PARIS — Regardless of the setting or the surface, Rafael Nadal confounds Roger Federer the way no other man can.
Put the two greats of the game on opposite ends of a court in a Grand Slam final — particularly at Roland Garros, on the red clay that Nadal rules — and the one-sided nature of the rivalry grows even more pronounced.
Grinding along the baseline, using every inch of his wingspan to extend points, whipping fearsome forehands this way and that, Nadal flummoxed Federer yet again Sunday in a riveting, highlight-filled match, beating him 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1 for a record-tying sixth French Open championship and 10th major title overall.
“He plays better against the better ones, and that’s what he showed today,” said Federer, owner of 16 Grand Slam trophies. “He’s a great champion, on clay, especially.”
There’s no question that Nadal is as good as it gets in Paris — 45-1 for his career, and the same number of titles there as Bjorn Borg — but the Spaniard already also has shown that he is much more than the King of Clay. And Sunday’s victory only will raise more questions about whether Federer truly deserves to be called the Greatest of All Time if he is not even the Greatest of Right Now.
Nadal leads their head-to-head series 17-8. That includes a 6-2 advantage in Grand Slam finals and a 5-0 edge at the French Open (in the 2005 semifinals, and the 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011 finals).
When a reporter recited those numbers and asked for an assessment, Nadal replied: “Well, it means I can play well, too.”
“When you talk about these statistics, when you try and make these comparisons, really it’s not very interesting to me,” continued Nadal, who would have ceded the No. 1 ranking to Novak Djokovic with a loss Sunday. “I’m very happy with what I have, with who I am. I’m not the best player in the history of tennis. I think I’m among the best. That’s true. That’s enough for me.”
He’s rapidly gaining on Federer. Nadal turned 25 Friday, making him about six months younger than Federer was when the Swiss star collected his 10th major title.
Their rivalry is a friendly — not heated — one. Nadal conceded a point Sunday when he saw Federer’s shot landed in but was called out. A few years ago, Federer gave Nadal a lift on a private jet from one tournament site to another after learning his on-court nemesis had trouble finding a commercial flight.
This was their first meeting in a Grand Slam final in more than two years. It also was the first major championship match contested by any two men who already completed career Grand Slams. And Nadal and Federer put on a worthy show, more than 3½ hours chock-full of lengthy exchanges, brilliant defense, sublime shotmaking, and some dizzying shifts of momentum.
“A big occasion,” the third-seeded Federer said. “I was aware of it.”
He won’t acknowledge publicly that Nadal drives him crazy with those high-bouncing lefty forehands that arrive shoulder-high on Federer’s backhand side, and that perpetual-motion, cover-every-spot, never-cede-a-thing scrambling that forces an opponent to produce several superb shots just to earn a single point.
“It’s always pretty straightforward when we play each other … because we know what to expect,” Federer said. “I’m not in any way frustrated with his play.”
Perhaps that’s true, but consider this: Federer is 14-1 in the Grand Slam finals he has played against any other opponent. The only time Federer won the French Open, in 2009, he avoided Nadal, who was eliminated in the fourth round that year by Robin Soderling.
Nadal, for his part, doesn’t like to boast about his supremacy over Federer, whom he always refers to as the top player ever.
But Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach, spoke plainly after Sunday’s match.
“The game of Rafael is not too good for Roger,” Toni said, adding that Federer’s “mentality against Rafael is not the best.”
On Sunday, Federer raced to a 5-2 at the outset, but blew a set point by missing a drop shot that landed barely wide.
“I definitely thought that I got maybe a touch unlucky there, and he got a touch lucky,” Federer said. “That was one of my bigger chances.”
Nadal then won seven games in a row. Later, when Nadal went up a break in the third and led 4-2, the match appeared over, until Federer charged back to force a fourth set.
But Nadal once more assumed control, winning the last five games, then dropping to his knees and leaning forward with his hands covering his eyes.
“I was able to play my best when I needed my best,” Nadal said. “For that reason, today I am here with the trophy.”
Midway through the tournament, Nadal talked down his chances, admonishing himself for not hitting the ball with enough “conviction” and questioning whether he was playing well enough to take home the title. After all, he fell behind unseeded John Isner of the United States 2-1 in sets in the first round, pushed to five sets for the only time in his seven trips to the French Open.
“Last week, when Rafael was playing so badly,” Uncle Toni recounted Sunday evening, “to lift some of the pressure, I told him: ‘Stay calm. Winning or losing won’t change your life.'”
Not that Sunday’s match needed any assistance in the drama department, but a little extra came in the form of a rain delay — the very first of the entire 15-day tournament — while Nadal was serving to take a two-set lead.
He had a set point at 5-4, 40-30, but wasted it with a forehand that clipped the net and flew long. That made it deuce, and that’s when drops began falling. As spectators pulled on hats and popped open umbrellas, Nadal and Federer waited a few seconds before walking off the court.
Federer slipped into a private trainer’s room and hopped up on a table. Nadal switched shirts and fidgeted with his racket strings in a hallway, then had a brief chat with his mentor.
“Rafael was very nervous in the locker room,” Uncle Toni said. “I (told) him: ‘It’s difficult for you. But it’s very difficult for him, too.'”
After a 10-minute break, the match resumed, and Nadal immediately earned a second set point. But Federer saved that one, too, opening an eight-point run for him. And then it was Nadal’s turn to take eight points in a row, including a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker, which he eventually closed with a forehand winner.
Federer wasn’t finished, breaking Nadal at love to get within 4-3 in the third set. When Federer struck a forehand winner down the line to break again and go ahead 6-5, he earned a standing ovation and chants of “Ro-ger! Ro-ger!” from thousands of fans at Court Philippe Chatrier.
“When Roger plays like this,” Nadal said, “the opponent has nothing to do, sometimes.”
With the crowd roaring each time he won a point, Federer served out the set, capping it with another forehand winner. The outcome seemed in doubt. Federer had won 117 points, Nadal 116.
“All of a sudden, at 0-0 in the fourth set,” Federer said, “you think, ‘OK, we have a match again.'”
Nadal served to begin the fourth set, and Federer quickly gained three break points at love-40. This, then, would be the final twist. Nadal erased two break points with groundstroke winners, and the third with an ace at 120 mph. A service winner at 114 mph followed. Then Federer shanked a backhand off his frame and into the stands.
“Very important for me, no?” Nadal would say later. “That was a big turning point of the match, in my opinion.”
That made it 1-0, and Federer held to 1-1. But that was it. Nadal didn’t lose another game as the sun finally broke through the gray clouds, bathing the court in light. An appropriate conclusion for Nadal, the kid from the island of Mallorca who loves to spend free time fishing or at the beach.
On the back of each of the sky-blue sneakers that kept carrying him to balls that should have been out of reach, Nadal had the number “5” in a circle — signifying his French Open title count until Sunday.
Time to order a new pair.
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich