Stamping his class on clay

Light effect... Champion Rafael Nadal lies by the cup after defeating Roger Federer in the final at the Roland Garros.-AP

Rafael Nadal is so relentless, so demanding, so pushy in Roland Garros that he asks of Roger Federer a standard that even Federer cannot achieve, writes Rohit Brijnath.

After a final in which world No. 2 Rafael Nadal defeated No. 1 Roger Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in three hours and 10 minutes, the Spaniard winning 136 points to the Swiss' 119, which number will define the 2007 French Open?

Perhaps it is three. In 1925, the French championship finally opened itself to the world, and since then neither Henri Cochet, nor Rene Lacoste, nor Jean Borotra, three of France's Musketeers, have won three consecutive titles on the terra battue.

Not Nicola Pietrangli either, nor Jarsolav Drobny, nor Wilander, Lendl, Vilas, Bruguera, Kodes, Trabert, nor any of the players who loved to gambol in the grimy red dust of Roland Garros.

No, only Bjorn Borg won three in a row (four actually, and six in all). It tells you then that this Rafael Nadal, champion in 2005, 2006, 2007 (the only three years he has played the French Open) well, he is special, a precise, battering and becoming bully.

Perhaps the number which we will remember from the final is one. The only breakpoint Federer converted of the 17 he owned. Or we could say the only break point Nadal failed to save.

Here, abruptly, on this surface that has grown redder still with the slowly leaking blood of the Swiss, the best "big-point" player in the world, is in fact second best. It is even more complicated than that. A terrific conundrum, discussed in many blogs, confronts us. How is it that a man is rightfully considered possibly the best player of all time yet cannot completely subdue the No. 2 player of his own era?

The final was unusual because it was not pleasing aesthetically, as an advertisement of the game's finer features by the No. 1 and No. 2 players it was unremarkable. But it was gripping in its grimness. There was almost too much at stake here for both men to play at their finest, too much to lose to be able to express themselves freely.

After all, this small piece of land, this rectangular plot of dust and dirt, it is the only slice of the tennis planet that Nadal owns. He plays, thus, like a man who will protect it with his life. Federer owns every other tennis property except this, the one that will complete him, whose ownership would have meant he held all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. It is fitting that they struggled.

Perhaps the number that was most relevant was 60. It was Federer's unforced errors, a figure which he often disputes, rightly suggesting that technicians who punch in the numbers do not understand whether an error is forced or not. Indeed, have they played Nadal's upper-cutting spin?

Understandably, the Swiss must push Nadal, force the pace, flirt with risk and in doing so errors will come. Still, this was too many. One more thing. Despite his all-round adeptness, Federer's go-to shot, his primary weapon, is his forehand and here he erred on 29 occasions.

In short, even Federer cannot subdue Nadal in Roland Garros unless he brings his A-plus game buffed and shined. Or to put it another way, Nadal is so relentless, so demanding, so pushy that he asks of Federer a standard that even Federer cannot achieve.

Perhaps the number that mattered most in the final was four. It was the opponents Federer was fighting all at once. Clay, which blunts his feline aggressive game; Nadal, who mentally is his superior on this surface; history, which is prodding him and saying "are you good enough?"; and himself, for he appeared to struggle to think with any clarity.

Federer stayed back, gave the ball extra air and spin, rallied coolly, attacked animatedly, targeted Nadal's backhand, volleyed, but none of it had any coherence. Or perhaps it only looked that way because the Spaniard produced a stern, capable response to every Swiss idea.

Federer is not without humility, nor is he absent of grace. He admitted: "I need a game plan against Rafael. Against other guys I can do what I want to, but not against him." Then, he added: "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."

Perhaps the number that was most vital at the Open was the number no one asked about. It is the number of miles Nadal must run in training and the number of balls he hits in practice and number of repetitions he does in the gym.

He is a lumberjack with a mathematician's meticulousness. When he talks about putting a series of highly spun, incredibly fast shots "in a 20-centimetre zone" it simply boggles the mind.

By the third set, down a break, Federer looked not just disconsolate, but tired. If he is tennis' Ali, and Nadal is thus George Foreman, a brute, then here a rewriting of the old script was taking place, for the beast was winning. The Spaniard absorbs every Federer blow but his own barrage never falters.

Later Nadal will say: "Well, I know if I play a long match, I have little bit more advantage." And Federer will acknowledge: "He's such a different type of player, and he kind of wears you out or wears you down. He's the type of guy that's going to make you miss. So you can never really say you played great against him, for some reason."

Wally Masur, the television commentator, says Federer is an artist, but to beat Nadal he requires to find more of the warrior within him. Not that Federer isn't tough, for you cannot reach eight successive Grand Slam finals without steel, but it is a compelling idea. Mentally and physically, Nadal has sent Federer a message: get tougher.

Perhaps the number that is most fascinating is 21. It is how old Nadal was on June 3. Clay is not just the slowest surface but the hardest, it requires a steadiness of temperament, an unflagging lust for a fight, an ability to withstand pain, a consistent production of exact shots.

To own those attributes at 18 (when he entered his first French and won it), to have won three French Opens by 21, to be able to constantly withstand the weight of Federer's challenge at such a young age, to be so gracious in doing so, it is something.

In what is now a famous story but always worth re-telling, when Nadal lost to Federer in Hamburg, for the first time on clay, and his streak of claycourt matches ended at 81, the Spaniard did not sulk. Perhaps because he has grown up with the traditions of football, he went to Federer, and asked for his shirt, and asked that the Swiss sign it for him. It is why we enjoy this rivalry, not merely for its gifted practitioners but because of a shared respect.

But perhaps the number that is most relevant after this French final is the number we do not know.

Nine times Federer has come to the French and nine times he has left without a trophy and the last three times he has been beaten by Nadal. He will be 26 in August, Nadal is younger and not going away. How many times can a man's spirit be beaten down? How many chances does Federer have left to win the French and prove he is indisputably the greatest player in the world?