspiring career, and then broke the Grand Slam record at Wimbledon.
This year, Nadal has been revitalized by the clay, dominating in Monte Carlo, fighting to victory in Rome, and slugging his way through the draw in Madrid.
Federer has struggled greatly on the dirt, falling early in Rome, then losing meekly in Estoril, but has again been energized by the final clay court Masters event.
For the fourth year in a row, Nadal reaches the final having played a three-set semi, but his last two sets again Nicolas Almagro were decisive victories which should leave him with more fuel in the tank than in ’09 or ’07.
Federer is also coming off a three-set semi against David Ferrer, but his energy-saving style should leave him fresh enough for finals day.
If Federer wins: The Swiss has struggled to win matches following his Australian Open victory, but as in the past three years he has found his stride just in time for Paris.
Had he lost early in Madrid, he’d be looking ripe for an early defeat at the RG, but should he win on Sunday he’ll again enter as one of the favorites.
In fact, should he win decisively, he enters the RG on about even odds with the four-time champion Spaniard.
If Nadal wins: But if the Swiss cannot prevail on a faster than average clay court, his chances of overcoming the Spaniard in Paris are slim indeed. A win here might well inspire Nadal to further success beyond the clay, in fact.
How They’ve Played: Nadal has struggled somewhat on the Madrid clay, as it and opponents like the flashy Oleksandr Dolgopolov and the huge-serving John Isner have not allowed him to get into the long rallies he needs to inflict body blows on his opposition.
In the first set of his semi with Almagro that deficiency was evident, but the turnabout in the last two sets was remarkable, as he gradually broke down his streakier compatriot.
Federer has looked in fine form most of the week, but in the semis lost a set to Ferrer for only the third time in 10 meetings, indicating that he isn’t yet at peak form. He’d need to be to win on Sunday.
My call: Nadal will prevail in three sets, setting him up for another run in Paris.