At the 2005 French Open, the world got its first taste of the Federer-Nadal rivalry in Grand Slams. The two met twice previously over the past year at ATP tournaments in Miami and split both matches.
At Roland Garros, however, the rivalry began to tilt in Nadal’s favor. He beat Federer in the semi-finals and went on to win the tournament, his first major, and his first of five French Open victories.
As the years went on, both players added greatness to their legacies. Federer set the record for most consecutive weeks as the world’s number one player, at 237 and continued his dominance on grass and hard courts. From 2004 until 2010, Federer won 14 of the possible 21 Grand Slam titles on those surfaces.
But despite his success on these surfaces, he was block from attaining a Career Slam by Rafael Nadal’s greatness on clay. Finally, just two years ago, Federer won the French to complete his trophy collection. But he did not have to face his greatest rival in the final. Nadal was upset by the big Swede Robin Soderling.
From 2005 until 2008, Nadal won four straight French Opens. But his career was seen as one dimensional. He was not able to win a Slam on a non-clay surface. He wasn’t able to win until the 2008 tournament at Wimbledon, when he beat Federer in five sets in one of the greatest tennis matches ever played.
Since 2008, Nadal has been able to expand his dominance, wresting the title of world number one from Federer in August of 2008 and completing the Career Slam last year with a victory in the US Open Final.
Tomorrow the stage is set for yet another installment of the best rivalry in tennis. Federer comes into the final after ending the 43-match streak of Novak Djokovic. That match included the only set that Federer had lost of the entire tournament. In that match, Federer did something that he had been unable to do in previous years against top-tier talent: use his backhand to control a match.
Over the past years, Nadal and others were able to beat Federer by attacking his backhand with hard and high shots. On Friday, however, Federer was able to keep Djokovic off balance by mixing in a slice backhand and he was able to pound a few winners down the line with his backhand as well. But the match was a demonstration of Federers brilliance.
He was able to hammer his forehand at incredible angles to score on Novak. He outserved Djokovic as well. He won 77 percent of his first serve points (to Djokovic’s 60 percent) and had 18 aces to the Serb’s seven.
Nadal comes into the match looking as weak as anyone could have imagined him being on clay. He started slowly. In his first round match he was pushed to five sets by American John Isner. But since that match, he has played quite well.
The two sets that he lost to Isner were the only two that he lost all tournament. There isn’t much new to say about Nadal on clay. He plays incredible defense, running up and down the baseline like a pong paddleboard and just waiting for his opponent to make a mistake, on which he quickly capitalizes.
One thing that has been talked about is the new lighter tennis balls being used in this French Open. They seem to have a propensity to fly up, and I have noticed that Nadal especially has missed makeable shots by hitting them just a bit too long.
Despite his overall success during this tournament, high expectations for Nadal combined with a few mistakes and his five set match against Isner have some whispering whether Nadal has weakened a bit, even on his best surface. Then he beat fourth ranked Andy Murray in straight sets in the semifinals, after dispatching fifth ranked Robin Soderling in a similar fashion. He certainly could not be coming into a final with any more confidence.
Obviously, Federer should have similar confidence. The only set that he dropped was against the second best player in the world, a player on a historic match winning streak. As previously noted, his one-handed backhand has looked better against powerful shots from Novak and Gael Monfils than it has in previous years.
But Nadal seems to know Federer than any other tennis player in the world. He knows the perfect spin to put on his shots that make Federer and his backhand look average. And on clay, Nadal can reach shots that seem impossible to get to.
As history shows (Nadal is 11-2 against Federer on clay), Rafa’s defensive style of play translates better on a clay surface than Roger’s, which relies on placing shots with incredible accuracy.
Going into tomorrow’s Final, I would have to say that Federer appears to have his best chance to do something he never has before: beat Nadal at Roland Garros. Federer is 0-5 against Nadal at the French.
This is a huge gap in the legacy of one of, if not the, best all-around players in the history of the game. Winning the French for a second time would add greatly to his legacy. Winning the French against a player who has virtually dominated him on clay would vindicate him.
Never again would a Federer fan have to answer a, “Yes, but he never beat Nadal at the French” argument like defenders of Wilt Chamberlain must say in the face of fans of Bill Russell.
There is a lot of history on the line for Nadal as well. If he wins tomorrow, that would give him six titles at Roland Garros. It would tie him with Björn Borg for most French Open titles. It would probably solidify his legacy as the best clay court players of all time.
Despite the boost that beating Novak Djokovic must give to Federer, I don’t think that he will be able to get past his greatest rival on a surface that has given him problems.
My pick is Nadal. But it takes five sets for this epic match to be completed.
What do you think? Does Federer get exorcise his demons at the French or does Nadal win his sixth French Open title? Comment below!