Roger vs. Rafa for the third year in a row

Nadal & Federer

It’s a Nadal vs. Federer final at the French Open for the third year in a row.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a diehard tennis fan. I’ve been playing since I was five, and I grew up watching the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe (late in his career), and Michael Chang — to name just a few.

But I’ve enjoyed none of these players more than Roger Federer, who’s been #1 in the world since February 2004, has won 12 major titles thus far (two short of Sampras’s record), and reached 10 major finals in a row where the previous record was just four.

I first watched him play against Andy Roddick in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2003. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to a religious experience watching a sport. (It certainly beat going to temple and forcing myself to feel the presence of a deity). To say Federer made the game look easy would be selling him short. The sheer fluidity of his movements, the creativity of his shot selections, the perverse geometries of his passing shots — the ball seemed under his telekinetic control. Especially when I watched Roddick labor just to get the ball back into play.

(By the way, if you laugh at my bringing religion into a sporting conversation, read this excellent article that David Foster Wallace published in the NY Times a couple years ago.)

Federer’s spent four comfortable years at #1, but there’s been one persistent thorn in his side: Rafael Nadal.

Nadal’s what you would get if you spliced together genes from a tireless matador, the rabid bull he’s up against, the Tasmanian Devil, and anything that dwells deep in the Mines of Moria (Balrogs are sweeeeet!). He can run down balls for five hours and shake it off like he’s fresh from a weekend retreat in Mallorca, Spain (his home). His biceps are bigger than some small children.

Wait…why am I talking about it? Here:


(Yes, I’m well aware that I’m decorating one of my first blogposts with pictures of fit, sweaty men in athletic poses.)

But the point is this: his brute physicality and his endless endurance make him ideal for play on clay courts. For those who don’t know, the ball bounces much higher on clay courts, and thus there is extra time to track down balls that might otherwise be out of reach. So, if you can just continue to run and retrieve, playing stellar defense, you can wear down an opponent who’s trying to put a shot away.

This is in contrast to hard courts and especially grass courts at Wimbledon (where the ball bounces very low, favoring people who like to end points quickly).

Now, this is why so many of the greatest male players have never won the French Open. Despite Sampras’s 14 majors, he never got the French. Jimmy Connors never won it. Edberg, Becker, Cash…nope. McEnroe never got it, although he should have in 1984.

Some of the greatest offensive players in the history of the game have found their power neutralized by the cruel red clay at Roland Garros. And Roger Federer is one of them. He’s won five Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens, three Australian Opens…and zero French Opens.

In 2005, he reached the semifinals at the French for the first time, and he was favored to win the match. But his opponent threw him some heavy spins, and Federer collapsed under the pressure. The young man who beat him celebrated his 19th birthday that night and went on to win the title. That young man’s name was Rafael Nadal. Most just call him “Rafa” now.

As of today, Federer and Nadal have played nine times on clay. Federer’s walked away the winner only once. In 2005, Federer lost only five TOTAL matches for the year. Four of those were to Nadal. You read correctly.

But most important, and now most pertinent: Since 2005, Federer has not lost a match at the French Open to anyone, except one person. After losing to Nadal in 2005, Federer made the finals of the French in both 2006 and 2007. Both times, he was forced to watch Nadal hoist the trophy.

If Federer had won any of those French Opens, he would have completed a “career Grand Slam”, which refers to winning all four major titles in the span of a career. Agassi was the last person to do it.

And Sunday, Federer will have another chance. But the odds are stacked against him.

Nadal has yet to lose a set in the tournament. He was only mildly tested today by a lackluster Novak Djokovic, who’s #3 in the world and close to overtaking Nadal as #2. The two had played a competitive match on clay in Rome last month, so I was hoping for a good hard fight on an even bigger stage. But Djokovic looked out of the match from the beginning. He looked as if he already agreed with what all the commentators are saying: Rafa is unbeatable at Roland Garros.

In the gallery watching the match was Bjorn Borg, the Swedish sultan of sangfroid (hey, I’m allowed a cheesy bit of alliteration every now and then) who won the French Open six times, four of them in a row (1974-75, 1978-81).

If Rafa were to win Sunday’s final, he too will have won the French four times in a row, and Borg will no doubt show up for the occassion.

Rafa is relatively fresh, and he’ll look to bully Federer with his high-spin strokes. If Federer’s to have any chance at pulling off a major upset (and by the way, this is about the only situtation in which Federer’s an underdog), he’s got to play one of the most ruthlessly aggressive, high-risk, high-octane matches of his career. Anything less, and Rafa will dictate play and run Roger ragged.

If Federer can achieve the impossible and somehow win three sets against Nadal where no one else has won even ONE, then he will have all four majors, and he could rightly be considered the greatest male tennis player in history. He would also be one major shy of tying Sampras’s record, and he would have a chance to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back, which no one has done since…guess who…Bjorn Borg.

The loyalist and idealist in me are focusing on the fact that it IS possible for Federer to beat Nadal at the tournament where Nadal has never lost a match. He has the game to do it. But the realist in me says it’s probably not going to happen. Especially if Federer is stubborn and insists on getting into extended rallies, as he has done against Nadal thus far.

If he loses to Nadal in the final for the third year in a row, it’s going to be this for a long time:

Federer screams


2 comments so far

  1. […] I said in a previous post, if you scoff at my comparing sports to religion, I point you towards this wonderful article by […]

  2. Ben on

    I wonder if this year’s Australian open could see the young boys Novak Djokovich and Andy Murray on the centre court in the Final. I think Roger and Rafa are still BIG contenders but it’s got to be more probable than it’s ever been.

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