French Open 2011: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, the Final Chapter?

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French Open 2011: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, the Final Chapter?
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Roger Federer.  Rafael Nadal.  French Open final.

As the great Yogi Berra, who must have been a tennis fan, was wont to say, "It's like deja vu all over again."

Yes, indeed.  And no one is complaining...except maybe a certain world No. 2 and the entire Serbian nation.

After a two-year hiatus from their yearly clash in the final at Roland Garros, Roger and Rafa are all set to resume their storied rivalry for a fourth time in Paris and their eighth time overall in a Grand Slam final.

The ancillary details of their head-to-head battles have been well chronicled.   For starters, Rafa has beaten Roger in five of the seven major finals they've contested, including all three at Roland Garros ('06-'08).  Rafa has won the last three times he and Roger have met in major finals (French '08, Wimbledon '08, Australian '09).  Rafa owns a commanding 16-8 record overall against Federer, including an 11-2 mark on clay.  

And Rafa sprinkles clay on his breakfast cereal and trains with a Roger look-alike punching bag in his basement....  Okay, maybe not so much, but you get the point.

One things for sure: Rafa ought to spot Roger a set or two in the final as a thank you for knocking off Djokovic in the semis.  Anyone who thinks Nadal didn't care who he faced in the final hasn't been paying attention these last six months.

Give Roger tremendous credit for taking down Djokovic when most pundits, including this one, had penciled Novak through to the final.  

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Roger needed a fast start, which he got, racing out to a two-set lead. Djokovic rallied to take the third.  Then, down 5-4 in the fourth set with Djokovic serving to square the match and seize the momentum, Federer summoned the kind of clutch play that has been eluding him in recent encounters against his chief rivals.  He broke Novak, took the set to a tiebreaker and then capitalized on his third match point to close the deal just before the Paris sun set, narrowly avoiding a suspension of play.

It was vintage Federer.  And by closing the match out when he did, he saved valuable energy he will almost certainly need come Sunday's final.

So, how will the finale play out?  Will Rafa once again prove his superiority over Federer in Paris and on clay?  Or will Roger defy the odds, as he did against Novak, and exorcise the demons of previous failures against Rafa in major finals?  Will the fourth time against Rafa in Paris be the charm?

 

How Federer Can Win

For Roger to finally break through against Rafa on Sunday, he will have to forge the kind of mental toughness that has gone missing in so many of his previous matches against Rafa.  If he hasn't done so already, Roger must forget his last abysmal showing against Nadal in Paris, the '08 final, in which the former won a grand total of four games.   

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Four games?!  

In fact, Roger would be well advised not to think further back than today's semi against Novak, in which he executed the kind of game plan that has similar potential against Nadal.  

Beating Djokovic should do wonders for Roger's confidence going up against Nadal if for no other reason than Nadal hasn't been able to crack the riddle that is Novak in the last four meetings.  Prior to Novak's resurgence, no one, least of all Roger, had ever bullied Nadal before.  With cracks now visible in the Nadal mystique, Roger has to believe that he can follow Novak's lead and expose a soft underbelly in Nadal that wasn't there before.

Secondly, Federer must take the match to Nadal and be aggressive early and often by dictating play with his serve and his forehand.  By Rafa's own admission, his play in this French fortnight has been less than stellar, at least as compared to last year's campaign, in which he steamrolled the competition without dropping a set.  With the seeds of doubt already sown in Nadal's psyche, it's absolutely critical that Federer come out of the gates fast, as he did against Novak, and make an early statement against Nadal by winning the first set, which will only bolster his confidence and potentially shake Rafa's.  With the first set under his belt, Roger can then swing out more and keep the pressure on Nadal.  

However, if Roger should come out passive, be content to stand back and trade baseline rallies, let Nadal pepper his backhand and consequently lose the first set, the ghosts of French Open finals past may well begin to haunt Federer, and the match could get away from him in a hurry.

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Federer's best chance, his only chance, is to attack at every opportunity and impose his style of play and will on Nadal.  Short of that, history is likely to repeat itself, with Nadal hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy yet again and Federer a bridesmaid, yet again.  

In short, Federer must play with a palpable sense of urgency, as if this were his last chance to win another French Open title, because, in truth, it may well be.  

 

How Nadal Can Win

For Nadal, priority No. 1 will be to avoid a psychological let down or sense of relief that he doesn't have to face Novak in the finale.  In the lead-up to the French and Friday's semifinal showdowns, Novak represented a far greater challenge and immediate threat to Nadal than did Federer, and so it's to be expected that Team Nadal had been preparing and plotting for Novak all along and then let out a collective sigh of relief when Federer pulled the upset.  (Yes, Federer fans, it was an upset.  A mild one, but still an upset.)

Recalibrating for Federer instead of Djokovic on the fly should pose few problems for Team Nadal.  Rafa's game plan against Roger is tried and true: Serve almost exclusively to the backhand; hit hard, heavy groundstrokes to the backhand and await the short reply; and, should Roger run around the backhand and try but fail to hit an outright forehand winner inside-out or up the line, then hit your own easy winner into the open court and offer Roger a respectful, conciliatory smile and handshake at net when the match is over and you've won going away.  It's a fairly simple, straightforward strategy, but one that Nadal has executed time and again with ruthless, devastating efficiency.

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To date, Roger has rarely succeeded in countering Nadal's strategy.  And until he does, there's little reason for Nadal to fix what ain't broken.  Instead, Rafa would do well to fine tune his service game and aggressive groundstrokes off both wings, both of which have been just a little out of tune since the fortnight began.

Finally, Nadal will want to try to beat Federer out of the starting blocks and pounce on him early by taking the all-important first set.  Because of the fairly lopsided history between the two, a fast start by Nadal will re-establish the dominance he's enjoyed over Federer and could quickly erode the latter's confidence and resistance.  

If, on the other hand, Nadal comes out sluggish or should try to do too much and stray from the usual game plan, he risks giving Federer an opening that, if Rafa's not careful, could snowball quickly if Roger's in a groove and hitting his spots on serve and with his forehand.  

 

Who Will Win

The winner of this match will be the player who starts quickly and is able to impose his style of aggressive play on the other.

The history of this rivalry and common sense both say Nadal should prevail.  Five times a French Open champion, three times over Federer in the final, Nadal has more than earned the benefit of the doubt, and despite his struggles early on in the tournament, he has improved in each round and now stands just one victory away from a record-tying sixth French Open crown against a man, perhaps the greatest player of all time, whose number he just happens to own.  

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If Nadal plays at or near his best, this match is his to lose.

That said, Federer is playing well, and in the wake of his victory over Novak, his belief should be high. He would love nothing more than to avenge his losses to Nadal in Paris and silence the critics who continually point out his age and ask how much longer he plans to play if he can no longer win majors and compete at the highest level.  If Federer goes for broke and is hitting on all cylinders, he will push Nadal to the limit, assuming Nadal is likewise in top form, and beat him if Nadal is anything less than at his best.

I believe both players will play inspired tennis and add what could prove to be a brilliant, dramatic closing chapter to their storied rivalry.  If so, we are in for a real treat: the two greatest players of the modern era, battling it out once more for a major title, their legacies forever intertwined.  

In the end, I pick Nadal to win, in five sets, with both players acquitting themselves as the great champions they are.

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