by Steve Flink
I have been fortunate across the last 44 years to watch a wide range of great players performing on the premier stages of tennis. I saw Rod Laver playing with unimaginable brilliance in winning his second Grand Slam 40 years ago. I was there to witness Bjorn Borg at the peak of his powers, to observe John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors going at full tilt, to catch Ivan Lendl when he was redefining the modern game with his style of play. I had the good fortune to be there in person for 12 of the 14 majors captured by Pete Sampras, the man I believe has played the game better than anyone else in my lifetime. And, of course, I have marveled at the almost ineffable grace and elegance of Roger Federer over the past decade as he has moved within one title of a tie with Sampras for the most men’s Grand Slam championships.
But the most indefatigable competitor I have ever seen, the champion with the largest heart and strongest mind, the individual who has impressed me the most with his temerity, is none other than Rafael Nadal. I got up in the middle of the night to watch on television as he won his sixth major championship and his first on hard courts with yet another startling display of mental toughness and physical durability. The power of this man’s incomparable mind just might be the biggest weapon of any leading player in the sport. Here was Nadal coming off an exhausting five set, five hour and 14 minute marathon semifinal against Fernando Verdasco that finished about 42 hours before his meeting with Federer.
There was deep concern among many learned tennis followers that even the unwavering Nadal might be unable to recover in time to confront the mighty Federer on such a big occasion. Federer, after all, had waltzed through his previous two matches with straight set triumphs over Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick, and his match with Roddick was contested the evening before Nadal went to war with Verdasco. The unfair scheduling seemed to give Federer an edge going into the final, and Nadal appeared to be genuinely worried about how well he would respond to the demands of returning to action so soon after his immensely bruising skirmish with Verdasco.
And yet, we all should have known better. Nadal did indeed show signs of fatigue and pain during his five set encounter with Federer, but the depth of his passion and his astonishing willpower carried the 22-year-old Spaniard to a well deserved 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 victory. Defeating Federer in a neutral setting on a relatively slow hard court with so much riding on the outcome was a feat of considerable dimensions. Consider what was at stake: Federer was trying to tie Sampras for the record at the majors, attempting to seal a 14th crown. As everyone emphasized, he surely felt a lot of pressure to come through and reassert his authority as the game’s greatest player.
Nadal, after all, had taken away Federer’s No. 1 ranking last August after defeating his chief rival in the finals of the 2008 French Open and Wimbledon. Federer had come back gallantly to secure his fifth consecutive United States Open title last September, and with a victory in Australia he would have felt that he was on his way back to the top. Nadal had never before made it to the final of a hard court major, while Federer already had 8 hard court Grand Slam titles in his possession. That was a burden Nadal had to carry onto the court with him.
To be sure, both men had more than ample incentive to win the first major of 2009 as Nadal sought to topple Federer for the fifth time in seven Grand Slam tournament finals they have contested since the spring of 2006.
These two phenomenal athletes put on an extraordinary show this time around. It was a battle of such fluctuating fortunes that the outcome of the first four sets could well have been reversed. In the first set, Nadal drew first blood by breaking Federer in the opening game, but Federer broke right back. With Nadal serving at 2-3, 30-40 Federer made a rare move, running around his backhand on the return to send an exquisite forehand out of Nadal’s reach. Federer thus was ahead 4-2, but in the seventh game he double faulted at break point down and Nadal was back on serve.
I figured they were headed for a tie-break to decide that first set, but Nadal had other ideas. He struck boldly again with Federer serving at 5-6, breaking at 15 with a sizzling forehand pass down the line. Improbably, Nadal, first up a break and then down a break, had broken twice more to win a set that seemed well within Federer’s range. Buoyed by that turnaround, Nadal began releasing some crackling, flattened-out backhands crosscourt, and his return of serve was outstanding. When Nadal broke for 3-2 in the second set, Federer was clearly dismayed and apprehensive. Nevertheless, the Swiss maestro was given a surprising reprieve.
Serving at 7-5, 3-2, looking likely to establish a two sets to love lead, Nadal played his worst service game of the match, double faulting and making a couple of unforced errors. Federer was suddenly revitalized, and his momentum carried him through the set on a run of four consecutive games. Now both players fully understood the significance of the third set, which was inevitably going to be pivotal. The entire set went with serve, but Nadal escaped from the darkest of corners with some clutch play. At 4-4, he was down 0-40 but held on with a cluster of winners. In his next service game at 5-5, the Spaniard dodged three more break points.
After all that, Nadal managed to reach set point with Federer serving at 5-6, but Federer released an excellent first serve down the T to extricate himself. Federer was serving at 3-3 in the tie-break, but never won another point. He over-hit his trademark inside-out forehand to give Nadal the mini-break, and the Spanish warrior took full advantage of the opening. He opened up the court with his customary wide sliced serve for a forehand winner to reach 5-3, then went ahead 6-3 with a superb low backhand volley winner into the clear in answer to a beautifully struck backhand down the line pass from Federer.
Federer was shaken, double faulting at 3-6 to fall behind two sets to one. Nonetheless, Federer moved swiftly to 2-0 in the fourth before Nadal nearly broke the match open. Nadal took the next two games and then had five break points for 3-2. Both men produced some of their finest tennis of the match in this stirring game but a resolute Federer held Nadal back with some inspired shot making and deceptive serving. The loss of that game was clearly jarring to Nadal, who looked more and more fatigued at this stage.
Federer rolled through the rest of the set, winning four of the last five games to draw level at two sets all. He seemed fresher, more confident and less apprehensive than Nadal as they approached the final set, but appearances were deceiving. Nadal recognized the need to start doing more with his first serve and to take command. He also had the advantage of serving first in that fifth set. He proceeded to win 16 of 19 points on serve and gave almost nothing away. Federer, meanwhile, absolutely lost his way. Nadal judiciously peppered away at the Federer high backhand with his heavy topspin forehand, and the Swiss player made a cavalcade of provoked and unforced mistakes. Nadal broke an increasingly despondent Federer for 3-1 in the fifth set, and never looked back, gaining an insurance break in the final game of the match.
In the final analysis, I believe Nadal prevailed for the following reasons. His ground game was decidedly better than Federer’s. His return of serve was far superior to that of his adversary. And the Spaniard was considerably more stable in the crunch of the contest. Federer was remarkably self destructive in the fifth set as Nadal pulled away. Seldom has he seemed so resigned to defeat at the end of a hard fought match. Federer harmed himself irreparably by connecting with only 51% of his first serves in the match, and by losing all patience down the stretch. But you can bet that he felt the force of Nadal’s will, and realized that his spirited left-handed rival was unshakable.
So now Nadal has overcome Federer in their last three Grand Slam finals on three different surfaces. He has lifted his head-to-head record over Federer to 13-6. And not only has he beaten his gifted rival in five of seven major finals, but he has also extended his lead over Federer to 6-2 altogether at the Grand Slam events, with four of those wins occurring at Roland Garros (three in the finals). Much more worrisome and irksome to Federer is the fact that Nadal has now stopped him on the grass at Wimbledon and the hard courts of Melbourne in their last two showdowns.
The best part of it all for Nadal is that he has more than reaffirmed his status as the best player in the world. In all of their previous 18 meetings, Federer had always been ranked No. 1, with Nadal holding the No. 2 spot most of the time. But this was their first collision since Nadal took the No. 1 ranking away from Federer. Since he had never been in the final of a Grand Slam event on hard courts, and because he had worked so demonstrably hard in his semifinal with Verdasco, the cards seemed stacked against Nadal. Many fans were fully expecting a Swiss revival.
That was not to be. What Nadal did to win this tournament was nothing short of stupendous. He is the first man since Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon in 2001 to win five set matches back to back and secure a major title. But Ivanisevic did not work anywhere near as hard as Nadal did. His semifinal with Tim Henman took three days to complete, and that left him physically fresh for his final with Patrick Rafter. That was impressive, but not in a league with Nadal’s achievement.
The parallel to me would be John McEnroe at the U.S. Open in 1980. He played deep into the evening on Saturday night to stop Jimmy Connors in five demanding sets, and then returned the following day to remove Bjorn Borg in a five set championship match. That took an awful lot of grit and fortitude from the New Yorker, and to me it was his finest hour.
But let me return to the subject of Nadal, who has established himself as the first Spanish player (male or female) to win the Australian Open. He has set the stage for another magnificent year. He already has one major in his collection, and he will be an overwhelming favorite to win his fifth consecutive French Open in June. He will have his work cut out for him to defend his title at Wimbledon, but he won’t let go of the crown easily. Finally, maybe this will be his time to take over in New York and win the U.S. Open. I don’t believe he will win all four events for a Grand Slam, but he has surely set the stage for another excellent campaign in 2009.
The redoubtable Spaniard turned the Australian Open into yet another forum to display his inimitable qualities as a competitor. I have always immensely enjoyed watching him play, but never more so than during the latter stages of this initial major of 2009. He keeps moving beyond himself to loftier territory, and the feeling grows that the best of Rafael Nadal is yet to come.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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