Rafael Nadal, a genius on clay

Roger Federer was good enough to take a set, something no other player had managed against Rafael Nadal in the 2007 French Open.-

Rafael Nadal is a clay-court phenomenon and as yet nobody — not even Federer in three attempts in the French Open, including the 2005 semi-final — has managed to take more than one set off him at Roland Garros, writes Steve Bierley.

For the second successive year Rafael Nadal stopped history in its tracks. Switzerland's Roger Federer, the genius of his generation, entered the Philippe Chatrier court just one victory away from holding all four majors at the same time, something only Rod Laver, twice, and Don Budge have managed in the history of men's tennis. He returned to the locker rooms — having lost 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 — no nearer to solving the unfathomable brilliance of the young Spaniard on the clay of Roland Garros where Nadal is now unbeaten in 21 matches and became the first man since Sweden's Bjorn Borg to win three French Open titles in a row.

There is no doubting that on all other surfaces the Swiss is the No. 1 player in the world. Not on clay. Last month he finally defeated a mentally and physically fatigued Nadal on the surface in Hamburg, and believed that he had found the key.

If so, then Nadal had either scrambled the code or changed the lock. Federer was good enough to take a set, something no other player had managed against Nadal over the past fortnight, but when he missed no fewer than 10 break points in the opening set those who were willing him towards victory and tennis history began to sense the first feelings of deja vu.

Nadal is a clay-court phenomenon and as yet nobody — not even Federer in three attempts here, including the 2005 semi-final — has managed to take more than one set off him in the French Open. This was Federer's 12th Grand Slam final and only the second he has lost, both against the Spaniard.

Last year he took the first set before going down 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6; this time the Swiss was arguably even further away from victory, although anybody compiling play-of-the-day clips for television might have chosen several of Federer's best moments in the first two sets over those of Nadal. But here were flashes of genius that Federer could never sustain against the most physically intimidating player on the circuit who generates the sort of spin that makes the ball jump on or above shoulder height.

On Hamburg's heavier courts the ball keeps altogether lower and within Federer's optimum hitting zone. That said, though, he made far too many errors as he tried to force the pace.

So for the time being, and maybe for all time if Nadal stays fit, Federer must remain one of the greats rather than the greatest, as would have been argued if he had beaten Nadal, the world No. 2.

Federer is 25, so his chances of becoming only the sixth player to win all four Grand Slam titles may well come again. Whether he will ever be in the position to win four of the majors consecutively, or in the same calendar year, is altogether more problematic. It would be a huge ask to win Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open again before next year's French Open.

And by reaching the Wimbledon final last year, where he lost to Federer, Nadal made it clear to the world that he was no mere dirt specialist. He celebrated his 21st birthday midway through the tournament, and is learning all the time. On June 11 Federer will complete his 176th week at No. 1; Nadal will have been the No. 2, the player-in-waiting, for 99 weeks.

Sooner or later, or so it seems, he will reach the pinnacle, assuming that, like so many Spanish players of the past, he does not suddenly run out of gas.

This was the 12th meeting between the two men, and Nadal's eighth victory, six of which have been on clay. "The more I play Rafa, the better my chances of beating him," said Federer last year. It appears not, however, at least on clay.

On grass and hard courts Federer is perfectly balanced; on clay he is just a fraction less comfortable. Against just about every other player in the world, including a host of Spaniards and Argentinians, he remains dominant on the surface. Against Nadal, who moves with complete assurance and astonishing speed, this slightest of uncertainties becomes a yawning gulf, the more so when Nadal's physical superiority extends the gap.

It was not until the seventh game of the second set that Federer finally forced Nadal on to the back foot, at which point several previously invisible Swiss flags were unfurled. Federer shook his racket determinedly, and then came within a whisker of undoing all his hard-fought advantage. He hung on and levelled, but it was always the world No. 1 who was under pressure. "The easy way out would be to say I missed too many opportunities. That hurt me, but he played an excellent match and deserved to win," the Swiss said.

The many chances that had come Federer's way in the first two sets suddenly dried up thereafter, largely because the Spaniard began to serve much better. "He raised his level and he was stronger at the end," Federer said. When Nadal took the third set it was clear that he thought the final was all but won. Borg, who was the French Open champion on six occasions, won this title for four consecutive years between 1978 and 1981. There seems no obvious reason to suppose that Nadal will not equal the Swede's run or beat it.

And this third Roland Garros title will surely make Nadal all the more dangerous in the other Grand Slam tournaments, although he has come nowhere near close to matching Federer's remarkable run over the past four years when he has won 10 of the past 16 major titles, and appeared in eight consecutive Grand Slam finals since winning the 2005 Wimbledon championship, an all-time record. Andre Agassi became the sixth player to win all four Slams in 1999 when he was 29 years old, so Federer has time on his side. If only Nadal would go away.


Rafael Nadal became only the sixth player in the Open era to win one of the Grand Slam events three years in succession. The list:

Bjorn Borg Wimbledon 1976-80 Bjorn Borg French Open 1978-81 John McEnroe US Open 1979-81 Ivan Lendl US Open 1985-87 Pete Sampras Wimbledon 1993-95 Pete Sampras Wimbledon 1997-00 Roger Federer Wimbledon 2003-06 Roger Federer US Open 2004-06 Rafael Nadal French Open 2005-07 @ Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007